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Authors: Charlene Sands

Tags: #Romance, #Western

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BOOK: A Cowboy Worth Claiming
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“Here,” he said, offering her some candy. “Might sweeten you up a bit.”

“I don’t need sweetening up, Chance Worth.”

“Fine, if you don’t want any.” He took back his offer but before he could close the sack, Lizzie put her hand in there, pulling out a piece.

She chomped down on the black confection, biting off a big piece. She chewed it like it was her last meal. Silently amused, Chance decided not to comment.

“I have one more stop to make. Over at Mrs. Finch’s Millinery.”

“You buying yourself a hat?” Chance glanced at her hair, pretty in curls down her back. Once she’d cleaned up from that rat’s nest yesterday and smoothed out the tangles, Lizzie’s long strands hung as rich and glossy as black ink. Chance imagined how fine it would feel free of the braid and flowing through his fingers.

She gave him a long suffering look. “Might just buy me two hats. No, make that a dozen.”

“A dozen?” A chuckle rose up from his throat and she greeted his amusement with a tilt of her chin. She huffed away, marching toward the millinery shop.

He followed with the horses in tow, watching Lizzie make her way down the sidewalk, the feminine sway of her hips catching his eye. She wasn’t without some female qualities. With a little coaching, a bit more manners and a sweeter disposition, Lizzie would be a desirable woman. His brows rose as he imagined her dressed in something less bleak, a gown of color with dainty lace around her small bosom and hugging her slender curves, making a man wish he had a right to draw her close and kiss her.

Chance tore his gaze from her backside and shook those thoughts free.

He came upon the decorated shop and looked at the storefront window displaying hats of every size, color and shape with feathers, leather, silver and plumes decorating the brims. How many social events did a town like Red Ridge entertain to warrant the womenfolk wearing such fancy hats?

His gaze traveled beyond those bonnets to Lizzie speaking with apology on her expression to the woman behind the counter. When the conversation was over, the woman gently embraced Lizzie. She came out of the shop, her lips downturned and a sour pout on her face.

If she would smile once in a while, a man might actually think her pretty. But Lizzie wasn’t happy right now and she walked past him and the horses, heading in the direction of the ranch.

Chance mounted Joyful, tying the other horses to the saddle horn, and headed in the same direction.

Lizzie kept up a brisk pace.

“You gonna walk all the way back home?”

Her shoulder lifted in a shrug and she kept walking.

“That woman upset you?”

Her head shook slightly.

“Lizzie?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Chance understood that. There was many a time when his life just wasn’t worth talking about. Lizzie had it rough lately, he’d give her that, and if she needed a little peace right now, Chance would grant her silence.

Without her sass mouth doing any arguing, it would be two of the most pleasant miles he’d travel with her.

* * *

Lizzie’s feet ached and her stomach growled as they rounded the bend by the lake. She’d walked half the distance home so far, her feet moving beneath her rapidly as if they had a mind of their own. At times, Lizzie needed to walk off her remorse and her sorrow, but it wasn’t working out too well at the moment. She wasn’t alone and that was part of the problem. Chance was there, beside her, every step of the way. He’d been quiet on the way home from Red Ridge. Too quiet. It unnerved her and allowed her mind to fill with distressing thoughts.

Just when she was ready to make a comment about his silence, he began whistling a tune,
out
of tune. His carefree attitude grated on her even more. He had no cares in the world, it seemed, yet Lizzie had too much to care about. Too many troubles fogged up her brain and strong as she was, sometimes it all seemed overly much for her to take.

She stopped walking and turned to him. “What’s that awful sound?”

Chance pulled up on the reins and looked around. “I didn’t hear anything.”

She rolled her eyes. “You know I’m talking about your whistling. Sounds more like two starving hawks fighting over a carcass.”

“Lizzie, you’re not hearing straight. Got something in your ears?”

“No, but cotton would be good about now.”

Chance grinned.

