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Authors: Charlene Sands

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BOOK: A Cowboy Worth Claiming
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Thunder boomed, this time discernibly closer, and Chance saw lightning illuminate the sky a few seconds later.

Lizzie looked skyward with a shiver.

Chance had a bad feeling about this.

He walked away from her and strode to the roped area where the horses rested. Joyful was jumpy. She never liked thunder and it seemed all of the horses followed suit and were aware of bad weather approaching. Chance fed them each some sugar cubes and patted them down using reassuring words, but all of his efforts were wasted when another clash of thunder boomed overhead.

“Whoa, steady. Steady,” he murmured. He stayed with the horses until they settled down, his eyes and ears open to the cattle just yards away the entire time.

If there was a stampede it would take days to retrieve them and they’d lose precious time. But they were a small herd and cattle were basically lazy animals that plodded along, so Chance had to put his faith in that. He found the herd unmindful of the weather at the moment, and that was a good sign.

The rain came an hour later. The drizzle he’d hoped for had turned into a real downpour. Chance was torn between watching the herd and checking on Lizzie. Ultimately, he knew what mattered the most, to Edward and to…him.

He left guarding the herd and found Lizzie leaning against a thin mesquite tree grabbing the smidgen of shelter it provided. Standing with a blanket over her head, she trembled uncontrollably.

Chance cursed and berated himself for not checking on her sooner. There was no shelter, no way to get warm. The fire had gone out and it would be hours before it was dry enough to start one again. He strode over to her, his boots sloshing over the prairie grass and mud. “Lizzie, you’re freezing.”

Her eyes were moist and he suspected it wasn’t the rain dripping down her cheeks. “I’m s-so c-cold.”

Quickly, he tossed a blanket over a few thin branches and tugged her body under the pathetic shelter he’d forged. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. He wrapped her tight in his embrace and cradled her head against his chest. She wasn’t just cold, but frozen to the bone. Her teeth chattered. Chance wrapped them in a blanket, the cool wet wool the only barrier from the outside cold.

He rubbed her back and arms trying to bring some life into her blood, get it circulating enough to warm her a bit. “I’m sorry, Lizzie,” he murmured into her ear. “I shouldn’t have left you.”

She shivered again and hugged him tighter.

Chance closed his eyes. Usually when he held a woman this close, it was for a much more entertaining reason. If there was any trembling involved, it was in anticipation of the things they would do to each other. But Chance kept those thoughts away, concentrating on pressing his hands to her back and massaging the stiffness and cold from her body to keep Lizzie from freezing to death.

When her knees buckled, he held her upright the best he could. “Hang on, darlin’. Hang on or we’ll both go down.”

“I’m t-trying.”

“The storm’s about to pass.”

“H-how’s the herd?”

He touched his lips to her forehead. “Still there, soaked and not happy about it, but they’re there.”

She nodded, her chin digging into his chest. “And the h-horses?”

“About the same, Lizzie. Don’t go worrying over them. They’ll be fine.”

“They h-have to be-e.”

She was determined to see this cattle drive through. He couldn’t fault her concern. Everything she had—her life, her grandfather’s life—was tied to that herd. If given a choice, she wouldn’t hesitate to do this all over again, if need be, to ensure her future.

Chance took the brunt of the storm, letting it hit him fully. He made sure Lizzie was as protected as possible. The rain hit his hat and flowed onto the brim then streamed down to the ground like a waterfall. He made sure to angle his body in such a way that nothing wet touched Lizzie.

But him.

Problem was that with her lithe body plastered to him real tight, her small breasts crushed his chest and her hips dug into his legs. Chance wasn’t a damn saint and Lizzie wasn’t a child. No, sir. She wasn’t. This cattle drive proved that better than any amount of frills and lace and female airs of coyness. And having her so close, nestled in his arms, her body pressed between his spread legs, it was difficult to remember who Lizzie was and why the hell he couldn’t touch her.

