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Authors: Victoria Bylin

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BOOK: The Bounty Hunter's Bride
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Clay tasted venom. “I said
shut up.

When Andy hooted again, Goose chuckled with him. “Face it, boss. That horse is a cut
below
a mule.”

Clay pulled up next to his partners. Goose’s mustang had sure feet. Andy’s pony could outsprint anything with legs. Ricochet could have bested them both. Clay missed her so much he felt the press of tears. No animal could replace her, but he needed a better mount than the gelding. The problem was finding one. He couldn’t go into Castle Rock and buy a horse. The last time Clay had gotten wind of Morgan, he’d been in Denver. The man was closing in.

Mounted on a nag, Clay wouldn’t have a chance if Morgan caught up to him. He and his partners had been headed south to the San Juan Mountains. That course still seemed wise. They needed to move as quick as they could. As soon they reached a town, Clay would buy a horse or steal one.

As he neared his partners, Clay saw Andy’s stupid grin and Goose’s mocking eyes. “Let’s get moving,” he said.

Goose rested his hands on the saddle horn. “Hold up, boss. Andy and I have a plan.”

“What?”

Goose’s lips thinned to a sneer. “The Rocking J’s twenty miles back.”

Clay had heard of the place, but he’d never seen it. The Rocking J, owned by John Baylor, raised the finest quarter horses in Colorado.

“What’s your point?” Clay asked, though he suspected he knew.

“I say we make a raid,” Goose answered.

Andy rested his hands on the saddle horn. “So do I.”

“Think about it,” Goose said. “We take as many horses as we can manage and head for the mountains. We get money in our pockets, and you get a decent horse.”

Clay saw the logic. If it weren’t for Morgan, he’d have been eager. Sticking around Douglas County didn’t appeal to him, but neither did getting caught on a swaybacked gelding.

He turned to Goose. “I’m listening. How’s the place laid out?”

“Open. Unprotected. The man has three daughters—”

“Whoo-hooo!” shouted Andy.

Clay wished he’d left the fool in Wyoming. “Shut up. We’re talking about horses, not women.”

“That’s right,” Goose said.

“How many head?” Clay asked.

“Twenty, maybe more.”

Clay liked the idea of making money and the lay of the land worked in their favor. The canyons twisted like gnarled fingers attached to a hand. A man could move south or hide, depending on his mood. Clay saw one drawback. “If we raid the Rocking J, Morgan’ll come after us for sure.”

“So what?” Goose said.

Clay stayed silent. Sometimes he felt compelled to draw Morgan out. He half hoped the man would catch up to him and end the misery. Other times, Clay felt so guilty for killing the man’s wife he wanted to die himself. He hadn’t meant to shoot Lucy, though he doubted God or Beau Morgan would believe him.

Andy read Clay’s frown for cowardice and made chicken sounds.

Clay slapped him with the back of his hand, cursing him for more than a fool. “You don’t know a blasted thing about me and Morgan.”

Goose squared his shoulders. “I know you’ve been playing stupid games. Why not stand and fight?”

Clay had asked himself that same question. At first he’d run because he wanted to live. Then he’d run because he was afraid to die. The guilt would hit anew and he’d do something foolish, like leave Morgan a note or a trinket that would inflame his rage. The nights were the hardest. In his dreams he saw Lucy Morgan wearing a bloody pink dress, picking wildflowers in an endless meadow of rich grass. She’d turn and stare into his eyes. “Give up,” she’d whisper. The dream would shift and he’d see his mother in her Sunday best, walking in the same meadow. He couldn’t see her face and didn’t want to. He felt sure she’d be weeping for what he’d become. Clay could barely live with himself these days. He didn’t dare share his thoughts with Goose and Andy. If he lost their respect he’d be a laughingstock.

The gelding shifted under Clay’s weight, reminding him of Ricochet lying dead in a patch of grass. Clay almost envied her the peace. No dreams. No guilt. Maybe Goose had a point. Maybe the time had come to stop running. If they raided a ranch, Morgan would get whiff of Clay’s trail and resume the chase. One way or another, the men would come face-to-face.

