Authors: Patricia Hagan
A Historical Western Romance
New York Times Bestselling Author
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Copyright © 1995, 2012 by Patricia Hagan. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
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Steve Maddox had the survival instincts of a wild animal.
Though exhausted when he had gone to bed, falling asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow, he was wide awake at the first faint sound of someone climbing up the ladder.
It was his first night in the room he had built for himself in a corner of the hayloft over the barn. He had not pulled the ladder up after him because he hadn't thought it would be necessary. Now, hearing the soft creak of the wooden rungs, he wished he had.
Slipping quietly out of bed, he pulled on his trousers, and with the swiftness of a striking rattler, his hand shot out in the darkness to grab his gun from the bedside table.
In the three years he had worked at Halcyon plantation he didn't think he had any enemies, but he was taking no chances, especially since it appeared whoever it was meant to surprise him.
As he waited tensely, he dared to wonder if it just might be Lisbeth, Ned Ralston's stepdaughter. She had returned a few months ago from a fancy finishing school in Paris and had made his life hell ever since. Spoiled, used to getting anything she wanted, she had decided on sight that she wanted
At first, he'd thought it was just harmless flirting, but she had become bolder. Then, one night when she caught him alone in Ned's study, she had thrown herself at him, flinging her arms around his neck and standing on tiptoe to rain kisses all over his face. He had come close to breaking her arm before she would let go of him, and the very next night he had made himself a room above the stable.
He'd felt he had no choice except to move out, although he knew it was a bad time with Ned so sick. Ned's wife had died several years earlier, and he was lonely with Lisbeth and her brother, Julius, away at school.
When he had made the excuse that he wanted to move to the barn to be closer to the horses, Ned had teased him about wanting to have privacy to entertain women from town.
Steve heard a soft grunt as someone stepped off the ladder and stumbled against the wall. Only a few people knew exactly where he had built his room in the loft. Obviously the person stumbling around out there was not one of them.
He thought about calling out but knew if it weren't Lisbeth, and whoever it was did have a gun, he might startle them into shooting and the horses below might panic. He didn't want to chance it.
He held his breath as the door opened.
He clicked the gun's hammer back, the deadly sound puncturing the tense silence.
"Oh, no. Don't shoot. It's me—Lisbeth."
"Lisbeth, damn it, I could have killed you!" He put his gun aside and struck a match to the bedside lantern to flood the room with mellow light.
Her blue eyes were wide with terror, and her face was as white as the dress she was wearing. "I... I didn't mean to frighten you," she stammered.
"You should know better than to sneak up on somebody in the dark like that. What the hell are you doing here?"
"I was worried about Belle—" she was momentarily taken aback by the sight of him bare-chested. "she... she isn't feeling well. I couldn't sleep, and I thought maybe if I came out here we could talk and you'd make me feel better about it."
"You could have talked to me about it earlier. There's nothing wrong with your mare that foaling won't cure."
The corners of her mouth dropped in petulance. "You've been avoiding me, and you know it."
"And with good reason." He fastened his belt. "Now let's get you back to the house before somebody finds out you're here. I'll help you down the ladder. It's a wonder you didn't break your neck."
With an exaggerated sigh, she plopped down on the bed. "I'm not going anywhere till we talk, Steve. I want to know why you don't like me."
"I like you," he said, running his fingers through his hair in agitation, "but that's as far as it goes... as far as it will ever go. I've told you over and over that I think of you as a little sister, nothing more."
"Just because Ned treats you like his son does not make you my brother. I never felt for Julius what I feel for you. That would be very naughty." She wrinkled her nose.
He held out his hand.
She ignored it. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Would you like for me to throw you over my shoulder and carry you out of here like a sack of feed? I'll do it, so help me."
"And I'll scream, and everyone will come running, and I'll say you dragged me out of my bed and brought me out here to rape me."
"I might. You can't be sure I won't." Her eyes danced mischievously. "Don't dare me."
She was right. He couldn't be sure she would not pull such a stunt. "Good grief, Lisbeth, what is it going to take to make you understand that I'm just not interested in you that way?"
"Don't you find me pretty?"
"Of course I do. But that doesn't mean I want to bed you."
"Because your loyalty to Ned keeps you from it. But you'd better wake up and realize which side your bread is buttered on. He's not going to live forever, you know. What will you do when he dies? Have you thought about that?"
He hadn't. He took one day at a time. "I got by before. I'll manage again."
"But don't you see? It doesn't have to be that way. I'll get married, of course, but I already know I'd be bored silly. Not one boy who calls on me excites me the way you do. So I'll have you"—she stood to tap his nose coquettishly with her finger—"for my