“Please, Jake, stay. There are two bedrooms. We can each have one. But don’t leave me in the cabin alone.”
He looked down into her big brown eyes and felt like he had that time ten years ago when she had come upon him back behind the hay mound after dinner on a soft summer evening. She had looked up at him just that same way, with the same tempting curve to that full lower lip, that same blush to her cheeks, the same smattering of freckles across her nose. Now that she stood so close, he could see it all, how little she had changed. Only a wrinkle or two near the corner of her mouth and at the edge of her eyes, like laugh lines. If he touched her there, with his fingers, no, with his mouth, he could smooth them away, and she would be just the same. He wanted to kiss her just as much as he had on that day, the day that had started him on this path to the Double B, the one that would take him away from the Double B in the end if he just didn’t get distracted. And here she was, a major distraction from his life’s plans.
Or was she? Didn’t she just say Bernard Billingsly was dead?
Didn’t that mean the English lord no longer owned the Double B?
And didn’t that also mean that Rebecca McCloud Billingsly was free?
God damn. Everything that Jake Hunter had been working for during the last ten years suddenly changed. Everything he wanted ten years ago suddenly came within his grasp. All he had to do was reach out and grab it. Or rather, her.
Everything that Jake Hunter had been working for during the last ten years suddenly changed. Everything he wanted ten years ago suddenly came within his grasp. All he had to do was reach out and grab it.
Or rather, her.
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June 1885, The Windy M Ranch,
Rancher Rex McCloud frowned at his seventeen-year old daughter, Rebecca. “I’ve told you before, young lady. I will not have my daughters wandering around the ranch buildings without proper chaperones. You defy me one more time, and girl or not, I’ll take a switch to your bare bottom, even if you are supposed to be a lady.”
Rebecca turned bright red with mortification that her father would say such a thing, right in front of her sister and younger cousin who had come out from
Before Rebecca could voice her objection, Tilly spoke up.
“I’ll keep a closer eye on her, Sir, that I promise.”
“You do that, or I’ll be giving you your walking papers,” Rex threatened.
Rebecca and her sister Suzanne gasped. Papa couldn’t do that! He couldn’t fire Tilly. Why, she was family, some distant cousin of Mama’s, and she had been with them since they were both little girls. Since their mother had died ten years ago, she’d become more of a friend and mother than a governess or companion. Rebecca never could understand why her father insisted on treating the faithful family member as a mere servant.
An hour later, still fuming over her father’s harsh rules, Rebecca crept down the stairs. She knew Papa and Max often discussed the day’s business after dinner, usually out on the front porch. She heard their voices and tiptoed across the thick rug in the parlor to listen at the open window.
“Jake Hunter got that bay colt broke this afternoon. Did a good job on him,” she heard the foreman tell her Papa.
“Hunter? That the kid from the Double B? Cal Hunter’s boy?” There was an edge to Rex’s voice.
“Yeah,” Max agreed. “Came looking for a job a couple of years ago. He and his pa had a falling out. Jake’s a hard worker, and he sure knows horses. Breaks most of our colts and fillies these days. Broke that young stallion in four hours. I’ve never seen the like.”
Rebecca heard a reluctant harrumph from her father. She knew Rex didn’t give praise to young men, ever. The lack of criticism was the best a boy ever got. She suspected that was one of the reasons her brother, Nate, had left the ranch.
The men moved on to other ranch business, and Rebecca knew they’d be deep in their discussion for some time. She pulled the fabric of her dress away from her breasts. It was hot in the house, but she had no desire to go out on the front porch. She was still furious with her father.
Rebecca shot a quick look at the conservatory door. Maybe it was cooler in there. She dashed over and slid inside.
Nope, no better, just muggier and hotter, if anything. However, now that she was in the conservatory, she was also hidden from sight, and that much closer to her favorite escape door, the one on the east side of the house. It was near the hedge of lilacs, where it would be nothing to slip down to the barn and get another look at that bay colt, the one that handsome Jake Hunter had broken this afternoon. There wouldn’t be anyone down there this time of night, just as the sun was getting ready to set. The cowhands would all be up at the bunkhouse, and she could just go watch that colt and pretend she could watch that pretty cowboy, Jake, again.
My, he was nice looking, those broad shoulders and that small backside above sturdy thighs that filled out tight, denim pants. He seemed short next to Max, but then the ranch foreman stood over six feet tall. He was maybe five-feet-ten, and Rebecca guessed he might weigh around a hundred and seventy, all of it lean muscle. Because he wore a cowboy hat in the blazing afternoon sun, she saw only a glimpse of his face. That was when he pulled off his hat to wipe the sweat out of his eyes with the sleeve of his light blue shirt. She had almost groaned with the desire to when she caught sight his features, but at fifty feet away, she couldn’t see much detail. She caught only an impression of longish, light brown hair, turned almost blond in the summer sun, but they appeared very regular, with no flaws. Rebecca wanted to scream with frustration when he failed to look in her direction.
