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Capturing the Wounded Rancher's Heart

She longs for Western adventures and new beginnings. He craves the peace and silence of solitude. Can a man devastated by the horrors of war and a woman with a haunted past learn how to follow their hearts instead of their fears?

She was pressed close against his chest, Mike hands clasped around her upper back, in an effort to stop her from losing her balance. Their eyes met and Mike found himself getting lost in her.

After her mother passes away, the walls at the apartment they shared are closing in on Ella. Wishing to leave her old life behind, she persuades her brother Archie to hire her as a housekeeper at the ranch where he works. Mike, the ranch owner, is rude and unwelcoming but Ella quickly discovers that behind his façade lies a sensitive man. How can she show him the path to love when he hides behind his pain?

Mike’s years as a soldier left him with a wound in his soul and with nightmares that torture him day and night. Ella’s unwanted presence disturbs his routine and puts him on edge, but he soon recognizes his soulmate in her eyes. How can he reveal his feelings to her when he sees himself as unworthy of love?

While Ella and Mike are exploring their feelings for each other, a long-lost letter with promises of hidden gold brings ruthless enemies to Mike’s ranch. Will Ella’s love give Mike the courage to protect what’s his and save them all from danger?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

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4.5 / 5 (52 ratings)

Prologue

California, 1866

 

“We better get started on this sorry task,” Jim Macquire said, patting his brother Fred’s back. They were sitting on the wooden floor in the tenement building where their recently deceased father had lodged. It was sparsely decorated with a single photograph of their parents, Robert and Anne Macquire, on their wedding day.

“Sure. Just tell me what to do,” Fred nodded.

“Let’s see,” Jim said, looking around. The noonday sun filtered through the small, open window, a small breeze creating a draught in the small room. Jim stared longingly at a bowl filled with fool’s gold, which must have made their father holler, like men did when they thought they’d struck it rich. “I know. You sort out father’s trunks. I’ll start with his wardrobe.”

“I’ll start with the one under his bed,” Fred said, pulling it towards him.

Jim got up, opened the wardrobe door and held up a long, heavy coat for inspection. “You want this coat Fred? It’d fit you. Gonna be a cold winter,” he remarked, turning towards his brother.

“Yeah, I’ll take it,” Fred grunted in reply.

Jim wasn’t convinced that Robert Macquire’s death was a random accident. He’d supposedly been hit by a train traveling eighty miles an hour and caught unawares, walking along the railway track towards the station. He’d planned easy pickings from easily distracted fresh arrivals. Robert could coax a man’s pocket watch or a wad of cash out his pocket in no time at all with his nimble touch.

Every time Jim thought their father may have been murdered, he felt as mad as a spitting cobra. “Our next heist will honor Pa’s memory,” Jim suggested in a bossy fashion, as an older brother is wont to do. He had noticed that his slower thinking brother didn’t mind him planning their schemes.

“What’s yer plan?” Fred asked. Jim was eager for a diversion from the bad feeling he got in his chest whenever he thought of their father gone, in the blink of an eye. His brown eyes narrowed as he contemplated their course of action. He pulled a hand through his lank, dark hair considering their options. “We’ll hit random towns and accost homesteaders and ranchers,” he declared.

“I still got a map from that little school house we robbed,” Fred added, his voice raising an octave in excitement. He was all in.

Random,” Jim emphasized, “We won’t even know which town we’re targeting ‘til we ride there.”

Confused, Fred nodded, his curly, fair hair giving the impression of a cherub. Jim knew that they at least agreed on one thing—it made no difference where they went. No one could stop them.

They had both hero worshipped their father. He taught them survival skills—shooting, tracking fresh spoor of bison, deer and other wildlife, and finding fresh water. As they got older, Robert Macquire taught them more than they’d bargained for, and they transformed into scoundrels. They gained a bad reputation by tricking people through gambling, or stealing. Yet the trio had never been caught.

At first Jim felt guilty. Some scams bothered him more than others, when he had fiddled with a poker game and old Mister Brown, whose vision wasn’t so good any more, lost what should have been his win. Jim had once asked Pa whether he was worried all his bad ways would eventually catch up with him. “Don’t worry me none, son,” Robert Macquire had said. “Better than being trodden on.”