It infuriated her that he looked upon her time and again with amusement, as if to say, she wasn’t a woman to be taken seriously. She refrained from stomping her feet and marching off. Planting her hands on her hips, she stood her ground. “What’s that smile for?”

He shrugged and leaned over the saddle which made it easier to meet his piercing eyes. “Well, uh, Lizzie. You looked a little sad for some reason and I thought that my whistling might just brighten your day.”

Lizzie didn’t believe that for a second. “You’re not that kind.”

Chance glanced away, guilty, as if he’d been caught stealing from the church box. “You take pleasure in insulting me.”

Indignant, her voice elevated a bit. “I didn’t insult you.”

“Didn’t you? You don’t like my whistling and you don’t think I’m kind.”

She
had
said that, hadn’t she? “Well, I just meant that you could follow a tune more closely.”

“Uh-huh.” He tipped his hat back and she received the full force of his amused stare. “And the other?”

“You expect me to believe you wanted to cheer me up with your whistling?”

He heaved a sigh. “Maybe not exactly. I was gettin’ kind of bored with all the quiet.”

“So you thought to annoy me?” she asked.

“Did I?” He appeared hopeful.

“No. Yes. Like I said you can’t carry a tune and it’s a bit irritating.”

“Got you out of your doldrums, didn’t it?”

“I’m not having doldrums.”

Chance dipped his head low and shot her a serious look.

“Well, maybe I was. Not that it’s any of your concern.”

Chance granted her that much with a quick nod. At least he respected her privacy.

“Get up on the horse, Lizzie,” he said. “You’re starting to tire. You need to be in good form tomorrow for the drive.”

Lizzie opened her mouth to argue the point—Chance could be so bossy—but clamped it down just as fast. She was tired and Chance was right. She needed to be well-rested for their journey.

Chance didn’t budge a muscle to help her mount the dappled gray mare he’d saddled, so she fumbled with the stirrup and saddle horn and found her way up. Settling her derriere and adjusting her body, she took the reins and slid him a glance. He cast an approving nod her way and they took off down the road.

Within a minute, Chance began whistling again, this time the sound perfectly in tune, the song a harmonious blending of chords that rose deep from his throat. She peered at him and gasped from the perfect pitch and tone.

And then it dawned on her.

He had been kind.

In his own way.

He’d taken her out of her melancholy by sparking her indignation and annoying her. He’d gotten her mind off her troubles.

And just like that, the words started tumbling out and it felt good, oh so good, to relieve herself of the burden. “I hated disappointing Mrs. Finch today. She was kind enough to take orders for my dolls and she had customers waiting for them. She offered me the money I would have earned delivering those dolls. She tried to put cash into my hands and shoo me away. But I couldn’t take it, Chance. I couldn’t. And then she told me about Hayden coming home to Red Ridge soon. I should be happy, since he’s my very best friend in the whole wide world. Why, he’s like a brother to me. We’ve always been thick as thieves. But Hayden’s told me a dozen times that when he returned from his schooling, he’d be getting married. And then I’ll lose him. I’ll lose my best friend.” She swallowed hard and felt like a silly fool for rambling on to Chance like this, but she couldn’t seem to stop her heart from pouring out. “It just seems too much sometimes.”

Chance was quiet, and when she glanced at him, he didn’t look at her. He stared straight ahead at the open pastures that were Mitchell land. His words came slow and easy, but filled with intent. “Pride’s a good thing, Lizzie. Most times. I probably would have done the same with Mrs. Finch. As for your friend, if he really is one, you won’t lose him, no matter what.”

She stared at him as his words sank into her soul. Something strange happened in her head and her belly when she took his advice as gospel. Pitying herself wasn’t a virtue and certainly disappointing people she cared about wasn’t, either. But the terrible distress that plagued her these past few days eased up a bit.

She felt better.

How could Chance make her see things clearly, when everything seemed so muddled in her own head? Before she could comment, though she hadn’t a clue what words would tumble out, Chance nudged Joyful and took off at a trot, the string of horses he’d rented following closely behind.