After wiping the perspiration from his eyes, he combed his hair straight back with his fingers, and then pushed his hat back down onto his forehead again. She had caught a glimpse of light colored eyes, but now they were cast in the shadow of his hat, and she would not be able to see either their shape or their color unless he stood right next to her. As she wended her way to the barn, keeping to the shade of bushes and outbuildings, she tried to imagine what those regular features might really look like. Surely they must be distinctive in some way.
This time when Rebecca rounded the corner of the barn, she skirted over to a big mound of hay she had seen on around the far side of the corral. It would hide her from any of the buildings, barn, house, stable, or other work sheds that could be seen near the corral. At the same time, she’d be able to look at the horses in the corral and watch the sun set behind the mountains.
The whole daring episode gave her goose bumps. She was deliberately defying Papa by going off without a chaperone. But he couldn’t make everyone around him do everything he wanted, and she wanted to show him that. She was infernally tired of him directing every minute of her life, and treating her as if she had no sense. She might even tell him she’d done it, just to make him mad. She’d be glad to take the whipping, too, knowing she deserved it. She shivered again at the thought, and grinned wide.
She was still grinning, hugging herself when she came around the side of the haystack and ran smack dab into one of the cowboys. It felt like she’d hit a brick wall, he was so hard. She bounced off him like a rubber ball, and she would have fallen on her bottom if he hadn’t reached out and grabbed her by the upper arms.
“Whoa, there, little filly,” he drawled, in that deep, rich, masculine tone that had soothed a skittish bay colt this afternoon.
She recognized the tone of his voice before she saw his face under the shadow of his hat. Rebecca had expected his flawless features, having already imagined them a hundred different ways. What she had not expected was their striking beauty, such great symmetry, such perfection of size, shape and proportion that this man could only be called pretty.
“I…I’m sorry,” she managed to stammer, when she found her tongue. Grayish green. His eyes were a green shade of gray, fringed with lashes the envy of any woman. But instead of making him appear feminine, they only accentuated his masculinity.
“Hunter, Miss,” he smiled. Oh, what a beautiful smile. “Name’s Jake Hunter.” He had a Texan drawl. That explained Papa’s harrumph. He hated Southerners of any kind. If he’d heard Jake Hunter speak, he’d probably taken an instant dislike to him.
Rebecca struggled to catch her breath. She licked her lips, having suddenly found her mouth dry as she felt the warmth of his hands on her arms.
“Um, Rebecca McCloud.”
Jake took off his hat and tipped his head. “Pleased to meet you, Miss McCloud.”
Rebecca felt the heat rise to her cheeks. What Papa thought of a man didn’t mean a thing to Rebecca McCloud. Up close, she realized he was older than she’d expected, a full-grown man, not the boy his shorter stature had made her think of him. He had the first traces of laugh lines, at the corners of his eyes and mouth, and a depth of knowledge in his eyes that boys her age lacked. She let her eyes follow out the breadth of his shoulders again and realized no youth would have developed that sort of musculature, not even one who worked hard on a ranch.
He must have seen where her eyes moved, for he broke into that infectious smile again.
“Did you come down here looking for me?” he asked, a sparkle showing in his eyes.
Rebecca knew she blushed furiously. She wanted to cover her cheeks with her hands, but she realized that would only draw attention to her embarrassment, so she pretended it hadn’t happened.
“Of course not,” she countered, as she turned away from him and pretended to look at the sunset. “I got into enough trouble as it was for watching you break that colt this afternoon.”
“So, why are you here?”
“I wanted to see the horse again and watch the sunset,” she answered, truthfully.
“Well, in that case…” Before she could stop him, he ducked through the railings of the fence and walked over to where a hackamore still hung on one of the posts. Taking it up in his left hand, he sauntered over to the group of horses, chuckling softly to them and holding out a carrot. In less than five minutes, he’d slipped the hackamore over the head of the young bay. He led it back to her like a docile puppy.
“That’s wonderful,” she exclaimed, keeping her voice soft, for all of its enthusiasm when he brought the colt to her.
“He’s actually fairly gentle,” Jake pointed out. “Just a big push-over. I discovered his fondness for carrots a couple of weeks ago and have been making friends ever since.”
Rebecca remembered how Jake had lured the colt to him with a carrot that afternoon.
“I think the fight he put up this afternoon was just for show, for the sake of pride,” he continued. “The other colts and fillies were watching, you see, and he had to act like he didn’t care to put up with me.”
“You really broke him in just one afternoon?” Rebecca asked.
Jake shrugged, not really answering the question. Instead, without so much as a running start, he threw a leg over the colt’s back and pulled himself up. That alone impressed her. Sitting calmly on the back of the wild stallion… well, okay, bucking maniac of that afternoon, impressed her even more. The bronco had pitched Jake off his back in about half a dozen crazy leaps in the air, and Rebecca had thought he’d barely escaped four or five broken bones.
