Read A Cowboy Worth Claiming Online

Authors: Charlene Sands

Tags: #Romance, #Western

A Cowboy Worth Claiming (7 page)

BOOK: A Cowboy Worth Claiming
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She choked back a sob. Who would keep Grandpa safe? Who would watch out for him now? She knew it took great effort for him to stand tall, his shoulders straight and voice strong. He was doing it for her. He was holding back his weakness until she was well on the road. He was pretending again.

She took a deep swallow. “I will.”

He turned to her then and pulled her into his arms. “Promise me, Lizzie? Promise me so I can know some peace,” he whispered in her ear.

She nodded, willing to promise him anything to give him the solace and rest he sorely needed. “I promise, Grandpa. I do.”

He pulled back a little and looked into her eyes. “That’s my girl. I love you, Elizabeth.”

“Oh, Grandpa!” She hugged him none too gently, her head pressed into his chest. She held on to his frail shoulders, feeling his strength fade, feeling the weakness overtake him. Tears spilled from her eyes and she wiped them away with a swipe of her shirt. She had to be strong. She had to be brave. She’d done it all her life and today was no different. She whispered, “I love you, too.”

Taking a steady breath, she pulled away in time to see him reach into his pocket.

“Take this.” He handed her his freshly cleaned neckerchief. “It’s always served me well.”

Lizzie’s spirit rose and the ache in her heart subsided some. The neckerchief was Grandpa’s favorite, the one he wore to start off all the drives. Having this with her while on the trail each day would give her a measure of hope. She felt it flow through her, a feeling that maybe she was wrong about her life changing. Maybe once she returned, her life, the only life she’d known, would be waiting for her again.

Eagerly and holding back a fresh round of tears, she fastened the fabric around her neck, noting the bright red color had faded to brick from wear on the trail. “Thank you, Grandpa. I’ll use it every day.”

His eyes warm and loving, he smiled. “Now go. Chance is waiting. I’ll be here when you return.”

She wanted to make him promise. She wanted a guarantee but instead, she nodded and banked on his words, holding them close to her heart as she plopped a hat on her head, brushed a soft kiss to his cheek and bid him farewell.

* * *

Lizzie didn’t look back, though she was sorely tempted. She didn’t have to turn around to know when the Red Ridge Mountains and the valley she’d called home disappeared from sight. She felt it in her belly. Even the air seemed different on the open range, the familiar scent of wildflowers and honeysuckle, of hundreds of grazing cattle, of apple pies coming out of ovens and fire pits cooking up the noon-day meals gave way to wide-open spaces with diluted subtle scents. The vastness of the land required it.

Surefoot, the chestnut gelding she rode, was strong and well-suited for the trail. He seemed to know his job, which made Lizzie’s time riding flank and drag that much easier. The horse took commands well and she had to grudgingly give both Chance and Warren credit for choosing the right horse for her to ride, though she doubted either one of them would hear that praise fall from her lips.

Chance rode point, leading the herd on their journey, and at times, he would double back to check on things, not saying much, just giving her a nod and eyeing the herd.

Checking up on her, most likely.

Lizzie ate some dust this morning, riding drag behind the herd first. Most times, the Mitchells gave the job of riding in back of the herd and catching the most dust to the greenhorn in the crew, the one with the least experience or the one who had hired on last. But Lizzie knew Chance had given her the easier morning shift of riding drag. They’d be shifting out after the noon meal where she and Chance would trade positions. She’d ride point and swing while Chance took the brunt of windstorms that kicked up a fuss in the afternoons.

She thought to argue with him, to let him know she could handle anything the trail offered up. She could do the job any of the crew could do without complaint and whining. She sought to make her point, but Chance cast her a stern, I’m-the-trail-boss look when he issued the order and then rode off on Joyful, just like that, without a look back.

One of Lizzie’s jobs was to tally the herd, making sure they wound up with the same amount of cattle at the end of the trail as they started out with. They had exactly thirty-one heads and she’d already counted them three times, just because there wasn’t much else to do but prod the lazier cattle at the back to keep them from slowing everything down.