For the most part, they didn’t like each other, he reminded himself.

Finally, the rain stopped and Chance was never so grateful for weather to let up in his entire life.

He set Lizzie away from him and held her steady by the arms. Her eyes lifted to his and she glanced at his mouth as awareness flickered in her eyes. He hadn’t fooled her. Hell, what did she expect? He’d been rubbing her body, feeling everything female about her and of course, he’d reacted. Rain didn’t make a man less a man. But then, how would Lizzie know that?

Her long curls were soaked, coming free of the braid she wore. Her face was ashen; the exhaustion on her face earlier was nothing compared to how she looked right now. And still, she shivered.

Uncontrollably.

“Are you all right?”

She hugged herself around her middle, her teeth clanking against each other. “I w-will be. Soon as I get w-warm.”

How was that going to happen? It was black as pitch, cold as ice and wet as a rushing river. Lizzie was bushed. And he didn’t know how long he could go on holding her upright.

“Lizzie, take off your clothes.”

She swallowed and looked at him like he was crazy. “What?”

“You have to get out of your wet clothes.”

“No.”

Chance sighed and instead of getting mad—Lizzie was forever trying his patience—he reasoned with her. “Lizzie, listen to me. You’re frozen solid. You’re going to get deathly sick if you don’t do as I say. I’m going to try to light a fire, but it probably won’t work. We can either stand here all night or lie down and attempt to get some rest.”

“But everything’s w-wet. We’ll be s-soaked.”

“We’re soaked now. I’ll keep you warm and in the morning, we’ll dry out our clothes and move on. But it’s the middle of the night, Lizzie. And if you stay wet in those clothes…”

“But, you’ll be w-wet, too.” She shivered again.

He winced realizing he had to enlighten her as to how this would work. “I’ll be taking my clothes off, too.”

Lizzie’s face was close and through the dimmest light he saw her flinch. She breathed out so quietly, he would barely hear her but for the silence surrounding them. “We’ll be lying together. Naked.”

The image slammed into his head and he recalled the soft small buds of Lizzie’s breasts pressing through his clothes. The scoundrel in him remembered her hips grinding into his groin and how good it felt. Chance swore silently. Was he a fool to suggest this? It’d been months since he’d lain with a woman. “Not entirely. You decide what’s…what’s necessary to stay on. But Lizzie, I’m responsible for you. And I can’t—”

A cold breeze blew by, evidence of the wicked wind to come, and it seemed enough to convince her. “I’ll do it.”

“Fine,” he said, wishing there was some other way and thinking this wasn’t fine at all.

Chance made an assessment of the land he could see in the darkness. The herd had settled and the horses were doing the best they could under the circumstances. He spotted an area away from the trees that would catch the first light of morning and laid the blanket down there. “Come on over here, Lizzie.”

The clouds separated and moonlight filtered down, a slender streak of light that gave a measure of illumination.

Chance could see her better now. She wasn’t moving at all, but staring at the blanket they would share. Biting her lips, she might have drawn blood from the intense look on her face. The wind howled and nearly blew her down as it whipped by, little as she was. She righted her footing and let out a curse. “Damnation!”

Chance held his tongue in check and watched as she lowered her body down into a crouch, protecting herself from another blast of air. She approached the blanket and when she reached him, a scowl covered her face. “Turn around.”

He thought her modesty foolish. Soon they would be lying together, their bodies touching intimately, and they were going to feel everything they had to feel. But this one time, he did Lizzie’s bidding. He turned his back and let her have her pride. “Let me know when you’re ready.”

He heard rustling and more oaths shed from her mouth as she fumbled with her clothes. She didn’t have too much to remove, no fancy buttons to unfasten or layers of petticoats that needed to come off one at a time. All she wore tonight was a rain slicker over a jacket, and her riding clothes. What she wore underneath it all, though, was a mystery to him. But he had a feeling he was going to find out right now.

After a few more seconds, she said, “I’m under the b-blankets. And I’m s-still c-cold.”

