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Love's Debt Repaid

He wants to settle his debt and this marriage is just a business deal for him. Until his eyes met hers…

Jamie finds herself at a crossroads. Desperate to secure her inheritance, she reluctantly agrees to her best friend’s plan of finding her a husband, unsure of what fate has in store for her beloved ranch…

Conor, once a prosperous cattle rancher, now struggles under the weight of debt. When the woman he owes, proposes a solution that could settle his, Conor agrees but he only wants a business transaction. Until he meets Jamie…

As Jamie and Conor clash in a whirlwind of heated exchanges, neither anticipates the unexpected twist fate has in store for them. But when Conor’s estranged uncle, resurfaces seeking a piece of his newfound fortune, they must band together to forge a future filled with hope…

 

From fate’s uncertain hand, they stand,

She is at a crossroads, her legacy planned.

With doubts and fears, she hesitates,

As fate’s scheme their future dictates.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.4/5

4.4/5 (86 ratings)

Prologue

Silver Creek, Colorado

Spring, 1880

 

Being eighteen ain’t an easy ride, and even sun-kissed skin and wild, chestnut hair don’t help no one escape the trials and tribulations of young love and inevitable heartbreak. Of course, Jamie Lancaster was none too familiar with the opposite sex and their cruel ways, so when Billy Townsend looked into her sea-green eyes and asked if he could take her to the annual town fair, she was a goner before she even smiled.

Jamie was smitten and had been for quite some time. School was a chore, a jail sentence she was forced to endure before each afternoon’s great escape back to her father’s ranch and the farm life that taught her more than anything her schoolteacher sure could. It was only out on the ranch helping her pa that she really felt like herself, and her daddy was the one who gave her the confidence to do and be just that.

Samuel Lancaster, widower and owner of Rattle Creek Ranch, taught his daughter the meaning of hard work, independence, and self-reliance. Her childhood was full of the rough and tumble of the outdoors, and she wore a scar on her chin with pride from falling off her horse at five years old to prove it. Nothing ever came close to the feeling Jamie got than when she was out in the fields on her horse, Dixie, with the fresh mountain air filling her lungs and the feel of sand and grit under her fingernails.

As good ‘ol Winston Churchill said, “No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle,” and no child of Samuel Lancaster would grow up not knowing how to spend their time wisely. Jamie’s future as head of the ranch was decided before she was even born. Riding and ranchin’ was their way of life, and no dresses and cookbooks would get in the way. When the girls at her school were learning to bake and sew, her time was spent stacking hay bales and milking the cows in the barn.

If only these skills came in handy in the schoolyard, where Jamie felt as welcome as a rattlesnake at a square dance. The other school kids, sons and daughters of the townsfolk, played out their traditional parts with such natural ease, continuing the roles of generations of the men and women before them within the community of Silver Creek, Colorado. All the men were the providers and all the women were the homemakers.

Jamie just didn’t quite fit; quiet as a mouse amongst the girls, and try as she might, unaccepted by the boys. She was what some would call a rare breed in those parts, so to speak, and she didn’t quite know what to do about it. So, when Billy Townsend took notice of shy and lonesome Jamie Lancaster, what was a girl to do but fall in love?

But when Billy showed up at her house the night of the town fair with his gang in tow, his hat in one hand while the other stroked the fine wisps of hair on either side of his narrow grin, it was only quite natural that Jamie’s notions on love turned to convictions of hate.

Jamie was waiting on her front porch, dressed in a fine white dress for the occasion despite the discomfort she felt from its unfamiliar, fitting form. She had decided it would be worth it, hoping to surprise Billy in her outfit when he came to her door. Instead, she was the surprised one when he showed up unexpectedly with all his school friends.

“Oh, hi, Billy, I thought we’d be meeting your friends at the fair?”

“Why, howdy, Jamie.” Billy grinned. “Don’t you clean up nice? You’re lookin’ like a girl for once. It almost seems a pity no one else will see you on my arm tonight.”

“Why, what do you mean? Aren’t you here to pick me up?” Jamie asked, a painful expression in her eyes.

“You know, the boys and I were mighty surprised when you thought I was being serious… We thought for sure you wouldn’t buy into my prank, but here you are, looking as lost as a needle in a haystack.” That was when Billy’s band of boys erupted into laughter, pointing at Jamie and patting each other’s backs in congratulations for pulling off their cruel practical joke.