Her stomach grumbled. And then it grumbled again. She was being punished, to be sure, for not eating a hearty meal this morning. Ten minutes later and none too soon by her accounts, Chance doubled back to take a place next to her. “We’ll stop in half an hour for lunch.”

Half an hour?

Lizzie’s stomach protested noisily and she wondered if Chance heard the unholy sounds coming from her empty belly. If he did, he didn’t say a word or make a gesture to indicate it.

Lifting his face to the sun, he squinted, leaning forward on the saddle to glance at the herd before him. “We’re making good time today. The weather’s holding.”

“I suppose.”

Her stomach rebelled as soon as she uttered the words, and Chance met her gaze.

“Anything wrong?”

“Uh…no. Nothing’s wrong.”

“Fine, then. Check for my signal to stop.”

She sent him a quick nod. Chance tipped the brim of his hat lower on his forehead and right before he rode off, she could’ve sworn she’d seen a big ole smirk on his face.

The half hour moved at a snail’s pace. With the herd settled, Lizzie and Chance found a mesquite tree nearby and rode the few yards there together. Chance dismounted his mare with usual grace and Lizzie slid down from Surefoot, hanging on to the saddle horn until her boots hit the ground. Riding a smaller horse made it much easier for her to mount and dismount and she was forever grateful that she didn’t need Chance’s assistance anymore.

Chance tossed a blanket on the ground and Lizzie helped him spread it out. She prayed her stomach would stop complaining. But there was just no controlling some things.

“How you holding up, Lizzie?” he asked as he brought over a sack of food.

Her stomach growled.

Chance grinned.

“I’m hungry, Chance.”

“Oh, and here I thought you were serenading the herd earlier. Could barely hear my own thoughts with all the noise you were making.”

She sent him a frown and plopped down onto the blanket. “You’re not amusing.” She pointed to the sack. “What’s in there?”

“In here?” he asked with the innocence of a young boy.

He stood by the blanket. She squinted to see his face. “Yes, in there.”

Chance lifted both arms overhead, the sack still in his hand. He joined them together and pulled both arms back behind his head in a slow easy stretch, keeping the sack of food out of her reach. If Lizzie wasn’t so darn hungry, she might have enjoyed watching him move like that. She might have fastened her gaze on the muscles that worked in his forearms and reveled in his sheer strength and power. He was all man, and Lizzie didn’t like that she’d been noticing, more and more. Because he annoyed her, just for the sake of doing so—there was no arguing that point.

She watched the sack sway to and fro as his body moved, still stretching, like time wasn’t important, like they were picnicking on a lazy Sunday afternoon and like he didn’t know she was starving. When her face flamed and her patience was about to quit, Chance slid a glance her way, smiled and then finally sat down beside her.

He dug into the burlap bag and brought out a small loaf of bread. He broke it in two. “Here you go, princess.”

She grabbed for the bread and took a bite. She chewed thoughtfully, letting the thick tasty dough slide down her throat. “If I’m such a princess, why am I taking orders from you?”

His lips curled up. “You may be the princess, but I’m the boss.”

“Ha!” She took another big bite and closed her eyes, savoring the food filling her belly. She’d baked biscuits and bread yesterday for the drive and now she was glad she did. “What else is there?” she asked, still chewing.

He brought out a thick hunk of cheese and used a knife he kept close at hand to slice off a big chunk. She took the first piece and after a few bites, Lizzie’s stomach settled enough for her to relax.

Chance downed his half of the bread and cheese and both were quiet for a time. Lizzie sat on the blanket, looking out at the herd, while Chance leaned up against the tree trunk, stretching out his long legs. She felt his eyes on her and the skin at the back of her neck prickled with awareness. Turning in his direction, she gathered her brows together and sent him her best glare. “Isn’t polite to stare.”

He ignored her pronouncement. “Why do you want to be called Elizabeth?”

