Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise (3 page)

BOOK: Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise
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His answer pleased her. She liked the idea of a man finishing what he'd begun. Except, she reminded herself firmly, in this case, it meant he would break horses and move on. That's the job he'd begun.

Not that she cared one way or the other.

You're not telling yourself the truth here, Sybil.

Oh, hush. Her inner voice could be so annoying at times.

Annoyingly right, maybe? Because you wish that he'd stay around.

I do not. How could I wish for anything so foolish? A dangerous man. A leaving man. I'm paying attention only because he saved my life and I want to write a good story.

You're hiding from the truth.

Sybil wasn't interested in whatever so-called truth that annoying inner voice meant.

Chapter Three

B
rand had almost forgotten about breaking his arm. But only because he hadn't seen Cyrus in a long time. Cyrus never missed a chance to remind him that he likely owed his life to his big brother, and as a result, his big brother deserved a few favors in return. Trouble was, Brand wasn't prepared to dish out the sort of favors Cyrus had in mind. A sour taste filled his mouth. Because of Cyrus and Pa, Brand could never hope for anything but a nomadic lifestyle.

“Have you ever been hurt riding a horse?” Sybil asked, her voice a melody of calm and sweetness...a marked contrast to his thoughts and the raw sounds he normally heard on a ranch. Her gaze riveted him like velvet nails, compelling him to answer.

“A few bumps and bruises. Nothing to take note of.”

Dawg wriggled closer to Sybil. Well, if that didn't beat all. Brand couldn't remember when the animal had shown the least sign of interest in another human being. Dawg could spot a sly fox a mile away. Brand could only assume he could equally well spot a sweet, innocent, woodland miss. Maybe this woman warranted further interest. It wasn't like he would be around long enough to put her in danger. He eyed the plate of food. It would have to wait until the ladies left. If he dug in now, they might see it as time to leave.

“I was about to have coffee. Care to join me?” He had only two cups, but he would drink from a tin can. He filled the cups and passed one to each of the ladies.

Sybil's blue eyes held his.

He couldn't remember how to fill his lungs.

Mercy leaned forward, her expression eager. “You must have seen most of North America.”

The question, posed as a comment, broke his momentary lapse and he settled back with his coffee. “Been around some.”

“Have you been to the Pacific Ocean?”

“Nope. Never had no mind to see it.”

She sighed. “I'd love to see it.”

Sybil made a scolding noise. “Mercy is restless. Always looking for the next big adventure.”

“Uh-huh.” He had little interest in the excitement-craving woman. He picked up a piece of kindling and kept his attention on the rough edges of the wood. “And what are you looking for?” He meant the question for Sybil.

It was only conversation. Words to pass the time. But he raised his eyes enough to watch her from under the protection of his lashes.

Her own eyes darkened to the color of the evening sky and her lips pressed together. A very telling gesture. She wanted something she couldn't have. A man, perhaps? But what foolish man would refuse such a woman anything, including his heart and love? Unless he had the kind of life Brand did. One that didn't allow him to give heart and love to anyone. Sometimes he wondered why God had made him a Duggan. Or more correctly, given him a pa and brother like the ones he had. Seems God could have arranged things just a little better.

“I'm quite happy with my life as it is,” she answered after a beat of silence.

She might think it true, but he didn't believe her.

Mercy made an exasperated sound. “Someday, Sybil Bannerman, you'll discover your life is far too safe.” She fixed Brand with a daring look. “Sybil lives a very careful life. Never takes risks. Obeys all the rules.”

He thought of how his pa and brother lived a lawless life. “Rules have their purpose.”

“Thank you.” Sybil favored him with a beaming smile. “That's what I'm always telling Mercy.”

“Okay. Okay.” Mercy tossed her hands in the air. “I agree to a point. But rules should not become chains. There are certain risks and adventures that don't follow rules. It's a crying shame to avoid them.”

Brand stared into the fire.

He was a risk. Miss Sybil would do well to avoid him and remember the safety of her rules.

“How much longer will you be here?” Sybil asked, and his heart took off like one of those stampeding horses.

He managed to slow it some. It wasn't as if she asked because she wanted him to stay, he told himself. She was only making polite conversation.

“I'll likely finish up tomorrow, then me and Dawg will move on.”