Try as she might, Jamie couldn’t hold in her tears any longer, and quickly tried to brush them away before Billy and his boys noticed them. She had never felt so humiliated and alone in her life before.

“Aw, poor Jamie Lancaster. Why don’t you go run inside and cry to your mama?” Billy teased wickedly. “Whoops, I forgot… you ain’t got no mamma, do you, Jamie? Just your poor old pa. Maybe he can be your date to the fair ‘cause I sure as heck ain’t gonna be.”

Jamie refused to cave in to the taunts, willing herself to stand still despite her body trembling and her knees going weak. She may have been humiliated by these schoolboy bullies, but her father had taught her a thing or two about never letting them see when you’re hurtin’.

Chapter One

Silver Creek, Colorado

Spring, 1891

 

Over a decade had passed since that awful day, and 1891 was a time of great changes for the state of Colorado and the town of Silver Creek and its inhabitants. Rattle Creek Ranch and the surrounding farms were prospering. The coal miners were forming unions, setting off conflict across the territory, and since the discovery of gold, prospectors were making their way cross country in search of their share of the riches.

On June 22, 1850, a wagon train bound for California crossed the South Platte River, just north of the confluence with Clear Creek, following it west for six miles. Lewis Ralston dipped his gold pan in a stream flowing into the creek and found gold in his first pan.

Several years later, a party of gold seekers bound for the California Gold Rush panned small amounts of gold from various streams in the South Platte River Valley at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The gold nuggets initially failed to impress them, but rumors of gold in the Rocky Mountains persisted, and several small parties explored the region.

News of this discovery soon spread far and wide, and so began the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. Over 100,000 gold seekers flocked to Colorado over the next three years, and the gold deposits along the region’s rivers and streams were rapidly plundered. However, miners soon discovered far more valuable seams of hard rock gold and silver in the nearby mountains. For adventurers around the world, the rivers and valleys of Colorado were the place to be.

Silver Creek’s local businesses were booming, and with the influx of travelers needing to be fed and watered came the need for more and more regular resources. Ranching was a tough business, none more so than cattle ranching, and the Lancasters’ Rattle Creek Ranch was hustling and bustling. There were no breaks for daily bathing, hardly even enough time for dusting off.

At twenty-eight years of age, Jamie wasn’t getting any younger, and her father worried for her prospects, hoping that his will lay in testament to his hopes and dreams for his daughter. With a mop of gray hair and a beard to match, he was no spring chicken himself, and often wondered whether his philosophy of all work and no play had rubbed off a tad too much on her.

If it wasn’t for Emily, Jamie’s childhood friend and confidant, she wasn’t so sure she would ever have found someone with whom to confide in besides her pa, and she had lost her mother what felt like a lifetime ago. She had left this world much too soon, after a tortuous three years of the slow effects of tuberculosis, the most feared of diseases in the West. Jamie’s mother was taken from her and her pa long before her life ended, robbing her of her voice and lungs before peeling away the rest of her, inch by agonizing inch.

Over two decades had passed since then, but Anna’s shadow remained. Jamie could see it in her reflection, in her emerald eyes and tousled, untamable hair. The features they shared were a daily reminder to Jamie of what she and her father lived without, but she was grateful and ever aware of what she had, and her pa was a good provider and companion.

It was an already hot Colorado spring, and the air smelled of sunshine, barley, and sweat. There was little time for talking, and the days were long and tough. Jamie’s father relied on her more than ever, and she took to her work with fierce and determined pride.

In the midst of a conversation with Tom, one of their five invaluable ranch hands, without which the farm and its keepers would surely be lost, Jamie looked up toward the farmhouse, seeing her dad with his hand lifted to his brow, shading his aging eyes from the glare of the midday sun. Today was set up for irrigation and digging the ditches. It would require the whole team’s efforts, and she felt the weight of her growing responsibilities heavy on her shoulders.

“All right then, Tom. We’ve got our work cut out for us ‘til the sun sets, and I sure do hope the weather holds ‘til we get this field dug up and plowed before them heifers need seeing to.”

In just a few short months, it would be time again to introduce the cows to the bulls for the breeding season ahead. After that, the winter rains would flood the flat, green pastures and provide the growing mothers with the necessary nourishment in preparation for the calving season the following spring.