“It’s my given name. I like it. But no one else seems to. Everybody is silly happy calling me Lizzie.”

“Lizzie suits you better,” he said in matter-of-fact fashion.

With a shake of her head, she shrugged. “I don’t understand why that is.”

“Some things just…are, Lizzie.”

“So you’re saying Elizabeth is too refined a name for someone like me?”

Chance’s face twisted in puzzlement. “How’d you come up with that conclusion?”

She looked away to the cattle grazing, trying to will herself to think of something else. She concentrated hard but the obstinate notions kept entering her head. If she knew one thing for certain, it was that Chance wasn’t the person to have this conversation with.

Oh, sometimes she just missed Hayden to death. He’d been her friend practically since birth, and she thought of him as her protective older brother. And as someone who truly understood her.

She wasn’t like most girls. She knew that. But that didn’t mean that at times, she didn’t want to be.

“Lizzie?” Chance’s soft tone made her turn to him. Rarely had he spoken to her with tenderness. She’d thought he’d be asleep about now. Like most cowpokes that have a few minutes to rest, they rarely waste them talking. They devour their meal and get some shut-eye, before taking up their positions at the herd.

But Chance kept on looking at her, expecting an answer. Unable to draw her gaze away and with the possibility he might understand and not laugh at her, she blurted out what was on her mind. “Can’t a girl want to be treated like a woman?”

Chance blinked. His expression changed and he pushed back so hard against the tree trunk, he bumped his head. “You think that’ll make you feel womanly? Being called Elizabeth?”

understand. No one did. And he didn’t even try to hide the twitching of his lips. “Never mind.” She set her gaze on a speck of land far off in the distance and admonished herself for confiding in Chance. She vowed never to do so again.

Leaning forward, he bent one knee and braced his forearm there. “Now, don’t get huffy, Lizzie.”

“I’m not huffy.”

“You always get huffy. And you’re not making sense.”

Her back stiffened. She slammed her eyes shut and prayed for patience. “I—I…you wouldn’t understand.”

“I’m sure I wouldn’t,” he muttered.

She snapped her eyes to him and found him staring at her again. “What?”

He brought his face close. Dark specks of gold gleamed in his brown eyes. His scent tingled through her nostrils—musk like God’s earth and fresh, like the pastures he rode over. A tremble shook her insides as she met his gaze. He dropped his eyes down and perused the rest of her body from face to toes with achingly slow deliberation, and she sat there, unnerved, fascinated, and allowing his direct scrutiny.

His words were sharp when he spoke, as if she should know this already. “A name doesn’t make the woman, Lizzie.”

For an instant, she believed him. “What does?”

His gaze went to her mouth and Lizzie froze, wondering what it would be like to be kissed by such a man. Everything inside her went soft, like the cotton stuffing she used to make her dolls, only this softness was warm and getting warmer every second he continued to look at her with hooded eyes.

He was handsome and manly and lord knew, she’d been having queasy feelings about him for days now. But it wasn’t right that she should have these powerful sensations about a man who belittled her every chance he got. And yet the trembling she felt when he was near couldn’t be explained any other way.

She wasn’t all that certain she liked Chance Worth.

So why was she feeling all gooey inside over him?

Something flickered in his eyes, enough to change the mood. He set his fist to the bottom of her chin and chucked her gently. “You’ll know when it happens, Lizzie.”

“That’s it? I’ll know?”

He nodded and rose quickly from the blanket they shared, bounding to his feet.

“Seems you could come up with a better answer than that,” she said. She refused to admit that her sudden bad mood was brought on by Chance not kissing her.

“Roll up the blanket, Lizzie. It’s time we move on.”

When he offered his hand to help her up, she refused it.

“Suit yourself,” he said with a shrug, then stalked off to his horse, leaving Lizzie alone by the tree and fearing that Chance and just about everyone else in the world would never look upon her as a woman.

BOOK: A Cowboy Worth Claiming
7.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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