“I enjoyed watching you work today,” she said. Did he see admiration in her eyes? And why did it matter? He'd move on before she learned his true identity. Heaven forbid she'd learn it before he left and he'd see the shock and horror in her eyes. Best to change the subject.

“So how long have you ladies been in the country?”

Mercy nudged Sybil and answered his question. “A couple of months. Three of us ventured over. Jayne, the other girl, is Eddie's sister.”

“So you've come to visit western Canada? Then you'll go back to your English home?” Unless they had an eye to marriage out here and with the shortage of young women in the country, they wouldn't have any trouble fulfilling such plans.

“Yes,” Sybil said.

“No.” Mercy shook her head. “Sybil, why would you want to go back? You have nothing left back there.” She turned to Brand. “Her parents are dead. She has no other family.”

He wanted to stuff a handful of grass in Mercy's mouth at the way her words sent shock waves through her friend's blue eyes.

Sybil tipped up her chin. “It's my home and I have Cousin Celia.”

Mercy snorted and lifted a hand in what Brand took as exasperation. “You belong here as much as there. And here is a lot more fun.”

Sybil studied her friend, her blue eyes troubled. “Your parents are expecting you to return.”

Mercy shrugged. “I doubt they'll miss me.”

Sybil shook her head and turned back to Brand. “I'm sorry. We shouldn't argue in front of you. It's none of your concern.” Dawg had sidled closer still and she stroked his head in an absentminded way that made Brand wonder if she knew she did it.

Brand expected Dawg to object, growl, move away, slink back to Brand's side. Instead, the dog closed his eyes and looked as content as a baby in a cradle.

Brand realized his mouth had fallen open, and he forced it closed. But his surprise made him stare. Dawg never let anyone but Brand touch him. Not until this moment.

Sybil drained her cup. “Thank you for the coffee and the nice visit. Now we must be on our way.” She rose to her feet in a fluid movement that reminded Brand of a deer edging from the forest. “No doubt we'll see you again.”

The words were said lightheartedly, but Brand felt the promise and threat of them. Did she want to return and visit? Did she hope he'd extend an invitation? But Sybil didn't meet his eyes, so he couldn't judge her thoughts.

When Mercy scrambled to her feet, Sybil caught her arm and they hurried away.

Dawg whined as they disappeared into the trees.

Brand patted the dog's head. “Never seen you get all sappy about a girl before. Just remember, we aren't staying, so don't get too interested in her.”

Words Brand knew he should tattoo on his own brain.

He couldn't stay even if he was tempted. If Pa and Cyrus saw him with Sybil, they wouldn't hesitate to threaten her. Even if they didn't catch up to him, someone would surely remember the wanted poster they'd seen somewhere, and place him as a Duggan. And if she learned his name, she'd be shocked. She'd withdraw. And who could blame her? Might as well move on and save her the trouble of telling him to leave her alone.

People would judge a person as guilty by association.

He'd grown to accept that all he could hope for in this life was to stay ahead of the Duggan gang and avoid the hangman's noose.

* * *

Sybil's plans to go immediately to the corrals next morning were cut short when Linette said, “Can you show me how to finish the edges on the baby shawl?”

“Of course.” As soon as breakfast was over and the kitchen cleaned, they went to the big room overlooking the ranch.

An hour passed before Sybil could slip away. Mercy had disappeared to some unknown destination, so she was forced to go alone.

Not that she
was
alone. There were cowboys everywhere. Eddie had said they were adequate chaperones anywhere on the ranch.

When she'd first looked out the windows, only two cowboys had been watching Brand work, but now several more gathered round the pen, and another jogged over in a rolling, awkward gait that said riding a horse was more his style.

Sybil found a place along the fence next to a cowboy whose name she couldn't recall. “Is he as good as everyone says?”

“A couple of years ago, I worked on a ranch down in Montana.” The man barely glanced at Sybil as he talked, his attention fixed on the activities in the corral. “I heard stories about a dark, nameless man who could break the rankest animal to be found. I wondered at the time if it was a tall tale. One of those stories told around the campfire for entertainment. But I'm beginning to think the story held a lot of truth.”

A campfire legend. Sybil liked that and would certainly include it in her story.

Already she chose words to describe it to the readers.