The days were long and hard, but such was the life of a cowboy, and Jamie, though tired to the marrow of her bones, wanted to set a strong example and prove herself to her pa.

“Let’s get to it then, men,” Jamie announced with what she hoped was confidence as the rest of the men assembled around her.

Striding over to the side of the barn, her boots sinking into the newly turned soil beneath her feet, Jamie gathered up the picks and spades set out for the afternoon ahead and joined her father and the ranch hands standing ready over by the pasture fence.

“The boys just finished milking the last of the shorthorns and picked up the rope and buckets we ordered from town,” Tom reported to Jamie and her pa.

“All right.” Jamie nodded in approval. “Everyone got their horse saddled and ready to head out?” she inquired, shifting her gaze to the grazing herd on the other side of the fields stretching out for miles toward the grassland prairie in the distance and the clear, blue skies above.

“Seems best we get goin’ on them tunnels down yonder by the dam while you stay up this aways and keep an eye on the cattle,” Jamie stated, her head turned toward her pa.

“What are you playing at, Jamie? I’ll be out there with my hands in the dirt, just like the rest of you. Don’t you worry about me,” Jamie’s father replied, a perplexed look in his eyes and a sly grin on his sun-worn face.

“Pops, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Jamie interjected with a disapproving look. “You know you ain’t been feelin’ yourself lately, and it’s hot as a bonfire today. I don’t want you gettin’ poorly.”

“Darlin’,” Samuel softly said, “Don’t you worry yourself over nothin’. I’m perfectly fine, and there is no better place to cure my discomfort than on the back of my horse.”

Seeing that she was getting nowhere fast, Jamie sighed and straightened up, a determined look reappearing on her face. She knew better than to argue with her father and decided she best let sleeping dogs lie. “All right, let’s get to it then and stop wobblin’ our jaws. We’re burnin’ daylight!” she announced, and the team gathered their horses, saddled up with the picks and shovels tied to their backs, and rode out to find some land to dig.

Three hours had passed, and the light was hanging lower on the crimson horizon, but the sweet smell of summer was a faithful reminder that the sun wouldn’t set for many hours to come. At this time of year, the days were long and dry, and the businesses in the small town of Silver Creek and all the ranches surrounding it made the most of the extended daylight, working double time in an effort to profit from the sunny days and guard themselves against the dark ones to come.

Jamie and the men were in the fields, the backbreaking, sweat-building motion of picks and shovels moving back and forth beginning to reveal some hard-won results. Twenty yards of drainage ditch, one-and-a-half meters deep and two meters wide, stretched out before them, small handfuls of the dug-up soil scattering along the edge of the pasture as a fresh breeze began to blow.

“Pop, I think it’s about time you headed on back to the ranch for some supper,” Jamie remarked. “We can carry on ‘til the light hits ‘ol Montgomery’s Hill, and we’ll head on back home.”

“My darlin’ daughter,” Jamie’s father replied with a look of confusion in his eyes. “What on earth has gotten into you? You know all too well what your grandpappy always said, to speak your mind but ride a fast horse, and I know that that horse of yours can outrun a tornado. So, come on out with it,” he continued. “Why don’t you tell me just what’s got you talkin’ to me like you’re the parent and I’m the child?” he questioned Jamie, an increasingly suspicious frown visible on his forehead.

“Oh, Pop, you know I don’t mean nothin’ by it,” Jamie sheepishly replied through tightened lips as she turned back toward the ditch and lowered her gaze down to avoid the smiling faces of the cowboys still at work. “All I’m saying is you don’t need to work so darn hard all the time.”

No matter how guarded Jamie pretended to be, she was unaware of the tell she revealed subconsciously when her feelings were hurt, a subtle twitch in her jaw that gave her away. Despite her tough exterior, forever posing as a rough-and-tough cowgirl as hard as nails, she worried about her father and his failing health.

“All right, darlin’, a wise man knows when to quit,” he submitted. “I’ll take myself back on home and see you all for supper. Just remember, my girl, worry is like a rockin’ horse. It’s something to do that don’t get you nowhere,” her father added, a telling glance of his sky-blue eyes on hers.