She closed her eyes to the sunshine, grateful that her heavy load was lifted this afternoon and another odd thing happened—the melodious sound of Chance’s perfect whistling filled her mind and she smiled.

Chapter Four

“I
can’t tell you how much this means to me, son,” Edward said, leaning his body against the barn wall.

Chance hammered a wooden board over the gash in the wall until it was sufficiently covered. The board wasn’t fresh lumber, but wood he’d removed and hauled to the house from an old shed he’d noticed on the property. With a little ingenuity, he’d have the barn looking like a barn instead of an overhang with broken down walls.

He moved on to the next area needing his attention, a gaping hole that left a window-size opening toward the east pasture. “Making repairs doesn’t compare to saving a life.”

Chance positioned another board and hammered away. When he was done, he stole a glance at Edward, who looked a little better this afternoon. Leastways, the Arizona sun had burnished his skin to show a bit of color.

“Wasn’t just talking about the repairs. You’re a godsend to me, Chance. You know, with Lizzie and all. We both know I’d never have survived the trail drive.”

Edward hacked out several coughs, and the lifeless pallor returned to his complexion. It was like that with Edward, one minute he looked fine, the next, he appeared to be knocking on death’s door.

When he was done coughing, he handed Chance another board and followed him around the corner of the barn. “I don’t know any such thing. Lizzie seems to think some doctoring is all you need.”

“Lizzie isn’t rational when it comes to my health. She’s turning a blind eye. But I expect more understanding from you.”

Chance set the board down and met with Edward’s old wise eyes. He heaved a sigh. He couldn’t let the man know how much his demise would hurt him, too. He’d looked upon Edward as a father of sorts. Even though miles and time had separated them, Chance took solace knowing the older man lived and thrived in Red Ridge. His letters and words of advice had gotten him through some bad times and Chance had honest affection for him.

Finally and without qualm, Chance sent the man an understanding nod. “You got it, Edward. My understanding. But, you don’t have to thank me. I wouldn’t be standing here, able to help you, if you were a less honorable man.”

“A man shouldn’t be thanked for doing what was right.”

“You stuck your neck out for me. That’s more than anyone’s done since my folks passed.”

“And now you’re sticking your neck out for me.”

Chance snapped his eyes up to find the old man’s face lit in a smile, his eyes gleaming like never before. Some thought had obviously amused him. “How so?”

“You agreed to find Lizzie a husband.”

Chance twisted his lips recalling how unpleasant Lizzie had been to young Warren at the livery stables. He wasn’t forgetting the challenge Lizzie posed or the promise he’d made to Edward. “You think it’s funny, do you?”

“No, just the opposite,” he answered, with mirth in his voice. “Only wish I could be around to see how you manage it. It’d be a sight to behold. Lord knows, my attempts have failed.”

“I’ll manage it all right. You can trust me on that,” Chance said with a measure of confidence. Someway, somehow, Lizzie would be wed before he left Red Ridge. “She mentioned her friend Hayden today.”

“Did she now?” Edward nodded with approval. “Well, I heard he’ll be home soon. That’s good. Hayden’s a fine boy.”

Their eyes met in a long stare before Edward’s throat constricted and another bout of incessant coughing marred the quiet of the afternoon.

Lizzie walked up holding a glass of water, her eyes wide and filled with concern. She was forever doting on Edward, almost as though he were the child and she the adult. “Here, Grandpa. Drink up.” She handed him the drink and watched while he emptied it. “Let me get you inside. You need to rest.” She moved closer to wrap her arm around his shoulder.

“I’ll be resting soon enough,” Edward said, sending her a kind smile. “I appreciate the drink, darling girl, but I’m fine. It’s a glorious day.”

Lizzie dropped her arm to her side and spoke with determination. “But, Grandpa, your coughing’s getting worse and you need—”

Before Edward acquiesced, Chance intervened, noting the distress on Edward’s face. “He needs fresh air and sunshine.”

It was clear the man wanted to enjoy his last days on his ranch out in the open but was too weak to argue the point with his granddaughter.