Jim knew that clearing their father’s belongings was the final frontier in mourning their old man. Robert Macquire’s body had been laid to rest in the local cemetery alongside his wife, wrapped in a simple shroud. It’s the end of an era, Jim mused, picking at his front tooth with a piece of straw he kept in his pocket for that purpose.

While he’d miss Pa, Jim was worried that, with his death, there’d be a dip in their fortunes. Fred wasn’t a great shakes in the ideas department. His bumbling habits had almost got them caught on a recent heist holding up a coach. Jim remembered holding his breath as his younger brother decided to linger longer than necessary at an attractive lady’s side.

The battered trunk next to Jim carried the familiar scent of his father, the musk of tobacco reminding him of home. He leaned closer, catching a whiff of spice—a ghost of the cinnamon sticks father liked to add to hot drinks in winter. There was nothing of great monetary value, but Jim figured they’d better divide their father’s loot between them, rather than donating it to church.

Jim turned his attention to his younger brother, who was searching for the outer pocket of a satchel. Fred took out a notebook and a stray note fell out. He was just about to toss it in the bin, when Jim stopped him.

“What ya doing?” Jim asked, irritated by his brother’s careless attitude. “Hand that over.” Annoyed, Fred held it aloft, before dropping it. Jim spread out the note, then read aloud:

When you receive this I will be long gone. I have buried a large stash of gold, I’ve kept for you. You’ll find it somewhere special, on the outskirts of Brett Ranch, in a place you’ll know when you see it.

Your Father

“Does this mean we’re rich?” Fred asked, his eyes gleaming. “You know the whereabouts of the Brett Ranch?”

“Yeah!” Jim replied. “The owner was originally Claude Brett. His son, Mike Brett went to war. If he’s dead, we got easy pickings.”

Chapter One

New York, 1866

 

“She looks peaceful, Ella,” Archie Green said, putting up a brave face. “That’s some consolation. Albeit small. She is not suffering anymore.”

Ella Green felt numb. She’d expected a torrent of tears to engulf her after her mother had drawn her final, rasping breath. Instead, she’d felt a dull emptiness as she stared at her mother’s pale, gaunt face. “I shall miss her,” Ella whispered to her older brother, unable to process the fact that she’d never see her dear mother again. She gazed at her closed eyelids, which now shielded her green eyes from the world she had just departed.

Archie shook his head apparently shocked over her passing. “It seems unreal that she’s gone” he added in a level tone and enveloped Ella in a warm hug.

Ella knew Archie hurt just as much as she did, yet he wanted to comfort her. Just knowing he cared meant so much to Ella. She wasn’t alone in her grief—he understood. After a few moments, when they stepped apart, tears filled Archie’s eyes.

Ella touched her mother’s cheek briefly. It felt cool and thin, like fresh parchment. Then she stroked her forehead lightly, as if to soothe her. Her mother had loved her deeply and fiercely. Ella couldn’t fathom the thought of not having her peaceful, loving presence around anymore. She turned away from her ashen face and towards her older brother. Ella still hadn’t shed a tear, scared that if she allowed herself to truly feel her grief, she wouldn’t be able to stop crying and she didn’t want to lose control when she felt so vulnerable.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Archie asked, doubt and concern clouding his eyes. He took her hand and held it gently in his, until Ella released it with a sigh.

“I’m fine,” Ella confirmed quietly, a tremor in her weak voice betrayed her grief. She cast another brief look at her mother. “I’ll wrap the crepe on the door and windows,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Thank you, Ella.” Archie said, and she felt his eyes watching her attentively as she walked out the room and made her way to the kitchen.

The kitchen had been their mother’s favorite room in the house; she called it “the heart of the home.” The cupboards were pale maple, and the curtains a blue gingham check.

Ella opened the kitchen cupboard where she’d stored the black crepe, along with the best china which the family seldom used. She hesitated, sighed, and drew the paper out. With deliberate motions, she picked up a pair of scissors off the counter top and cut several pieces of the crepe, including a ribbon shaped piece for the brim of Archie’s hat.