Clay looked hard at Goose. “Let’s do it.”

Andy did his coyote hoot.

Goose merely smiled. “If Morgan follows us, I promise you, he’ll die.”

Chapter Six

D
ani startled awake. She’d left the bedroom window open, so nothing stood between her and the shriek of an animal. Her stomach turned to acid when she thought of T.C.. A week had passed since they’d brought him home, and last night he’d been officially moved to the barn.

The shriek turned to silence. If the kitten had left the barn, he’d met his end. Dani had no illusions about saving him, but she had to know the facts before the girls woke up. She threw off the quilt and pushed to her feet. Fumbling in the dark, she grabbed her day dress from the hook on the door. When she’d arrived, the hook had held a shirt belonging to Patrick. She couldn’t bear the thought of the girls suffering another loss.

Please, Lord. Protect T.C.

Even as she thought the words, Dani felt a surge of anger. So far, God had been slow to answer her prayers. In spite of her best effort, Beau hadn’t changed his mind about sending the girls away. Every night Dani prayed for peace, but she mourned Patrick with every breath. The girls were just as raw. Esther sucked her thumb all the time. Ellie wouldn’t wear anything but her coveralls, and Emma worried about everything. If something happened to T.C., Dani feared they’d slide beyond her reach.

She stepped into the slippers she’d brought from home and hurried to the barn. Moonlight shone on her path, warning her of ruts and throwing her shadow a step ahead of her. The silence held an eerie stillness. Dani thought every day about Clay Johnson. Beau no longer sat on the porch at night, but she knew he was on guard. Unable to sleep herself, twice she’d looked out the bedroom window and seen him sitting in a chair outside the barn. He’d had a rifle at his side and a hard gleam in his eyes. God pity the man who crossed his path.

Dani glanced at the bunk room door but didn’t see Beau. Either he was asleep or he’d gone to investigate the shriek. Maybe he’d heard something else…Maybe Clay Johnson was lurking down the road. Or more likely, Dani thought, her imagination had taken flight. Telling herself to stay calm, she lifted the latch on the barn door, stepped inside and lit the lantern hanging on a post. It flared to life, revealing the hard eyes of a man just two feet away.

She shrieked, then burst out laughing. Beau had beaten her to the barn and had T.C. tucked against his chest. With his tousled hair and sleepy eyes, he looked boyish and relaxed. Dani’s heart rose to her throat again, and not because she was afraid. When T.C. yawned and rolled tight against Beau’s shirt, she felt as cozy as the kitten.

Startled by her peaceful thoughts, she looked at Beau’s face. The man had the audacity to grin at her.

“You scared me,” she said.

“I didn’t mean to.” He glanced at the door. “You must have heard that scream.”

“It sounded like a rabbit, but I couldn’t be sure.”

“Me, neither.”

Dani glanced at the kitten. The barn had been pitch-black when she’d entered. “How did you find him in the dark?”

“He found me.” Beau told about hearing an animal scream. Like Dani, he’d worried about the cat for the sake of the girls. “I came to take a look. When I opened the door, T.C. ran up to my leg.”

Beau absently stroked the cat. Dani’s heart warmed with hope. Until now, he’d avoided T.C. at all costs. He’d avoided her, too. How could she convince him she could run the farm if he wouldn’t speak to her? Dani saw an opportunity and decided to take it.

“I don’t know about you,” she said. “But I’m not going back to sleep. Would you like breakfast?”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

“Bring T.C. I bet he’s hungry, too.”

As Beau looked up from the kitten, Dani became aware of his eyes taking in her day dress, a blue calico she’d worn for years, and then her hair. She usually wore it in a braid coiled around her head. At night she let the braid fall down her back. Sleep had pulled the strands into wisps that framed her face. Self-conscious, she tucked a curl behind her ear. What did a woman say to a man in the middle of the night? She had no experience in such matters, but she knew what she wanted to say to Beau. She had plans for the farm and he needed to hear about them.

