The wind ripped through her hair and brought goosebumps to her arms as she rode faster and faster through the meadow. Her mind was a mess of anger and despair, but the more she rode, the clearer it became. Finally, stopping at her favorite clearing, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Good boy, Arion. I needed that,” she murmured as she leaned forward and stroked his silky neck.
Swinging her leg over the side she dismounted, only to have her skirt catch in the saddle. Wincing at the ripping sound as it tore, she hopped down and groaned as she inspected the damage.
Edna was going to murder her. Another dress that needed mending, and not just any dress. One of the slew of new dresses that her father had purchased for her. That should have been a warning sign. Her father never bought her dresses. It was always the wives of his friends who noticed that a hem was getting too short or the fabric too stretched. That he walked in one day with five new dresses should have been a sign that something horrible was about to happen.
If her father hadn’t taken her favorite pair of breeches, she wouldn’t have this problem. It was gratifying to know that she’d proven her point even if she knew that by proving her point, she was going to be in even more trouble.
“It’s hardly my fault that no one has come to court me,” she told her stallion as he dipped his head to drink from the small pond. The water rippled out and disturbed the insects that were dancing along the surface. “I’ve done everything that Edna told me to do. I wear all the pretty dresses she foists on me, and I dance when asked. I go on walks and horse rides to make myself presentable. It’s not my fault that men have fragile egos.”
Just yesterday, she’d urged Thomas Delaney into a horse race. They’d been friends as children but she’d stopped going into town as often, and he hadn’t been by the ranch in years to see her. She thought it would be a difficult race to win. He always boasted of his skills on horseback, but she’d won easily, and he’d spent the rest of the afternoon sulking. When he escorted her back to her father’s ranch, he’d blasted her father for raising a hoyden.
Now her father, who’d always seemed supportive of her, was angry with her, and she felt like her whole world was falling apart.
It was Thomas’s fault. The little weasel. She didn’t want to marry someone who couldn’t handle a little healthy competition anyway.
She didn’t want to marry at all. She didn’t understand why her father wouldn’t just let her stay and help out in the ranch like she’d been doing. Since she was old enough to be able to climb up on a horse, she’d been riding and working with them. Now she was expected to be a lady?
“How long do you suppose we can hide out here?” Willie asked the horse as she spread her hands in the air and ran her fingers over the tall grass of the plains. They were dry and tickled the palms of her hands, but their touch was far more familiar to her than the ridiculous ribbons that were braided in her hair.
Unfortunately for her, she couldn’t stay out here all evening. The sun was already dipping below the horizon, and her father had organized a dinner party that she would need to attend. Edna, the female companion and tutor that her father had hired for her, was trying to teach her how to be a proper hostess. Four weeks, and Willie had yet to understand why it made any difference which fork to use with which course. They lived on a ranch, not in a castle. Here you ate what you could when you could so you could work, and you used whichever silverware you could get your hands on.
What was worse was that her father was encouraging it!
Anger welled up inside her, but she didn’t let it spill over. Just because things were changing didn’t mean that she couldn’t adapt. Willie was good at adapting. When her mother died fifteen years ago, she took care of her father. She helped him rise from the bottom of the bottle and kept the ranch afloat until he got back on his feet again. When they found out that the ranch manager was trying to con them, she was the one who called him out and took care of things. When her father decided she needed to act more ladylike to find a husband, she’d endured Edna’s presence and did everything that the woman asked.
But this search for a husband was too overwhelming. Willie didn’t even know if she wanted to marry, but she was certain that if she did, she wanted it to be because she had what her parents had.
So far, she hadn’t met anyone worth the effort of loving.
As if he sensed her pain, Arion nudged his muzzle under her arm and whinnied softly. “I don’t want to go back,” she grumbled. He pushed at her again, and she sighed. “All right. I suppose it’s time to face the consequences. Do you think Edna’s face will turn purple this time?” Just the thought of it helped ease a little of her anger.
Hoisting her skirts up, she climbed awkwardly back in the saddle and tried to position her skirts back over her legs. During the ride back she didn’t urge Arion into a quick gallop, but meandered slowly back to put off the inevitable.
When Rossiter’s Ranch came into view, she slowed to a stop so she could admire it. Her heart warmed at the sight. It was the land on her mother’s side that began with her great grandfather. She was the last descendant. Her grandfather had despaired before he passed that her mother hadn’t given birth to a son.
Just thinking of her grandfather made her wrinkle her nose. He’d always brushed her aside when she claimed that she could take over the land. Now it looked like her father was going to do the same thing.
“Come on. Let’s get this over with.”
Urging Arion forward, she rode him to the stables. The other horses poked their heads out from their stalls to greet her in hopes that she had apples or carrots to give them, but there were no pockets in these ridiculous dresses.
“Sorry my sweets, not right now, but I’m sure I’ll be back tonight.”
