Authors: Elle James
Tags: #AmerFrntr/Western/Cowboy, #Romance Suspense
Knowing he wouldn’t get his gelding saddled in time to catch her, Pierce stopped in front of her. “Wait for me.”
“I’m just going out to the north pasture. The others are out there now, moving the cattle. I’ll be safe. You don’t have to come.”
“You’re a stubborn woman.”
“And you’re an equally stubborn man.” She swung up into her saddle and dug her heels into the mare’s sides, sending her speeding off across the prairie.
“Damned woman.” Pierce led the horse into the barn and threw a saddle on him.
He hoped he could find Roxanne quickly. On a spread the size of the Carmichael Ranch, that could take some doing. At least he knew what general direction she’d chosen.
Out in the barnyard, Ethan Mitchell was loading supplies onto a four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicle, tying them down with bungee cords.
“I thought you’d be helping the others rounding up cattle,” Pierce said.
Ethan ignored Pierce, climbing onto the ATV.
Pierce stood in front of the vehicle, determined to get to the bottom of Ethan’s bad attitude toward him. “Did I do something to piss you off?”
Ethan glared at him and revved the engine. “No time to sit around jawing—I’ve got work to do.” The ATV leaped forward, missing Pierce by inches.
Anger burst through Pierce’s veins, but he had more important matters to attend to. Pierce mounted his horse and rode out in the same direction as Roxanne, hoping she hadn’t altered course.
She had ridden off without anyone watching her back. If Pierce didn’t find her soon, there was no telling what might happen.
Roxanne headed out across the prairie, just as she had a thousand times before. Alone, without a bodyguard. But for the first time ever, she felt nervous and downright paranoid. Every noise, every shadow made her jump. Not until she caught up to the rest of her crew did she settle down.
She found three of her ranch hands working the herd, guiding them toward the pens closer to the ranch house. Once they had the entire herd in the pastures closer to the road, the animals would be corralled and loaded up to be transported to market.
The herd wasn’t as large as it had been earlier that summer.
She rode up to Abe, settling her horse into an easy walk beside his. “Where are the rest of them?”
“All we can guess is that they made their way down into the canyon. Won’t be easy getting them out.”
“Damn.” She needed all of the cattle brought in so that she could cull those that would go to market and those that would stay back for breeding stock for next year’s herd.
“We’ll have to move what we have into the holding pens today. Tomorrow we can work the canyon. It’ll take every one of us.”
Abe nodded. “Won’t be easy. Too many places they can hide.”
“W-w-what a-a-about th-th-the message in th-th-the b-b-barn?” Fred asked.
Roxanne pinched the bridge of her nose, willing her headache to go away. “We have to try. We won’t stick around long—just get the cattle and leave. And no one’s to go out there alone, is that understood?”
She hated the thought of putting her ranch hands in harm’s way, but the sale was too important to let any of the herd go unaccounted for. Especially with the bank denying her loan application. The money in the bank might reassure the powers to be that she could run a ranch, despite the troubles of late.
Troubles that were impossible to forget as long as Pierce Thunder Horse kept hanging around, she thought as she watched the Lakotan ride up. As least he seemed willing to work. Without Jim, they needed every set of hands they could get.
* * *
the others, locating strays and bringing them into the herd, moving the cattle to the pen.
Chasing after one particularly stubborn steer, Roxanne got separated from the others. After leading Roxanne on quite a chase, the animal was finally trotting off in the right direction to rejoin the herd when Roxanne realized just how far she was from the ranch hands and Pierce. If any danger popped up, she couldn’t just shout for help. They’d never hear.
She wondered how long it would take for Pierce to notice she was missing and come looking for her. Hopefully she’d get back before then. She was just turning her horse to return to the pen when a sound that didn’t belong to the badlands reached her ears.
A motor’s whine reached to her across the prairie.
Her mare danced in a circle.
A plume of dust rose from the dry earth as a dirt bike raced straight for her.
The biker maintained a direct path to collide with Roxanne and her horse, his speed insane, his body hunched low.
Cut off from her men, Roxanne raced the opposite direction of the dirt bike, hoping to make a wide circle and head back toward the ranch hands and safety.
She hadn’t loaded her rifle and scabbard onto her horse, thinking she’d be fine working among the men all day. Hell, she wasn’t used to bringing her rifle every time she went out to work the cattle. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The faster her horse ran, the faster the motorcycle came at her.
The mare wouldn’t last long at full speed. Roxanne had to do something before the cyclist came within range to shoot at her.