Then Jake surprised her even more. He tapped the colt with the heels of his boots and urged it over to her. The colt calmly walked over and stopped at the fence where she stood. Jake reached his hand over in open invitation.
“Climb aboard. He won’t mind a bit.”
“You’re joking.” She laughed.
“Nope. Never joke about horses. This one is perfectly safe.” The twinkle had come back to his gray-green eyes. The sun had almost set and she saw miniature globes of blazing fire reflected, instead of pupils.
Rebecca couldn’t resist the temptation. She climbed to the top railing. Careful not to flounce her skirt and petticoats and thereby spook the colt, she stepped over it, and then climbed down two rails.
“That’s enough,” he stopped her. He brought the colt over to the fence, using only the hackamore. Then, with one hand on her waist, he gently guided her down into the space he’d left in front of him.
“Yes, just sit sideways. I’ll hold on to you,” he promised, doing just that. He wrapped his left arm tightly around her waist and braced her back with his right arm, while he guided the colt at the same time. She realized he must have already been teaching the horse some knee signals.
“This is amazing,” she whispered, when he’d taken them around the corral once without an incident. Jake immediately broke the pattern and started the colt into a figure-eight. The change of direction startled Rebecca and she clutched at his ribcage. He chuckled, softly. A thrill, more exciting than riding the horse that had bucked Jake Hunter off that afternoon, sped through her body, doubling Rebecca’s heartbeat, as she felt the vibrations from his laughter through the cloth of his shirt.
Suddenly, Rebecca became intensely aware of Jake Hunter, forgetting about the horse altogether. She turned and looked directly into his eyes, seeing the flare of the sun reflected in them. She wanted this moment to last forever, never stop, the two of them sitting on the horse, in the light of the setting sun, for the next fifty years, staring into one another’s eyes.
Then the colt, sensing their mutual inattention, took a little crow’s hop. Jake tightened his grip on both the horse and the girl. His chuckle became a laugh.
“I guess he’s tired of all this riding,” Jake said, as he turned the colt back to the fence. There he lowered Rebecca to the ground, before slipping off next to her. He pulled the hackamore off the colt with one smooth motion and sent the horse back to the rest of the herd with a slap on the rump. Before Rebecca could catch her breath, he had slithered between the rails of the fence and held his hand out so he could help her do the same.
Once through the fence, Jake didn’t let go of her hand, but pulled her back to the haystack, glancing up to the main house as he did so. There was no telling if Max and her father had seen them in the corral. Chances were they hadn’t, as most of the corral was hidden by the barn, and Rebecca thought Jake had kept them close in to the barn.
Still she knew she should be getting back and not press her luck any farther. She turned to him to thank him and say her goodbyes.
Instead she caught the look that had started in his eyes when the colt had hopped beneath them. It made her think of a very hungry man she’d seen once, a beggar, when she’d been out shopping with some of her friends in Boston, and had passed him with a roll of bread in her hands. He’d looked at the roll with that same sort of yearning. He asked if she was going to eat it. She’d almost said yes, but the desire for it was so plain on his face that she’d simply given it to him without another word. He hadn’t embarrassed her with effusive thanks, but had tipped his hat and muttered his gratitude. Again, the look in his eyes had told her everything she needed to know.
That same sort of intense desire filled Jake Hunter’s deep set eyes, but she knew he didn’t hunger for bread. He dropped her hand, took hold of her waist and pulled her close. He angled his face and lowered his lips until they touched hers, gently, tentatively at first, testing her to see if she resisted him. She didn’t. So beguiling had she found this man, she would have given him anything he wanted. A kiss? Oh, yes. It was exactly what she wanted from him.
Rebecca reached up to his chest and rested one hand against the hard muscle, astounded how much different it felt than the muscles in her body. With the other hand, she reached around the back of his head to pull him down closer to her. A short man? Oh, no. Maybe shorter than her very tall father and Max, but in his cowboy boots, still half a head taller than she was, plenty of man for any young woman.
She almost pulled away from him when he opened his mouth wider and pushed his tongue between her lips, deepening the kiss. She hadn’t expected that. But she found she liked it, the increased intimacy. She could taste the tangy herbs from the stew he’d eaten for supper, and the smoothness of Betty’s good honey butter. She wanted more of the taste of him, more of the feel of him, the hardness of his chest pressing against her breasts, his sturdy thighs against hers, his strong arms on her sides, and mostly, that sensuous mouth playing with her lips and tongue.
He pulled back abruptly, letting go of her with obvious reluctance. The hunger hadn’t left his eyes, but a wariness had joined it.
“Miss McCloud, I most sincerely beg your pardon,” he said, backing away. “I know your papa wouldn’t approve of what I just did.” He peered around the haystack towards the big house. “I’m thinking you ought to be getting back, or they’ll be coming out looking for you and find me instead.”
With that, he tipped his hat at her, winked rakishly, turned on his heel and headed off in the opposite direction, away from the house.