Lizzie shot Chance a surly glare that could freeze melting butter. “You got no say in this, Chance.”

“He’s been helping me with the barn.”

“He can’t do—”

Chance stood firm and leaned close enough to see indignant sparks flare in her eyes. “He can.”

Not one to back down, she stepped closer and faced him with an upward tilt of her chin, meeting him almost nose to nose. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You show up here and think you know everything, but you don’t know a hill of—”

“Stop arguing!” Edward’s rough, authoritative voice stopped them cold. Both Chance and Lizzie turned to see fire in Edward’s eyes and strength in a body that had appeared weak and frail just moments ago. “I won’t have it. You two have to work together and get along. Lizzie,” he said, softening his voice, “I’m old and with age comes wisdom. I know when I’ve pushed my limits. When I tire, I rest. Right now, I want to spend time outside. I appreciate your worry and I love you dearly, but I asked Chance here to help out. The last thing I want is to see you two arguing all the time.”

Lizzie buttoned her lips.

Chance pursed his.

They stared at each other.

No one said a word.

Edward muttered to himself and Chance thought he caught a few blasphemous words spew out.

“Fine,” Lizzie said in a tone that wasn’t fine at all. “I’ll go start our supper.”

Edward nodded. “That’s an excellent idea. I’ll be in shortly.” Chance went back to his repairs with Edward alongside him.

The meal that night was overly quiet but delicious. Lizzie fixed a hearty supper of beef steaks, potatoes and creamed corn. She brought warm oatmeal cookies from the oven afterward and they ate them while drinking coffee as Edward went over details about the drive with the two of them.

Lizzie’s eyes never strayed from watching every movement her grandpa made. Worry lines creased her young face and if Chance could read her thoughts, they were of regret at having to leave him here alone for a week to tend to himself. There was no way around it, though. Chance had stopped by the closest neighbor’s homestead before supper and had been reassured that Benjamin Avery, the oldest child of the family, would look in on Edward from time to time. Sharing that news with Lizzie didn’t put a smile on her face, but she’d seemed a bit relieved after that.

A little later, Chance walked his dish to the washstand where Lizzie was busy scrubbing a pot. She slid him a glance and returned to her work as if he wasn’t there. Chance leaned in, speaking near her ear, making sure he wouldn’t be ignored. “We’ll head out at dawn. Get an early start. I’m fixing to turn in early. Leave you to spend time alone with your grandpa.”

Lizzie looked out the window. The sun all but setting cast pinkish-purple hues along the descending horizon. If she’d been merely stubborn, Chance would’ve walked out right then without a glance back. But he noticed her body sag, just an inch, enough that her shoulders slumped to an uncharacteristic posture. Then he noticed her mouth trembling, her bottom lip straining to stay still without any success. Her face flushed, Lizzie looked like she would break down any moment.

“Lizzie?”

She slammed her eyes shut.

“Lizzie, look at me,” he demanded.

She faced him now, eyes open, but with dire agony in her expression, trying so damn hard to be brave.

“What are you afraid of?”

A tear dripped from her eye and she didn’t bother wiping it away. Instead, she stared at him, searching for an answer. “Tell me he’s going to be okay.”

Chance drew a deep breath. He knew what it meant to lose the only kin you had. He knew the toll it took on a person. But he couldn’t guarantee her anything. It wouldn’t be fair to give her that much hope. Edward was only yards away, resting on the sofa. Chance set a comforting hand on her shoulder and spoke quietly. “I can’t do that, Lizzie. But he wants it this way. You going on the drive with me. Bringing back cash enough to sustain you through the year. Keep that thought in your head. You’re doing his bidding. Always remember that.”

She turned away from him and took up her task again, scrubbing the pot without offering a word. Chance grabbed his hat from the peg beside the door and right before he walked out he heard her say, “I’ll try.”