After handing Arion over to Benny, the stable boy, so he could wipe the stallion off, she attempted to tuck her flyaway hair behind her ear and dust off her skirts. He didn’t quite turn his head fast enough to hide the smirk on his face, and she glared at him. Her preference for pants was no secret from the ranchers, and Benny was even her supplier as he was still young enough and short enough that she didn’t need to roll the pants up too much when she wore them. He always seemed to think it was a delight to see her skirts.
Maybe he thought it was a delight to watch her trying to take care of her fancy dresses. The dark blue fabric was good at hiding her transgressions, but the white lace trim was now dingy from her ride. Even if she did manage to fold her skirt to hide the tear, Edna and her father would know immediately that she’d been out riding again.
Steeling herself for the lecture, she walked back to the house. Edna was instructing the new housekeeper in the final decision for the table settings, and as soon as she zeroed in on Willie, her eyes narrowed and two red furious stains appeared on her cheeks.
As much as Willie wanted to despise Edna, the woman wasn’t a horrible monster. She had proper training at a school for girls and used to teach before she started tutoring privately. Widowed without children, she was compassionate and smart, but she was also impatient and demanding.
“Wilhelmina, what have you done!” she gasped as she strode forward and bent down to inspect the dress. Cringing at her full name, Willie stood still and let the older woman pick at her dress. “Your father just told you to cease all this racing foolishness, and that’s exactly what you did, wasn’t it? Is that a tear? You didn’t even have the decency to ride side saddle?”
Willie rolled her eyes. “Edna, no Texas lady worth her salt should be caught dead in a side saddle. That is no way to ride a horse,” she grumbled. “Let me just wash up. I’ll be presentable for dinner.”
“Wash up?” Edna shook her head. “Is that all you think is required of you? Willie, you are twenty-eight years old, and yet I’ve tutored twelve-year olds with more patience and manners than you. If this dinner doesn’t go well, then I don’t know what you father will do. He’ll never get you married!”
“What do you mean if this dinner doesn’t go well? I thought this was just a get together of friends and neighbors!”
“No, my dear. It is not. Your father has invited some of the unmarried ranchers to his table to talk business, and he wants you there in your prettiest dress. This evening is about you, and you look like you’ve been rolling in the hay with the horses all day! He’s presenting you as a lady, and you look like a ruffian! Now come on, we don’t have much time to fix this!”
A dinner with potential husbands? Willie was sick to her stomach and didn’t struggle when Edna grabbed her hand and marched her up the stairs to her room. It was one thing to be courted in private by men, but to be paraded in front of them like she was a horse at an auction?
“Edna, I don’t feel well,” she mumbled as the woman pushed her in front of a mirror.
“Oh, hush. You’re fine.” Reaching over the dresser, Edna opened a drawer and pulled out some pins. Helpless, Willie stood as the older woman jabbed the pins into her head in an attempt to tame her black windswept hair. She mumbled everything that Willie already knew. Her hair wasn’t glossy enough. It was too thick and course to pull off fashionable hairstyles, and it had a terrible and frizzy curl pattern.
A simple braid was sufficient, but these days it had to be pinned up and glossed up with this strange cream that Edna purchased. It took even longer to wash out, and Willie hated it.
After her hair was done, Edna pulled at the sash of her dress. “You can’t wear this. Please tell me that the green one is clean. It’ll bring out your eyes.”
“How many men are going to be there?” Willie asked quietly while Edna yanked the dress over her head.
“Six, and I believe that they’re your father’s last chances, so you must behave yourself. It’s important for him to see you settled, Willie.” Stepping back, she gentled her touch as she buttoned the dress and tugged on the sash to tie it. “Why are you so afraid of marriage, my dear?”
It wasn’t that she was afraid of marriage. It was just that she’d never thought about it. Until recently, her father had never asked her to marry, and men didn’t really look at her like that. She’d been happy here.
Comfortable. The idea of changing all of that terrified her. She could just imagine losing her whole identity when she married, and become someone always wearing aprons and slaving over a stove or a wash tub.
That wasn’t her. She wasn’t born to be contained within four walls. She wanted to be free.
Pressing her lips together, she glared at Edna in the mirror. “You’ve been widowed for years, and you never remarried. Why is that?”
The strict school house teacher expression fell away, and Edna met Willie’s gaze in the mirror. She wore a strange soft look, and her smile was almost pitying. “Because I don’t need to,” she said quietly. “My husband and I were not a love match, but we were fond of each other, and he took care of me upon his death. I have my independence, and my advice to you is to marry so you can find yours.”
Confused, Willie frowned. “Isn’t marrying the opposite of independence?”
“My dear, have you not been listening to any of our lessons? Negotiations and bargaining. You find out why they want to marry you, and you see if you can give it to them in exchange for what you want.
Marriage is a partnership. You must find a husband willing to compromise.”
“That’s not what marriage is supposed to be about,” Willie whispered. “I may not be the best lady, but I do believe in love, and I’d like to marry for love.”