***

Ella examined her features reflected back at her in her handheld mirror. Preparing for her mother’s funeral, she noticed that at nineteen years, her heart shaped face was hard with sorrow. She had the same moss green eyes as her mother and honey blonde hair. “Mother, I love you,” Ella whispered and felt a pang in her heart thinking of how unloved her mother must have felt by her abusive husband whom she constantly struggled to appease.

“Your father is a good man at heart,” her mother had said, after he’d smashed a glass tumbler on the floor. Little Ella had burst into tears as her mother rushed out the room to soothe her nerves.

“If he was a good man, he’d treat you right,” Archie had argued after their father stormed out the house. Ella remembered her mother’s hands shaking as she swept up the broken glass afterwards. Henry Green could switch between bullying and being affectionate in a matter of hours, leaving her mother doubting her own judgement and Ella anxious and on edge. She never knew when his temper would get the better of him. Sometimes she feared that he would hurt her mother’s feelings so badly that she would die of a broken heart.

When Ella’s father died in an accident after being hit by a wagon, her mother had wept quietly after she received news of her husband’s untimely death. “Mama, please don’t be sad,” Ella had ventured haltingly, not wanting her mother to see she was actually relieved that father was gone. Ella didn’t tell her mother the house seemed more peaceful without her father around, that she was happier; it would have been cruel. Young Ella thought it strange that her mother should care so much for such a violent man.

Her mother had looked up, her eyes red rimmed from crying. “I loved him, Ella,” she had explained softly, as she dabbed her swollen eyes with a lace handkerchief. At that early age, Ella vowed that she’d rather never love a man than be mistreated like her mother. Loving a man brought the risk of disorder and chaos.

***

The church service provided some measure of comfort for Ella. As she and Archie scattered rose petals on their mother’s grave, she felt a bewildering emptiness that contrasted with her inner turmoil.

Archie wiped a stray tear off his cheek with his broad hand, then looked at her wan face. “Ella, do you feel up to walking home?” Surprised, she nodded, the idea was appealing. They left the church grounds, entering a picturesque avenue of oak trees which the parishioners had planted several years before. It was peaceful, with birds chirping and flitting from tree to tree, the leaves green and golden.

Archie took in the dark circles that dragged down Ella’s pale face like heavy, swollen plums straining against the brittle limbs of a tree. Her dresses were loose and billowy around her slender frame. Ella knew Archie couldn’t risk her falling ill. Yet she was exhausted, a side effect of the constant vigil of being at her mother’s bedside. Throughout her mother’s illness, Ella had been the person who had seen to her every need. “Archie, I have felt so low this past year,” Ella confided. “I wish mother were still alive, but at the same I am relieved she is no longer suffering.” She clasped her hands anxiously after her confession.

“I am so thankful you cared for mother so attentively this past year. Thank you, Ella.” Archie’s eyes were misty with tears. “And you don’t have to put on a brave front for me, he said gently.

“I’m not putting on a brave front Archie,” she said. “I’m really not.” Archie appeared to think otherwise, his eyebrows furrowed. “Good,” he said, changing the topic.

“I don’t want to remain in New York,” Ella blurted. Her brother paused, taken aback at her boldness. A blue jay chirped over overhead, punctuating Ella’s sudden energy. “With mother gone, there is no reason to stay. I have never enjoyed the city or the bitterly cold winters. You know I prefer the simple pleasures found in country living over the bustle of the city.” Ella recalled how happy she’d been when they’d visited Lake Ontario and seen farm land. While polite and dutiful, Ella was adventurous.

“Where would you go?” Archie asked, resuming the walk.

“Perhaps I could stay with you at the ranch,” Ella suggested, hopeful.

Archie hesitated, running a large palm down his handsome face. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” he began, narrowing his eyes like he did when he was considering something. Ella recalled that Archie was loathe to share how moody his friend Mike Brett could be. He had mentioned that the house was in a disarray since the housekeeper had left without so much as a week’s notice. Archie had told her that even with the scarce work, the woman had been angry and fed up with Mike. He had yelled at her to mind her own business and stop meddling in his private affairs.

“Ella, things should become easier in New York after you’ve had some rest,” Archie said soothingly.