“I’ll be right there,” he said. He took off his gun belt and removed everything he wore down to his long johns. Those he unbuttoned, then removed his arms from the sleeves, allowing the wet half of them to dangle from his waist. The more skin-to-skin contact, the faster Lizzie would warm up.

Shortly, she’d see his wisdom and know some comfort. If only he could be that lucky.

Chapter Six

L
izzie couldn’t get the idea of lying naked with Chance out of her mind. Waves of heat spread through her system like blazing fire. She welcomed the momentary warmth and grasped on to it for as long as it would last. Her heart in her mouth, she was now naked but for the thin chemise she wore tucked inside even thinner bloomers. Anticipation gnawed at her. Even her fear and humiliation weren’t enough to warm her for long. The chill had come back but her dignity had not.

She’d never been this cold in her life. Why would she be? Not even the dunking in the lake at home had iced her blood like this.

She’d seen Chance bare chested the day he’d rescued her. She’d been only half-conscious but she recalled the magnificence of him. His shoulders had spread out as beautifully as an eagle’s wings. His powerful arms, his big hands and sheer strength as he moved her to water’s edge that day, tugged at her memory and only added to her agony now.

Lizzie brought the blanket up underneath her chin, waiting for Chance to join her. Her body a mass of trembles, she thanked heaven that Chance wouldn’t know the true reason for her quaking.

She concentrated on the blanket under her and how wet and scratchy the wool had become. It tore at her skin some and itched like the dickens. The discomfort wasn’t enough to distract her though when she heard Chance approach. She closed her eyes and stilled.

“I’ve gotta yank off your boots, Lizzie. If your feet are cold, the rest of you won’t release the chill.”

“Long as you don’t yank anything else off me, I’ll do fine.”

She heard Chance chuckle and then she felt his hands circling her right boot. He gave a tug and off came her stockings, too. He took the other boot off and she flinched when he accidentally touched her legs. She felt the blanket lift as he tucked her feet under it.

“Soon as I get my boots off, I’m coming in.”

Oh, mercy.

Seconds later, Chance lifted the blanket. Lizzie kept her eyes shut. It would be easier imagining him next to her, than actually seeing him buck naked beside her, though neither option garnered any sanity.

He climbed under the blanket and without any warning at all, covered her body with his. He closed himself around her like a thick coat of fur. “Put your hands on my chest. You’ll warm up quicker if nothing is exposed.”

Everything
was exposed.

“You’re sure this is going to work?” she asked, hesitantly putting her cold-as-ice hands on him. Through his cool damp chest came warmth that was as much a relief as it was a surprise.

He was warmer than she’d thought he’d be.

Hadn’t he been out in the same rain and wind that she had? How could his body radiate so much more warmth?

“Chance, you didn’t answer me?”

“It’s working already,” he said rather harshly and then added, “your teeth aren’t chattering.”

He was unbearably close. Their breaths mingled and she drew the scent of fresh rain, earth and coffee into her nostrils. His smell wasn’t displeasing and Lizzie thought herself a silly fool for thinking of such a thing while he was lying atop her, trying to keep her warm.

Her palms pressed the skin of his chest and it reminded her of wildfire catching on a field of dry grass, those initial embers that started to flame slowly in the beginning before setting the entire prairie to blaze. That’s how Chance felt to her as those embers began to thaw her out, one body part at a time.

“Are you warming up, too?” she asked. Her legs were cold, but she wouldn’t complain that he hadn’t wrapped his legs around hers. Some things a girl just knew not to say.

“Getting there, Lizzie.”

“You feel warm to me.”

“That’s the point of it all.”

She felt the scattered hairs beneath her fingertips and wondered how it would feel to move her hands through them and feel the corded muscles underneath her palms. Only in her imaginings would she ever actually do it, but, oh, what an ease to her burgeoning curiosity it would be to put her hands on a man that way and have freedom enough to explore. It was a wicked thought and one she’d probably never see come to life but if she ever had the opportunity she’d want it to be with someone like Chance.