* * *

Lizzie woke before dawn and lay in her bed, dreading the day to come. She’d barely slept at all and that wouldn’t bode well for the amount of work she’d do while on the trail. But last night, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her world was about to change. With a queasy stomach and nerves about to jump from her skin, sleep hadn’t been her friend but a mere acquaintance that bounded in and out of the night.

If circumstances were different, she’d be the first one up and ready for the trail drive. The first one at breakfast, the first one to pack the supplies, the first one to ride off with glee in her heart, eager to start on a journey that would take her off the ranch.

But today wasn’t such a day. Today, her heart was heavy, burdened with leaving Grandpa and all the worry that would follow. Lizzie wasn’t looking forward to this drive at all.

She had said her prayers last night, and this morning as she hugged her pillow and nestled down in the comfort of her bed one last time, she squeezed her eyes tight and reminded God again.

When she heard her grandfather up, shuffling around outside her door, Lizzie dressed quickly in her trail clothes—a long-sleeve shirt tucked into a pair of tan trousers. Her brown boots had belonged to her mother—she’d always loved the fancy curlicue stitching that decorated the sides. It made Lizzie feel more womanly and a bit closer to her mother’s memory. Though the boots were weathered some and the heels worn down, they were sturdy enough to protect her legs from prickly bushes and horsehair.

Once dressed, she glanced in her cheval mirror, noting her bleak expression. She set her hand to her stomach, tamping down a sickly feeling and prayed one last time for strength today. That odd feeling she’d had this morning wouldn’t relent, yet it wouldn’t do to let her grandpa see her distress. She couldn’t let on that leaving him, even for this short period of time, pained her so.

She found him sitting with Chance in the kitchen. He’d already brewed a pot of coffee and both were sipping from their mugs. “Morning, dear girl.”

“Mornin’,” Chance said.

She pasted on a smile for her grandpa’s sake and darted them a glance. “Morning.”

“Weather’s good today, Lizzie. A fine day to start on the drive.”

Grandpa always pretended good cheer in the morning. While she’d lain awake in bed last night, she’d heard him struggle for breath, the horrible hacks stealing precious life from his body. She’d held herself back from marching into his room to lend him comfort.

Now, she gritted her teeth and pretended along with him. “Yes. We should make good time today. Nothing to slow us down.”

Chance took a big swallow of his coffee and nodded.

“I’ll warm biscuits and get us some eggs.”

Grandpa pointed to the bowl sitting on the counter. “No need. Chance brought eggs in a while ago.”

“Thank you,” she bit out through clenched teeth. She couldn’t figure why thanking Chance for anything rubbed her raw. Wasn’t much sense in it, yet she’d rather spend time disparaging his nature than liking him.

Lizzie made fast work of cooking up the eggs, adding bits of bacon and grease into a scramble and setting them along with the biscuits in front of the men.

Her Grandpa took note of how she wasn’t touching her own food. “You’re not eating?”

“Don’t much feel like it this morning.” She pushed her plate away gently.

Chance’s head came up from finishing off his meal. “We won’t be stopping for hours, once we get going.”

“You should eat something, Lizzie,” her grandpa said softly.

Two against one. Those weren’t fair odds. She sighed and picked up a biscuit.

She’d force down a meal to make her grandfather happy. After managing the biscuit, she ate some eggs and it was worth it to see the satisfied look on her grandpa’s face when he smiled at her.

She’d deal with her stomach’s rebellion privately. It was almost time to say goodbye. She cleaned up the kitchen in a hurry, forcing tears away, and found Grandpa waiting for her outside, standing on the porch with his face arching to the rising sun. “You’ll do fine, Lizzie.”

She sidled up next to him. “I know, Grandpa.”

“I expect you and Chance to get along on this trip.”

“We…will.” She didn’t sound all too convincing, but it was the best she could do.

“He’s a good man. You and him have more in common than you think. He’s known loss and hurt in his life, too.”

“I don’t deny him that. It’s just that he’s—”

“Heed his words,” Grandpa said with warning in his voice. “He’ll keep you safe.”

BOOK: A Cowboy Worth Claiming
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