A man with no name, but a reputation from which legends are born. A man whose strength of character made one instinctively trust him. Whose arms—

No. She would not say that his arms made one feel safe and secure. She wouldn't even let herself believe it. This man spelled danger to her fragile heart.

But he wasn't staying around, so she didn't have to be concerned. All she had to do was write the story.

She glanced about. Strange that all the hands seemed to have gathered at the corrals this morning. Or perhaps not. Brand would finish up before long and no doubt they all wanted one last glimpse of this legend.

“That's his last horse,” one of the men murmured.

“Or so he thinks,” replied another, with a soft chuckle accompanying his words.

Sybil's attention kicked into full alert. “What does that mean?” she asked the second man.

He gave a wicked grin. “We found another unbroken horse.”

Several of the men snickered and nudged each other.

Something about the way they acted warned her they were up to no good. Her nerves twitched with a mixture of anticipation and concern.

Brand rode the horse he was on to a standstill, then spent several minutes riding the animal around the pen, teaching it to obey the reins and the instructions signaled by the rider's legs.

“That does it.” He swung from the saddle and hung a rope over the nearest post. His eyes touched her, making her forget momentarily that they were surrounded by a horde of cowboys.

He shifted his gaze around the circle.

“Where can I find Eddie?” he asked.

Sybil glanced at the assembled crew. Odd that Eddie wasn't with them. Nor the foreman or any of the other cowboys she was familiar with.

Cal answered Brand. “Boss got called away to tend a bull.”

“When he returns, tell him he can find me at my campsite.” Brand headed for the gate.

“Hang on. There's one more horse to go.”

Sybil felt the tension radiating from the cowboys. It trickled up her spine, caused her to curl her fingers until the nails bit into her palm.

Brand stopped, studied the circle of cowboys. “There wasn't another this morning.”

Cal chortled. “We found this one 'specially for you.”

Only because she watched so carefully did Sybil see the way Brand's shoulders tensed and his breathing paused for a second. Then he emptied his lungs in a slow sigh.

“Special for me, you say? Let me guess. This horse is meaner than a twister, ain't never been rode, and has been known to bite, kick and generally let people know he don't intend to be.”

Cal's laugh seemed a little strained despite his obvious glee. “Let's see if you can live up to your reputation. Or are ya scared to get on this horse?”

Brand tipped his hat back and slowly shifted his gaze from cowboy to cowboy. Several of them squirmed.

Then his gaze fell on her. His eyes—the color of warm chocolate—filled with resignation and a loneliness he would no doubt deny, but she felt it clear through to the bottom of her heart. “You don't have to do this,” she whispered.

Acknowledgment flickered through his eyes, though he couldn't have heard her. Something shifted in his demeanor. It was as if her inaudible words encouraged him, let him know that not everyone shared Cal's wish to see him tossed into the dust.

“Bring him on.” Brand jerked his hat down low, widened his stance and waited.

Three men pulled on ropes to drag in a black horse with white-rimmed eyes. The animal snorted and kicked.

Sybil held her breath.

Again, she whispered, “You don't have to do this.”

But Brand never noticed.

Every eye was on that wild stallion. Every man held his breath.

“Throw on a saddle if you can.” Brand's voice dared them to fail.

It took an additional two men to get a saddle blanket on the horse and then the saddle. One of them came away limping after a kick from the angry animal.

“Hold him while I get seated.” Brand spoke calmly, as if the only uncertainty was the ability of the struggling cowboys to do so.

Sybil's chest hurt from holding her breath as she watched him gingerly arrange himself in the saddle.

“Let him go.”

The cowboys released their ropes and raced away, throwing themselves over the fence, then scrambling around to watch the show.

Sybil could not tear her gaze from the big man on the horse. He sat poised and ready. At first the horse simply stood quivering, then it erupted into frenzied movement. It seemed to jerk every which way at the same time. She'd watched Brand buck out a number of horses over the past two days, but nothing like this. Hooves flying toward the sky. Back twisting two different directions at the same time. Head down. Snorting. Blowing. But Brand clung to the gyrating animal.

“He's good,” said the cowboy on Sybil's right.

“He ain't done yet,” Cal answered, disappointment in his tone.

BOOK: Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise
7.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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