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Authors: Charlene Sands

Tags: #Romance, #Western

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BOOK: A Cowboy Worth Claiming
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They stopped for lunch and it was a short affair, eating and watering the horses before heading out again. Chance pushed the herd hard riding point and only doubled back once to check on her, before resuming his position at the head. He was trying to make up for lost time, but something told her that his foul mood had to do with the way they spent last night, lying together.

They drove the herd along a long narrow river, a tributary of the mighty Colorado, the sun beaming overhead late in the afternoon. Chance surprised her when he pulled up on one of the rented mares beside her. “We’ll stop here.”

“So soon? We’ve got another hour of daylight.” And wasn’t he the one who’d been a big ole grouch this morning, making her feel like she’d been the reason they got off to a late start?

“We’re making good enough time today. Setting up camp a little early won’t hurt anything.”

Lizzie looked at him, baffled. “You sure do change your mind a lot. And they say women are the ones who dither.”

“There’s fish jumping in that river and I’m hankering for a hot meal.”

The idea of eating something besides dried beef and beans brought joy to her heart. She’d agree to just about anything to have a warm tasty meal on her plate and halting the drive before sunset wouldn’t be a hardship at all. “You catch them and I’ll cook them.”

“That’s what I intend to do.” He smiled and tipped his hat before riding off.

“Well, if that isn’t the darnedest thing,” she said, grateful to see something besides a scowl on his face. Why, he was like a boy playing hooky, going fishing and looking mighty eager about it.

They made camp twenty yards from the river and while Lizzie built a fire and watched over the herd nearby Chance gathered up what he needed and sat down on a boulder a few feet away. She watched him fashion a fishing pole out of a sturdy tree branch, a rope he meticulously unraveled to a fine string and a fish hook. “That’s Grandpa’s, isn’t it?”

Chance spared her a glance. “He’s a smart man, giving me this hook. I should’ve thought of it myself.”

The thought of her grandfather put an ache in her heart. She couldn’t wait to get back home with money enough to see him get proper medical care. There had to be treatments for consumption in city hospitals. She’d planned on convincing Grandpa to go, just as soon as she returned.

“He taught me how to fish,” Lizzie said. “Sometimes just him and me would take the day and go fishing. I wasn’t at all squeamish about hooking the worms.” She grinned. “Most girls wouldn’t go near them.”

Chance sent her a nod, his head down concentrating on the task. “Never knew a woman who liked worms.”

“I, uh, guess I’m not like most women.” That much was true. She wasn’t the sort of girl who could turn Chance Worth’s head. She wasn’t full of frills and lace. She didn’t do her hair up pretty in fancy chignons. Most days she tied her unruly strands into a braid to keep them out of her way. Lizzie didn’t dream up ways to act girly and delicate to impress a man. She’d grown up doing what was practical, what needed doing.

Chance met her gaze. “That’s not such a bad thing.”

But before she could respond to what she hoped was a compliment he stood and tested out his simple fishing pole, casting the line out and bringing it back. “Gotta hope this brings us a good meal. I’ll be back shortly.”

He walked away and she watched him until he reached the riverbed. With a sigh, she turned around and got out the supplies she needed to make coffee and heat some beans, praying dried beef was off the menu tonight.

Once all those chores were done, Lizzie took stock of the herd, counting heads as it was her job to do. It wasn’t a hard task at all, being that the herd was small and they hadn’t lost a single one. All thirty-one heads were accounted for. Next she checked on the string of horses, feeding each one a carrot. They’d been reliable horses and giving them a treat along the way was a welcome reward.

When she got back to the camp, she found Chance coming up from the river with three fish dangling from a string. “You caught some!”

He lifted them up and grinned. His mood had certainly changed from this morning. “Gonna have a feast tonight.”

“They’re a good size.”

“You should’ve seen the one that got away. I had it hooked for a second and was pulling it in, but the dang thing flipped and flopped so hard it unhooked itself and dropped back into the water.”