She topped a knoll and rode straight down into a copse of stubby trees. Swinging out of her saddle, she slapped her horse’s hindquarters, sending her off in another direction, while Roxanne dove into the underbrush.
Seconds later, the bike burst over the hilltop, going airborne for a moment, then slamming to the earth, roaring ahead after the disappearing horse.
Roxanne remained hidden until the sound of the motorcycle vanished into the distance. She hoped her horse would find its way back to where the others were, or back to the barn. Whichever, as long as the animal was safe from the man on the cycle.
After five minutes of silence passed, Roxanne rose from her hiding place and began the long trek back to where she’d left the men and the herd.
Halfway there, she spotted a lone horse and rider, galloping toward her. For a moment she considered ducking behind a tree or bush, but as she studied the way he sat straight and tall in the saddle, she knew it was Pierce.
When he reined his horse to a halt in front of her, his face was set in an angry scowl.
“You don’t have to say it. I know.” She stared up at him. “I shouldn’t have left without telling you.”
Without a word, he dropped down from his saddle and gathered her in his arms. She knew she should pull away, but after the near miss she’d had, she couldn’t resist the allure of being close to him, feeling safe again even if it only lasted for a little while.
“You scared the crap out of me, you know that?” he whispered against her ear.
“I scare myself sometimes.”
He leaned her away from him. “What happened?”
She tipped her head in the direction the attacker had gone. “The guy on the dirt bike came back.”
Pierce held her at arm’s length. “He didn’t shoot at you?”
“Not this time. I didn’t let him get close enough.”
“Where’s your horse?”
She chewed on her lip. “The barn, I hope. I ditched her and hid behind a bush. The guy on the bike chased her.”
Pierce’s lips curled into a smile. “I should be really angry with you.” He tugged her close again, hugging her.
“You have every right. I should have paid more attention to how far I’d gotten from the group.” She stared out across the rise, frowning. “I hope Sheba will be okay.”
“Come on, your men will be worried.” He mounted his horse and held out a hand for her.
She took it and, placing her toe on top of his, swung up behind the saddle.
They caught up with the hands as they neared the holding pen. No one questioned why she was riding double with Pierce and she didn’t offer an explanation.
She slipped off the back of the horse, dropped to the ground and ran for the gate, throwing it open. The herd streamed through and raced across the pen to the other side where a gaping hole led out onto the gravel road beyond.
“Damn it! Abe, Fred, get over there and head them off before they get too far,” Roxanne yelled above the sound of the cattle mooing.
Abe and Fred rode through the herd to the hole in the fence and dropped down out of their saddles, ducked beneath the top barbed wire and out onto the road.
Roxanne looked around. “Where the hell’s Ethan? I thought he was working the repairs on the fence.”
“Haven’t seen him since he went back for supplies.” Toby eased in behind the herd and worked his way across the pen to the hole in the fence, blocking other cattle from making their escape.
Pierce herded the stragglers into the pen and closed the gate. “Missing someone?”
“Ethan.” Roxanne shook her head. “Something’s gotta give.”
About that time an engine’s roar sounded behind them.
Pierce and Roxanne turned as Ethan zoomed across the prairie toward them.
When he pulled up beside Roxanne and Pierce, Roxanne bit down hard on her tongue to keep from yelling at the man. “Where have you been?”
“Had trouble with the ATV. It quit working out in the middle of nowhere and took me a while to fix it.”
“Seemed to be working fine when you raced out of the barnyard,” Pierce said, his eyes narrow.
“And it’s working now,” Roxanne added, crossed her arms over her chest.
“Well, it quit for a long time. Had to jimmy a few wires and fiddle with it to make it this far. You want these supplies or not?”
His antagonism triggered Roxanne’s own anger. “You could have been here faster walking. Now, get over there and help the men gather the cattle who made it through the hole you were supposed to mend.” She pointed to the broken fence.
Ethan swung his leg off the ATV and sauntered across to where the men were having a tough time getting the cattle back through the hole in the fence.
“I’ve a mind to fire him,” Roxanne muttered.
Pierce nodded but didn’t say a word.
While the men worked hard to retrieve all the cattle and mend the fence, Roxanne had Pierce take her back to the ranch house ahead of the others to prepare the evening meal. The men would be tired and hungry.
No words passed between them.
Roxanne cast a glance his way, noting the dark shadows beneath his eyes. He hadn’t gotten any more sleep than she had. Tonight had to be better. She couldn’t keep up this pace, especially with the grueling work of bringing in the strays from the canyon on the next day’s agenda.