“No. I don’t like it here,” Ella insisted. She planted herself in front of Archie, small feet spread in defiance. “The house depresses me; there are too many memories. And I have no family here. Archie, please let me come live at the ranch. I can make myself useful.” When she saw her brother hesitate, she added, “I need you, Archie.” They were silent for a while as they approached the bustling streets, navigating around some food cart owners who were setting up their wares. One of them sold popcorn, which he scooped into little brown bags. Next to him was a stand selling roasted chestnuts.

Archie touched Ella’s arm lightly, guiding her across the street as a horse cart lumbered past. The man driving it raised his cap to them in thanks. Safe on the other side of the street, Archie frowned. “I don’t know if that’s a wise idea, Ella. Life is just too different in California,” Archie urged. He shook his head at Ella’s suggestion. “There are so few women,” he continued, “you would be alone at the house most of the day, with no female companionship.” Archie’s hazel eyes hardened in seriousness as Ella contemplated the adjustments she would need to make if she were to move.

“What was your last housekeeper like?” Ella asked, fascinated rather than daunted by the adjustments she’d need to make living at a ranch. “Was she much older than me?”

“Let’s continue walking Ella. My stomach is growling.” Archie linked Ella’s arm in his as they stepped forward. Ella turned and smiled brightly at Archie as they continued their walk down the tree-lined street.

Please consider my suggestion Archie. You haven’t answered my question about the housekeeper.” Ella smiled as a thought occurred to her. “Was she very pretty?”

“She wasn’t as pretty as you,” Archie returned. “Anyway, I don’t understand what her appearance has got to do with anything.” He snorted, as if considering something incredulous, and did not speak again.

“I thought maybe you had a romantic interest in her.” Ella ventured, pulling a teasing face at her brother, hoping for a reaction.

Archie laughed. “If you’d met her, you wouldn’t have entertained that possibility Our housekeeper was twice my age, with a voice only matched by the baritone in the church choir.”

Ella threw her head back and laughed, delighted at his humor. It was the first time after her mother’s passing that she felt carefree. “It’s so good to be with you Archie,” Ella said after a moment. Her brother looked at her contemplatively.

“Please write to Mike. I could be your housekeeper, I have plenty of experience in keeping house. I have taken good care of mother at home. Now with her gone, I fear I shall be quite lonesome. There is no reason for me to stay in New York with its long cold winters. I couldn’t bear it!”

Archie laughed at his sister’s persistence but Ella understood that the final decision rested with Mike, Archie’s employer and friend. Archie had already told her the ranch owner could be obstinate and quite difficult even with his best friend. Ella knew convincing Mike wasn’t going to be easy. Ella’s common sense told her that Mike was a loner. He wouldn’t like the idea of stranger living at the ranch.

Chapter Two

Ariel Ranch, Sacramento, California, 1866

 

Awake before the sun crested the distant mountains, Mike Brett took in his surroundings in a rare moment of peaceful contemplation as he sat on the back porch at Ariel Ranch. His dog, Tess, had a coat the color of toffee, deep brown eyes, and the playful nature of a kitten. She sat at his foot, placing a delicate paw upon his knee. She thrived on his attention, but there was only so much love he could give her all at once.

“Here, girl,” he said softly, stroking the dog’s head, before nudging her off his knee. “Enough now, Tess.”

Tess looked at him doubtfully, her chocolate eyes reflecting devotion to her career. Four years ago, the tall, quiet man had rescued her from an overflowing Sacramento River, risking his life to save hers. Mike’s mind returned to the day when he had noticed the terrified dog. He had joined a small rescue operation, scanning the flooded houses for signs of human distress. He then spied the bedraggled animal, who was squashed against the window ledge of a roof. Moving quickly, Mike had paddled his canoe across the flood water towards the abandoned house. Once he had gotten her to safety, Mike wondered if the dog would want to go home with him after the harrowing experience. But Tess had other plans. Mike smiled as he recalled how easily Tess had settled into his routine. Mike contemplated how much better he got on with animals than humans. Animals were so innocent and loving, but humans he didn’t understand.