“Let’s go inside,” she said.

She paced across the yard with Beau in her wake. When they reached the porch, he passed her and opened the door. She led the way to the kitchen, lit the lamp and stove, then shook out the match. She turned and saw Beau sitting in a chair, angled so he could stretch his legs. He still had T.C. on his chest and was stroking the kitten with his large hand. Beau looked as relaxed as the cat.

Dani opened the icebox and filled a saucer from a pitcher. When she put it on the floor, the cat leaped off Beau and ran for the food.

As Beau straightened, Dani met his gaze. “I’ve got something to show you.”

“What?”

“I’ll be right back.”

She hurried to Patrick’s bedroom, her room now, and opened the desk drawer. She removed three drawings, walked back to the kitchen and handed them to Beau.

“Take a look.”

He held the first drawing a foot from his face, studying the lines as if they made no sense. “What is it?”

“It’s the silo I told you about.”

“For feed storage.”

“That’s right.”

He looked at it dead-on. “Why is it round?”

“It’s easier to clean.” Dani pulled eggs and ham out of the icebox. She heard the drawings rustle, glanced back and saw Beau spreading the papers on the table.

“Patrick must have liked the idea. He bought the wood.”

“I suppose.” She’d mentioned the idea in a letter and sent the drawings, describing how to dig a hole and build the structure over it. She and Patrick had never talked about it. Looking back, there were a lot of things he hadn’t said. Dani felt her throat tighten. She should have been cooking breakfast for her new husband.

Beau looked up. “How’d you come up with the plans?”

“My father built one of the first silos in Wisconsin.” She told him how successful it had been.

Beau stacked the papers. “It’s a good idea.”

“I have others.”

“Like what?”

Dani cut a slice of ham. Her future depended on convincing Beau she could run the farm, but she didn’t want to step on his toes. She kept her voice mild. “I already told you about the second cheese factory.”

“I recall.”

Dani cracked an egg into the pan. “We could sell twice as much milk, maybe three times.”

Beau frowned. “You’d need more cows.”

“Patrick kept the four heifers. Next year we’ll have more.”

“More cows mean more work.”


And
more profit.” She tried to sound confident, but her body tensed. She’d caught Beau’s skeptical tone. Needing time to think, she placed a ham steak in the fry pan, then spooned butter over Beau’s eggs. He liked them over-easy. He also liked toast with jam. She put four slices on a rack in the oven and set the butter crock on the table.

“Coffee’s ready,” she said brightly.

“I’ll pour my own.”

Beau lifted two cups from a shelf, took a hot pad from the drawer, then lifted the pot from the back of the stove. The hot pad in his hand had come from her trunk. She’d made it during her engagement to Virgil. Dani’s heart pounded. Going home to Wisconsin would mean years of loneliness. She had to convince Beau to let her adopt the girls.

As he filled the cups, she dished up their breakfast. She handed Beau his plate, then filled hers with half as much. They sat at the same time, staring at each other.

Dani folded her hands in her lap. “I’m serious, you know.”

“Miss Baxter—”

“Call me Dani.” As long as he considered her “Miss Baxter,” he’d see her as the woman who’d arrived in a fancy dress, not a woman accustomed to work. She could feel the wall between them and had to break it down.

Beau took a bite of ham, chewed to avoid speaking, then shook his head. “I just can’t see it.”

“Why not?”

He shook his head. “Running this place is hard work.”

“We have ten cows,” she said. “My brother has fifty.”

“And hired help, I’d guess.”

“Three men,” she countered. “I could run this place with one. Do you known Howie Dawes?”

Beau frowned. “I know Tom Dawes. He’s the sheriff.”

“Howie’s his son. Patrick hired him to help now and then. I could do the same.”

She watched as Beau slathered butter on a slice of toast. “Dairying’s not for the lazy, that’s for sure.”

“I love it,” Dani declared. “And I’m good at it.”