“So this is what it’s like,” she whispered, once Chance settled down. He seemed at an odd angle, as if he was holding back, trying not to crush her.

“Getting warm?”

She corrected him with a whisper. “Lying with a man.”

“Geesh, Lizzie. You’re not lying with me. This isn’t what it’s like at all.”

“Oh?” Her face was tucked into the hollow part of his neck, right where his throat met with his chest. Every time he spoke she felt the vibration as his throat worked to move the deep sound of his voice. “But isn’t this how it feels? Being so close we only need to whisper to be heard.”

“That part’s true.”

“And we’re sharing a blanket?”

“True again.”

“And we’re—”

“We’re
nothing,
Lizzie. Just keeping warm on a night you might have froze. That’s all.”

“I don’t feel quite as frozen anymore. But, oh, this blanket is itchy underneath. Feels like a batch of spiders pricking at my skin.” She shifted a little, wiggling her body to get more comfortable. The move brought her hips up to meet with his groin.

“Don’t do that,” he snapped, pulling away from her. His quick action yanked the blanket off both of them and a cold rush of air seeped in. She felt his absence immediately and the chill that sped up and down her body felt like ice flowing through her veins.

She stiffened and rested back against the wet woolen material. “Sorry, but I…the blanket is rough against my back.” She shivered. “It’s cold without you.”

Chance muttered an oath and a few seconds ticked by before he hooked the blanket over his shoulders again. He resumed his position, setting her hands back on his chest. She felt his heat instantly as he covered her. A heavy sigh pulled from his lungs. “Seems to me, you can either be warm or comfortable. Can’t have both. Not tonight.”

She could barely make out his eyes, seeing just the dark outline from a glimmer of light overhead. “I’m not a child, Chance. I know the situation.”

He grumbled.

“I wasn’t complaining. Just thought I could get a mite more comfortable, is all. Why’d you get so riled?”

“You’re more a child than I thought,” he said quietly, “if you don’t know the answer to that.”

She’d never had a mama to speak to regarding these things, so as much as she’d like to sass Chance right now, she couldn’t. No clever words came to mind and she wasn’t sure what to make of that. She nibbled on her lower lip for a moment and then figured she might chew it off if she wasn’t careful, her mouth was so darn numb.

She understood that a man got bothered when lying with a woman. But hadn’t Chance just said, lying with a woman wasn’t anything like this. He couldn’t be right, because as she began to thaw, having him atop her, covering her with his big body, and breathing the same air from under the blanket, her insides felt as soft and sweet as strawberry jam.

Why, she could imagine touching him, doing that exploring she’d been wanting to do and, yes, kissing him. What would it be like to kiss a man like Chance? Would having his lips on hers steal all the breath from her lungs? Would the stubble on his face scratch her as much as the blanket beneath her? Would he taste like coffee and earth and air all mixed into one?

Lizzie sighed, the tiny sound escaping her mouth one of pure pleasure.

She heard Chance’s intake of breath. “Lizzie, whatever you’re thinking,
don’t.

“Chance?”

“Don’t, Lizzie,” he warned again.

“But I was just going to ask if you’re planning on sleeping this way all night? I mean, you can’t possibly get any sleep in that position, half on, half off of me, sort of suspended the way you are.” She could feel him holding back, keeping their most intimate parts from touching. How long could he go on holding himself that way?

“That’s my problem.”

“It’ll be mine, if you land on me and crush me during the night. I don’t think I’ll sleep a wink in this position, not being able to move a muscle and all.”

“If I land on you, you just shove me off. You got that?”

“Yes, I got that. But what if I move by acc—”

“Damn it, Lizzie,” he growled. Then he flopped down and turned onto his side, grabbing her and curling her body into him like a curved spoon. She fit into the bend of his body perfectly and his heat this time came from behind as he locked his arm over her shoulder, tucking her in tight against his rigid body. His voice was raspy and low. “Not another word. Now, get some sleep. And whatever you do, don’t tell a soul you laid with me like this.”