She laughed. “You’ve got enough for both of us and then some.”

“I’m hungry enough to eat a bear.”

He sat down cross-legged and Lizzie put a dish under him and watched as he gutted the fish with his knife. “You eat fish heads?”

Her stomach clenched at the notion. She hooked the worms. She’d gutted her share of fish, but eating those heads was one thing that made her shudder. She’d never go near the eyeballs. They were enough to frighten the devil. “No. They’re all yours.”

“I don’t like them, either.” He tossed all three heads a far distance away and his eyes met hers in amusement.

She watched as he split the fish down the spine and spread them open. He filleted them with a steady hand and then gave them over to Lizzie. She put them in the fry pan and walked over to the fire.

As she cooked them up, Chance laid down against his saddle with his hands braced behind his head. His eyes closed and a look of sheer contentment crossed over his handsome face. “Smells like heaven on earth.”

“Gonna taste like heaven, too.”

“When we get to town, we’ll have us a real fine meal—chicken and dumplings, or steak and sweet potatoes and cherry pie or apple strudel. The hotel’s got a very fine dining room.”

“Hotel? I don’t think we should be spending so much cash on hotel meals. We’re gonna need every cent.”

“We won’t. I will. And don’t go worrying over it now.”

She wouldn’t worry. The idea of having a real meal in a hotel dining room with Chance set her nerves to jingling and her heart to pumping harder. Tonight, he was downright agreeable and that put her in a good mood, too.

“You’re gonna take me for a fancy meal?”

His eyes opened halfway and he slid her a glance. “Long as you don’t give me any trouble.”

She opened her mouth to argue. She hadn’t given him a lick of trouble while on this trip and he knew it but she didn’t want to spoil his good humor. She quite simply announced, “I’m no trouble.”

And Chance closed his eyes again, his smile never fading.

She finished frying the fish and cooking beans and dished up their portions on tin plates. They sat by the glow of the fire as the sunset colored the horizon with pink-orange hues.

“So good,” she said, taking a bite of fish.

“Can’t argue there.”

He sat next to her, devouring the meal. She watched his throat work as he chewed. There was something so elemental and male about it. She’d spent a good deal of time close to him and she could honestly say there wasn’t anything about his physical being she could find fault with. He was perfect in that respect and when his mood was light, she couldn’t find any fault with him at all.

Now,
that
was enough to cause her concern.

Chance ate two fish and Lizzie could barely finish the one on her plate. “I’m so full.” She gave her stomach a pat and sighed. “Don’t think I can eat another bite.”

Chance grinned. “You can’t? Now, that’s too bad. ’Cause I got some dessert and it’s a darn shame you’re too full of fish to have a bite.”

“What dessert? What are you talking about?” Lizzie hoisted up from her lazy position against her saddle.

Chance rose and walked over to the supply bag. He pushed his hand deep down to the bottom and pulled out a small sack. “Remember when we bought supplies?”

Lizzie blinked. She’d forgotten all about the candies he’d purchased the day he’d offered her a licorice stick. “You’ve had candies in there all this time?”

Chance grinned. “I thought the storm might have ruined them, but they were tucked inside snug and dry.”

He walked over to the fire and sat down by his saddle. He dug into the bag, coming up with a handful of candied corn. He plopped one into his mouth and chewed, sighing, his face filled with contentment she’d only seen when he’d consumed something sugary. “It ain’t cherry pie but my sweet tooth doesn’t know the difference.”

Lizzie looked longingly at the candies in his hand. “You had those and you haven’t brought them out until now?”

“Uh-huh.” He popped another into his mouth.

“Mercy me. Why not?”

“Always better to wait until the end of the drive. Gives me something to look forward to. Sort of like a reward.”

“Well, that takes strength of will.” Her mouth watered. She was sure there was room in her belly for a few of those confections.