Suddenly, he felt his mood souring. Archie Green would be arriving soon with his little sister, Ella. Mike was against the whole darn idea from the outset. Ella had grown up in New York; the likelihood of her fitting in was about as remote a possibility as him becoming a socialite.

Mike didn’t care for the unsavory prospect—another stranger sticking her nose where it didn’t belong, just like that housekeeper. Mike heaved a sigh, wishing Ella would find a reason to stay away. He was tolerating Ella’s arrival for the sake of his friendship with Archie. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have budged—not one inch. To make matters worse, Ella was arriving bang in the middle of calving season. Archie would be able to lend a helping hand with cows going into labor. Ella would just get in the way; the mere made him even more stressed and grumpy.

Mike stretched his long legs and eased out the chair. He returned to the kitchen, grimacing at the chaos that met him. He should have remembered to stack his dinner plate with the others, in a neat pile last night. Ants were marching in a spiral pattern towards the syrup he’d spilled on the table that morning, making his strong coffee. He had slopped milk on the floor too. Mike’s ginger cat, Tom, lapped up the milk up thirstily, licking his whiskers appreciatively afterwards. Mike couldn’t remember why he’d come to the kitchen in the first place. Mike spied the three dog bowls on the floor. Ah, now I remember, he mused and turned his back on the mess.

Mike stooped to gather their bowls. Luckily, the dogs hadn’t left a scrap of yesterday’s meal. At least this is one corner of the house that doesn’t need tidying, Mike thought as he dished out the same meal as yesterday. Mike chuckled as Benjamin, his old Labrador, and another rescue, Gertie, bounded into the kitchen, alerted by the clinking of the spoon against their enamel bowls. Mike set their bowls down on the floor. “Chow time,! Benjamin, take your place in line, old feller,” Mike cooed gently, moving the Labrador’s bowl away from the other dogs’ bowls to give them space. Benjamin sure has an appetite on him, Mike reflected with a grin.

Their food sorted, Mike decided to fry himself some eggs. He unhooked the frying pan off the hook on the wall, his jaw cracking in a big, exhausted yawn as he did so. The frying pan slid out his hand, falling to the floor with a loud clatter. Mike’s hands shook as an image of war flashed in his mind like lightning licking a stormy sky. Danger! Run for cover! Trembling as violently as a tree in a gale, Mike lifted his notebook off the table. He checked the most recent entry, made in his untidy handwriting. If he couldn’t make himself a meal, he might as well clean the room Ella would be staying at. He had meant to do it weeks ago, but he’d been so busy and tired. Some days he felt ragged with exhaustion. Even if he wasn’t looking forward to sharing his living space with her, he felt bound to clean her room out of a sense of loyalty to Archie.

If there was one thing that fighting in the Civil War had taught Mike, it was to deal with the worst and then move on. He was still very heart sore at losing several dear friends to war. Archie was the only friend he’d managed to save. Guilt over not being able to save the others clung to Mike like a shroud. His comrades had been so young; sometimes Mike wished he had died rather than them. He still had such bad nightmares about the war, leaving him feeling shattered and alone.

Mike sat down heavily, cradling his head in his hands in despair. He felt the tell-tale signs of nausea as his palms went clammy. He put down the note book and held out his hands to check them. They shook so badly he wouldn’t have been able to hold a mug without spilling the liquid in it. He felt so helpless and frustrated at times. Agitated, Mike pulled his hand through his long hair, putting it in a semblance of order. Pushing his straggly, dark black hair behind his ears, he vowed to himself he’d gain control. He rubbed his chin, trying to recollect what he was doing.

“You want some help in the kitchen? You’ve made a mighty fine mess in here. You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Mike spun around. There was no one. Mike could have sworn that voice had been his deceased mother’s.

Frowning, he peered out the kitchen window, into the broad light of day. His mind was playing tricks on him again. Darn it! Grabbing a broom, Mike strode over to Ella’s room. The bed was strewn with books, with barely enough room to sit down. He ignored them, sweeping with a vengeance only matched by his shaking hands. I got to gain control of my mind. Get a grip on reality. Stay calm.