She felt all the hope she’d had with Patrick. She missed him, but her dream of a new life could still come true. She just had to convince Beau she could do the job. But how? She could talk all day, but he needed to see her in action to believe. Nibbling her breakfast, she flashed back to mornings in Wisconsin, teasing her brother and racing him to the barn. He hadn’t been able to resist a dare. If Beau had the same taste for a challenge, Dani had her answer. She set her napkin on the table. “I have an offer for you.”

“What?”

“We have a contest for the farm.”

His eyes twinkled. “You want to arm wrestle?”

“No. You’d win.” She’d seen him haul fifty-pound sacks as if they held feathers. “I was thinking of something else.”

He set his napkin on the table and sat back in the chair. He hadn’t agreed but she’d earned his attention. “What do you have in mind?”

“You milk half the cows and I do the other. We’ll see who gets the most milk the fastest.”

“What’s the prize?”

“If I win, you admit I can run this place.”

“And if
I
win?”

She searched her mind for something that mattered, but he already had complete power over her future. She tried to sound brave. “I don’t have anything you want.”

He leaned back in his chair and looked at her with mirth in his eyes. “Yes, you do.”

Dani had no idea. “What is it?”

“Raspberry pie.”

She’d made one three days ago from Adie’s recipe. Beau had eaten a third of it and gone to the barn, but not before Dani saw a wistfulness in his eyes. If he wanted more raspberry pie, she’d be glad to bake one.

She smiled at him. “Just to make things clear…If I win the milking contest, you’ll admit I can run this place.”

“That’s right.

“And if you win, I make a raspberry pie?”

“Exactly.”

“It doesn’t seem fair.” She wanted the contest to matter.

“It’s not about pie,” Beau said. “If I win, I expect you to take the girls to Minnesota, then go home to Wisconsin. The pie’s just because I want one.”

Dani raised her chin. “You’re pretty confident.”

“Very.”

“So am I.”

He looked her in the eye. She saw no malice, only the twinkle she’d seen earlier. “It’s a deal.”

Dani stood to clear the table. Her stomach lurched. She
had
to win this competition. After a last swig of coffee, Beau carried his plate to the counter, bent to pet T.C., then winked at her. “Get ready, Miss Baxter. We square off at dawn.”

 

A half hour later, Beau had his backside planted on a milking stool and an empty bucket between his feet. Earlier, he and Dani had met at the pasture gate. Being a gentleman, he’d given her first pick of the cows. She’d looped a rope around the closest one, Buttercup, and led the animal to the barn where he’d cleaned a second spot for today’s milking.

Beau’s first cow, a stubborn thing named Sweetness, had run from him. She wasn’t cooperating any better in the barn.

“Come on, old woman,” he muttered.

Reminding himself to be gentle, he looped his thumb and index finger around the Jersey’s teat, curled the rest of his fingers and pulled. He’d been milking the cows for more than a week. The first time had been tedious, but he’d taken Emma’s advice and tried singing hymns while he worked. He wasn’t about to do that with Dani working next to him.

She, on the other hand, had no such reluctance. He’d already heard three choruses of “Shall We Gather By The River,” each verse accompanied by the hiss of milk hitting the bucket. They’d been working for five minutes, and she’d already emptied a pail into one of the metal cans by the door. Each one was numbered and waiting for Webb, the old man who picked up for the cheese factory.

Beau tugged again on the Jersey’s teat. It didn’t help his concentration to recall Dani hurrying across the yard with a determined look in her eyes. She’d put her hair up, but he’d recalled the tendrils loose around her face. She’d looked lovely, a fact that filled Beau with memories of Lucy and a deep regret for what he’d lost. After watching Dani with the girls and eating her cooking, having all the buttons on his shirts and his socks mended, he couldn’t help but like her. She had a good heart. If ever a female needed a family to love, it was Daniela Baxter.

He even liked her name. Dani-ay-la. It felt nice on his tongue, sweet like the pie. Dani suited her, too. He could imagine her as a tomboy shoveling hay from the loft, riding horses and daring her brother to best her at contests like this one.

BOOK: The Bounty Hunter's Bride
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