When they arrived at the barn, her mare stood waiting patiently for someone to remove the saddle from her back.
“I’ll take care of the horses,” Pierce said. “I know you have other work to attend.”
She chewed on her bottom lip and sighed, too tired to argue. “Okay. But I don’t like being beholden to you.”
“You’re not. Consider it a favor to the horses.” His lips twisted into one of the crooked smiles that had always made her laugh.
Damn the man.
Roxanne hurried toward the house. Once inside, she slammed cabinet doors and pots and pans to relieve a little of the tension that spun up every time she was around Pierce.
She scrounged in the refrigerator, took stock of the contents of her freezer and almost cried. With barely enough staples to make a pot of stew for the men, her cupboards were frighteningly bare.
Doing the best she could, she threw the ingredients into a pot and had it ready by the time the men arrived, hungry and grumbling.
By the time they sat down to the table in the kitchen, it was dark outside. Roxanne had showered and was ready for a quick run into town, hoping to get there before the bank and the grocery store closed. A glance at the clock made her shoulders sag. Sadly, the bank would be closed. She wouldn’t have a chance at talking to the bank president as she’d threatened Mr. Palmer. But she still needed to get to the store. Hopefully, she had enough room on her credit card to buy supplies for the pantry.
While the men consumed the stew, Roxanne gathered her keys and wallet. “I’m headed to Medora for supplies. I’ll be back later.”
“We’re all out of sweet feed for the horses,” Abe said. “And we’re just about out of fuel for the ATVs, plus barbed wire and nails to shore up the pens and chute.”
The more items Abe added to her list, the heavier the weight of her finances grew. She could only hope Mr. Batson at the feed and supply store would let her use her credit card or add those items to her account. She barely had cash to pay for the groceries she needed to feed her employees. She didn’t even want to think about how she was going to pay their salaries.
Pierce blocked her at the door. “Wait until morning. The feed store will be closed.”
“But I need to be out bringing in the stragglers from the canyon tomorrow.”
“You’re tired.” He took the keys from her hands and turned her around. “Go to bed.”
She wanted to, but there was so much riding on her. “I can’t.”
“Yes. You can.”
He walked her back into the house and down the long hall to her bedroom. “Go to sleep. I’ll clean up the kitchen.”
For once, she didn’t argue, too tired from all the hard work of the roundup, not to mention being chased by the bike and all the worry from her responsibilities closing in on her. Roxanne changed into a soft jersey T-shirt and crawled into her freshly laundered bed. The lingering stench of smoke was not enough to keep her from falling straight to sleep.
* * *
up early, ready to hit the road to town so that she could get back before most of the day was wasted. Pierce was nowhere to be seen. The couch didn’t even look slept on.
Roxanne stepped out of the house and strode toward the barn to perform a flyby inventory of feed before heading to town.
As she emerged from the barn, Pierce joined her.
She stopped and faced him, guilt for taking up all of his time eating at her. “I don’t need you to babysit me all the way to town.”
“I don’t consider myself a babysitter.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “I like to think of myself as more of a bodyguard.”
“Well, nothing’s gonna happen today, and I’m only going to town. I seriously doubt anyone will try to harm me on my way in and back.”
“I came out to tell you the hospital just rang. Jim is being released and needs a ride home.”
Roxanne sighed, glad her foreman was well enough to come home but regretting the amount of time it would take to drive to Bismarck and back. “I’ll have Abe get the supplies while I go pick up Jim.” She started for the house, but Pierce’s hand caught her arm.
“I have some things I want to check at the bureau in Bismarck. Let me get Jim.”
Her brows narrowed. “You don’t mind?”
“Jim’s a good man. I don’t mind in the least.”
Roxanne stared harder at him. What was the catch? “You trust me to go all the way to Medora and back by myself?”
A truck pulled into the barnyard and stopped next to Pierce. Dante smiled and waved, then shifted into Park.
Pierce leaned close to Roxanne. “It’s not you that I don’t trust. It’s the bastard who’s trying to hurt you.” He opened the driver’s door for his brother. “My brother has graciously volunteered to take you to Medora for the supplies you need, haven’t you, Dante?”
Dante’s smile curved downward, his brows dipping. “I have? Mom sent me out to check on you two. She’s been worried.”
“And I have to make a run to Bismarck to pick up Jim from the hospital.” Pierce clapped his brother on the back. “Perfect timing on Mom’s part, wouldn’t you say?”