The floor clean, he stopped sweeping, resting the broom against the wall, breathing heavily. The handle felt like a rifle butt. Mike felt beads of sweat on his forehead, panic returning. Mike spun around as he heard a noise behind him. Tom had jumped on the dresser. His cat was looking at him with his green eyes, as if to say, I’m with you, buddy. Mike laughed softly. Then his whole body started shaking. Drawing himself to his haunches on the floor, he sat sobbing as the sun rose in the sky.

***

“Mike! Are you home?” the familiar voice of Abigail Swan called.

“Abi, I’m here,” Mike called, his voice barely loud enough for his younger sister to hear him. He heard her footsteps running into the house.

“Oh, Mike,” Mike noticed Abi taking in his distraught appearance, concern painted on her face, as she kneeled beside him. “We will get through this,” Abi said firmly.

“I’m glad to see you,” Mike said thankfully. “What brings you here so early?”

“I thought I better check on you, make sure you’re eating three square meals a day and you’re getting enough rest.” Mike saw the concern in Abi’s grey eyes. Her long, curly dark hair shone with good health and her eyes showed none of his tiredness, despite having two very active little girls.

“Have you eaten?” Abi asked.

“I was about to,” Mike replied, drawing out his notebook and thumbing through the pages anxiously.

“Come to the kitchen,” Abi ordered. “I’ll make us buckwheat pancakes. Got eggs?”

“Of course,” Mike said. The siblings walked side by side towards the kitchen. Abi stood in the kitchen doorway as Mike went through, towards the pantry.

“When was the last time you cleaned the kitchen?” Abi asked, shocked at the scene that greeted her.

“A while ago,” Mike mumbled.

“You are going to help clean up after we’ve eaten.”

“Yes, bossy boots,” Mike mumbled.

“I can’t be running after you when I have a baby on the way,” Abi said, patting her swollen belly as confirmation.

Mike was looking forward to having another niece or nephew around. They were such a blessing. He adored having them over. They brought a smile to his face and helped make the place seem more peaceful. Funny, that, he mused with a chuckle.

“Still not sleeping?” Abi asked, breaking the eggs into the buckwheat. She whisked the batter before setting it down to rest.

“Afraid not,” Mike replied, pushing his long hair out his eyes.

“Still taking the laudanum?” Abi asked, worry in her eyes. He nodded. Mike stopped drinking the laudanum months back. Even the small dose that his doctor and brother-in-law, Bradley, had prescribed left him feeling slow and lethargic. One morning he’d fallen asleep, and he couldn’t be doing that while working with a plough. He shuddered at the havoc he could have wreaked.

Mike felt hope returning as the buckwheat pancakes turned golden, bubbling in the pan. If I just get some food in me I’ll be fine, he reflected. The buttery smell of the pancakes was comforting and made him feel steadier.

“Got any clean plates?” Abi asked doubtfully. Mike saw her stare at the heaped up dishes. He opened a cupboard, setting down two plates.

“Just for you,” Mike said, smiling. Abi didn’t return his smile.

“I’m worried about you, Mike. Promise me you’ll see Bradley this week.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. Mike hugged his sister close. “I will sort myself out, Abi. I need to make a good impression on the baby!”

“You better hurry up. This baby’s growing fast!” Abi said, softening. Mike laughed, a full, hearty sound.

“Have another helping of buckwheat,” Mike suggested. “You need to keep your strength up, Abi. Thanks for caring. I would have fallen apart if it weren’t for you,” he said gratefully.

“Don’t I know it,” Abi said, good naturedly. “You’re taking yourself to the barber shop this week, Mike. You look like a wild man from the mountains!”

“No,” Mike bantered, rolling his eyes, “I look like a rancher turned wild.” Abi was silent. Mike took her empty plate. “Can I make you a cup of coffee?”

“About time,” Abi said, throwing up her hands in delight. She watched approvingly as Mike set water in a pot over the fire and stocked the coals to fan the flames. “I’m looking forward to meeting Archie’s sister. I could do with a friend. There are so few women my age in Sacramento. I’m sure we’ll get on if she’s Archie’s sister. When are you expecting them?”

“They are arriving next week,” Mike said, sighing. He was barely keeping himself together as it was, and all he wanted was peace. Ella threatened that possibility. She’d probably be a nuisance with her haughty city ways.

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