She nodded and closed her eyes. She was nestled in his body heat and felt safe in his arms. She wouldn’t have believed it possible, but she’d felt his heartbeats race under her palms just seconds ago. The beats matched the rhythm of her own hurried pulse and only one reason for that came to mind—she’d tempted Chance, as a woman, and nothing flamed her insides more than that realization.

* * *

Lizzie woke to heat, the sun’s rays searing through her body and soothing the aches that had settled in her bones last night. Sunshine was heaven, she thought as her eyes fluttered opened. And there was plenty of that this morning. She squinted and lifted her face upward, relishing the warmth. No clouds marred the blue skies, the storm had passed and if it weren’t for drying mud and dew moistening the prairie grass, she might not have guessed the night before had been cold, wet and dreadful.

Then she remembered how she’d spent the night, with Chance curled around her, selflessly keeping her warm and dry. He’d been kind again, in his own way, and there was no doubting that he’s saved her from freezing to death. He wasn’t under the blanket with her anymore. She’d sensed she was alone on their makeshift bedding even before she opened her eyes. Chance must have risen at dawn. Judging by the position of the sun now, it had to be well past time to move the herd.

She bent her body to an upright position and then gasped. She’d forgotten about the meager underclothes she wore. She tightened the blanket around her and peered out for some sign of Chance.

A fire blazed some yards away and her clothes were drying nearby. The horses looked like they’d weathered the storm just fine and thankfully the herd hadn’t been spooked last night. She’d only seen a stampede once before and if she lived a hundred years she prayed she’d never witness another.

When she spotted Chance approaching, coming from beyond a thin cropping of trees off in the distance, her heart skipped. She rose quickly and with the blanket secured around her body, she walked past the fire and picked up her trousers and blouse. They were stiff and none too clean, but they were almost dry.

“Hurry up and get dressed,” Chance barked as he came up behind her. “We’re behind schedule.”

“You should’ve woken me,” she replied, hurt by his brash tone. Here she was about to thank him for last night and for letting her get extra sleep this morning.

“Clothes needed drying, anyway. But we should shove off, soon as you get something to eat.”

“Fine.” She gathered her clothes to her chest and began walking toward the trees.

“Where are you going?”

She stopped midstep and turned. “To get dressed.”

“For Pete’s sake, Lizzie. Just get dressed here, by the fire.”

“But I, you…”

“You’ve wasted enough time.” He gestured at the blanket that held her modesty intact. “Isn’t as if I didn’t just see what you’ve got on under there.”

She tilted her chin and argued the point. “You didn’t see me. It was dark.”

“No, but I touched every part…hell, never mind.” His lips twisted into a scowl.

He was grouchy this morning and looked fit to be tied.

But he was right. He had touched her. And she’d touched him. Her cheeks burned and she was grateful he turned toward the herd at that moment and didn’t see her mortification. Mortified or not, she’d never forget how she felt last night safely secured in Chance’s arms, having his breath tickle her neck and his body surrounding her with warmth.

I could sleep that way every night.

“Well?” His gaze shifted impatiently to her.

“Nature’s calling and I can’t take care of that by the fire.” She’d had to contend with a good many things being alone with a man on a trail drive. One was that Chance demanded he know where she was at all times. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

He nodded and jammed his hat on his head. “Make it quick.”

Lizzie knew it was wrong, but he was just so bossy at times, that she slowed her steps just to vex him. She smiled when she heard him let out a deep exasperated sigh.

They got on the trail immediately after Lizzie had gulped down her coffee and chewed on the flour cakes Chance had whipped up on a small fry pan. The cakes filled her belly but she was sure her boots had more flavor, and she was happy to let Chance know his cooking skills weren’t up to snuff.

He barely looked at her, not even to defend himself against her accusation.

BOOK: A Cowboy Worth Claiming
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