“I must have that,” he said, chewing still, “for putting up with—”

She glared at him. “Putting up with what?”

“—eating dust. Bad weather and all.” He grinned and the amusement reached his eyes. He was teasing and Lizzie couldn’t pretend to be mad at him. He was too darn happy with himself.

“I guess I could find room in my belly for a few of those if you’d be offering.”

“You sure? I mean a little thing like you…”

But by that time, Chance had already extended his hand. She picked three out and tossed one in her mouth. She chewed slowly, savoring the flavor. The sweetness of the candy burst forth and made her lips pucker. Chance watched her carefully, studying her in the firelight.

After she finished the first candy, she stared toward the fire. “Thank you.”

“Welcome.”

“Not just for the candy, Chance. But for last night. For keeping me from freezing my toes off.”

“You need your toes.”

“You were kind.”

She heard him shift around to face her. “That always surprises you, doesn’t it?”

She shrugged, chewing on her second piece of candy. This time the sweetness went straight to her head. “Not so much anymore.”

“Fine, then…. I’m not your enemy. We’ve established that fact.”

“But I just wish you wouldn’t see me as a little thing. I’m a woman, aren’t I? I mean, I’ve got everything a woman is supposed to have and last night when you touched me…”

He spoke with quiet conviction. “It wasn’t that kind of touching, Lizzie.”

“But I felt…something.”

Chance’s face twisted and he shook his head. “You weren’t supposed to feel anything but warmth. If you did, it’s not by my doing.”

“You’re lying. You felt something, too. I was touching your chest and your heartbeats went a little crazy. I felt it.”

He muttered a curse and then heaved a sigh. “Lord above, Lizzie. You’ve got to learn not to say those things to a man.”

“You denying it?”

“Hell, yeah. I’m denying it. Look, it’s just a natural occurrence when a man and woman share a blanket for him to get…for his body to get a little…”

“Excited?”

Chance went still and closed his eyes. He contemplated for a few seconds, before turning to face her. He brought his hand up to cup her chin and directed her gaze to meet with his deep brown eyes. They were so dark, so beautiful, she thought, as her eyes widened and they locked stares. He was close, just inches from her face. Her nerves jangled once again, her stomach fluttered uncontrollably, yet she was patient, waiting for him to say something.

He blinked, losing his focus for a moment as if he’d been mesmerized. Then the warmth and heat went out of his eyes. He spoke quietly, firmly, all softness gone. “I’ve got two things to do on this drive. And you know what they are. To bring the herd to the railhead and to keep you safe. That’s it. That’s my job and I aim to do just that. Last night was about keeping you safe.”

“So you don’t think of me as a woman? You don’t think I have any pleasing attributes?”

Chance dropped his hand and leaned back. “You have the prettiest eyes I’ve ever seen in my life, Lizzie.”

Joy spread through her body. “Really?”

Chance faced the dying fire and nodded. Picking up a dried branch, he tossed it into the embers and watched the flame spark to life again. “But that doesn’t mean anything.”

“It means more than you know,” she whispered, breathless. She’d never wanted a man’s approval more than right now. She’d never cared about such things before. Her heart and soul had always been on the ranch and her love of fashioning dolls. She’d never entertained thoughts of being with a man, that’s why Grandpa’s attempts at matchmaking had never inspired even a kernel of interest. “To a girl like me, who’s never been overly…female.”

Chance turned from the fire to search her face. Then he dropped his gaze to her chest. She didn’t have much there, but her breasts were round and firm and she wondered if they’d please him enough and bring him pleasure. The very notion caused her face to flame. An ache below her belly throbbed and it was uncanny how potent that feeling was. Chance’s gaze flowed over her, flickering at the juncture of her thighs, right where she pulsed. Could he know? Could he sense her lusty thoughts?

“Look, Lizzie. You’re female enough to hold a man. That’ll happen one day. Maybe soon.”

BOOK: A Cowboy Worth Claiming
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