With that, Jamie watched her father pick up his Stetson from off of the fencepost he’d hung it on and squeezed her shoulders in embarrassment as he laid a kiss on top of her head before lifting his boot into its holster and swinging himself up and over onto his sorrel mustang’s saddle. One loud ‘click’ was all that was heard as Jamie followed him and his stallion, Bandit, with her gaze as they headed toward the ranch house.

She continued gazing at her father’s back as his form diminished into the distance while she desperately tried to ignore the wooden horse pitching back and forth in her mind’s eye. She knew exactly what her pa had meant, and she knew he was right about her purposeless fretting, but when all your love was devoted to your father, you just couldn’t help but worry about the fall.

Four hours and a lot of digging later, the team took a break to catch their breath and assess their progress.

“I think we’ve done just about all we can for today. What you reckon, Tom?” Jamie asked, looking up to the faraway hill and the sun sinking behind it.

“I reckon you’re right, Jamie,” Tom concurred. “The boys will be happy to fill their stomachs and turn in for the night. Best we all get some decent shuteye ‘fore we get right back to it in the mornin’.”

“All right then, if you and the boys don’t mind taking all the equipment back to the barn on your way to washin’ up, I’ll head back to the house and see that there’s a warm plate of food waitin’ for all of ya when you get there,” Jamie promised.

“Sure thing, Jamie. Come on, boys. You heard the lady. Let’s get them shovels and picks and get home before dark sets in.”

Tom and the other ranch hands got to work collecting all the tools while Jamie walked a little further down the fence line to untether her calico mare, Dixie. Once ready to ride, she got Dixie moving with a ‘Gee up’ and turned toward home.

In her eagerness to see the glow of the warm yellow lights through their kitchen window, Jamie spurred Dixie on into a canter, seeing no harm in setting a faster pace for the girl now that the heat of the day had stored itself deeper down in the cooling earth. The amber hue of the last rays of sunset cast honey-blonde highlights through Jamie’s chestnut curls, reminiscent of her childhood looks when the sun bleached it a light gold and her skin a deep bronze.

Twenty years on, and as soon as the warm summer sun returned after months of winter’s cold, her body felt the shift almost instantly, like blood defrosting after a freeze, the thawing of frostbite sending out tingles of pain and pleasure all at once.

Jamie found herself lost in the breeze moving through her tangled hair and the warmth of Dixie’s exertions under her as they drew closer to the farmhouse. If it weren’t for Bandit’s high-pitched whinny just off to their left and the subtle hesitation in Dixie’s stride, her father’s body would have gone all but unnoticed, so small and still it looked down below on the hoof-trodden ground.

“Daddy?” Jamie heard herself whisper, hoping for an answer but knowing she would get none. Her heart beat so furiously in her eardrums that she questioned whether she’d even said the word out loud, such was the commotion inside her chest.

She hurriedly jumped from her saddle, landing hard on her slipshod heels, bent-kneed with her hands on either side of her, her fingers digging deep into the soft soil. Her vision began to blur as her racing heart caused a tightening in her chest and a quickening in her breath. Still, Jamie could just make out her father’s dust-covered Stetson lying not too far from her grasp, and not five feet further stood Bandit, his whinnying ceased now that his job was done, and his attention was no longer focused on his master.

Jamie’s shock-widened eyes caught Bandit’s, and he backed away some, and after an encouraging, “It’s all right, boy,” Bandit made his way over and past Dixie to a patch of rye, pulling up some long blades hungrily. Jamie kept her eyes on the stallion, begging desperately for just a while longer to wake up from this nightmare before being forced to accept that it wasn’t one.

“Daddy? Daddy, are you all right?” Jamie knew what her father would say, if he was still around to say it, that he was just fine and for her not to worry one bit, but he wasn’t, and he couldn’t.

“Pop, what happened? I don’t understand. I–If I’d known, I woulda made sure I was with you, but…”

Jamie shuffled forward, her knees sinking deeper into the soil as she leaned over her father’s body and lay her head on his motionless chest. Her face was streaked with dirt, specks of soil sticking to her damp skin and blending with the freckles on the bridge of her nose as she wiped away the tears that kept coming.

She had nothing else to say. What was the point? He was gone now, and he wouldn’t be coming back. Even if he had had the chance, a cowboy never says goodbye; it’s just not in his nature.

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