“I’m sorry, darling, but I don’t think there’s enough time for that. Perhaps if you had started looking before now it may have been, but you must resign yourself to your fate. Love is not meant for you. It’s not meant for many.” She looked truly sorry, but before Willie could ask her what she meant, there was a knock at the door and her father bellowed from below. “Willie, are you ready, child?”
Edna gripped her hands tightly. “This is important to your father, and I know you care for him. Remember our lessons, and do your best.”
She practically pushed Willie down the stairs, and Willie grabbed the bannister to right herself. Her father, Ezra, stood below and smiled. “You look beautiful, child.”
A tall and lanky man, Ezra Rossiter had always been her hero, and he doted on her even if he didn’t approve of the things that she did. He was always quick to forgive her and never failed to make her feel better until he began obsessing about his need to see her married.
Willie wanted to plead with him now. Was there some reason that he was so eager to kick her out of the door? Where was the man who slapped her on the back and declared himself proud of her when she skinned her knee? Where was the man who’d held her tightly in a hug when he first discovered that she’d stolen away on a horse to ride outside the fence?
He looked like her father, but there was something different. Something wrong.
“Thank you, Daddy.” She held back the tears and forced a smile. “I’ll get the door.”
On the bottom step, she leaned over to give him a kiss on the cheek. He lifted her chin and studied her. “I’ve invited the best here tonight for you, my dear. I hope that one of them pleases you.”
Pleased her? This was hardly how she wanted to find a husband, but she just nodded and ran her nervous hands over her skirts before she opened the door. Four men had gathered on the porch, and they looked surprised to see her. If they were thinking that this was a men’s only dinner, they would be sorely disappointed.
“Miss Rossiter,” one of them bowed their heads. “You look lovely this evening. Are you joining us for dinner?”
“Yes,” Ezra boomed behind them. “She is. Come on in, fellows. I know most of you have met my Willie, but you may not remember. Willie, this is Tobias Hartley, David Smithers, Derrick Moorfield, and Robert McKenna. Come in. Jackson and Gordon should be here soon. Let me get you gentlemen a drink.”
Bowing her head, Willie studied the floor while the men gathered in the living room. As their boisterous voices filtered through the door, she tinkered with the silverware and paced. Now they were smudged instead of polished and clean, but she barely noticed. Instead, she picked up one of the water glasses. Her hands were shaking so badly that it nearly slipped right out of her grasp.
Taking a deep breath, she tried to settle her nerves. She really did want to make her father proud. It made her feel ill all the time that they were at odds with each other. If that meant sitting quietly through dinner and trying to get to know the men better, then that’s what she would do.
By the time dinner was ready the other two men had joined them, and they all sat around the table. Conversation was mostly about business, and while Willie was dying to chime in with her thoughts, she kept them to herself.
As far as looks and circumstances went, she couldn’t object to the men at the table. Gordon and Moorfield were both widowed, and the other four men had never been married. None of them were more than ten years older than her and they all ran successful ranches, although Hartley was the only one who lived in town. When Willie started sticking her nose in the family business, she learned as much as she could about the competition.
Of the six men, Hartley was the most handsome. With auburn hair and blue eyes, he had a square chiseled face and broad shoulders. He was also the one who paid the most attention to her. She liked the way he smiled, although she wasn’t sure that she approved of his business practices.
It was an area of conversation that she wasn’t allowed to chime in and voice her opinion on. In fact, most of dinner felt that way. She felt like an idiot just sitting mutely.
“Miss Rossiter, what do you think of the new dressmaker in town?” Hartley asked her.
The new dressmaker? What the devil was he talking about? She didn’t even know there was an old dressmaker let alone a new one. Her father looked at her expectantly, so she reached for her glass to buy her some time so she could formulate an answer. Unfortunately, with her abrupt move, she accidentally knocked the glass over and spilled water on the table.
With a panicked gasp, she shot her chair back to stand. “Oh, I am so sorry!” Liquid poured all over Smithers, and as she reached for a napkin to help him, she knocked over his plate. In horror, she watched as the mashed potatoes and gravy smacked him in the chest and the plate shattered on the floor.
“Sorry!” she squeaked! “I am so sorry!”
Ezra stared at her. She’d never been so clumsy before. He probably thought she was doing it on purpose.
“It’s fine,” Smithers growled. “I was done anyway.”
Yanking the napkin from her hands, he cleaned himself up and stood. “Rossiter, I don’t suppose you’ve got some cigars do you? I could use some fresh air outside.”
“Of course.” Ezra shot her a quelling look before he stood. “Men, I’ve got a new stock of cattle. Let’s go have a look.”
Meekly, Willie pressed against the wall as the men filed out. She supposed she didn’t have to worry about anything now. None of them would want to marry her.
It was just as well, except that her father was once again disappointed in her.
Delilah and Mitchell stared at Boyd over the breakfast table as he slowly moved the overly cooked eggs around on his plate. The toast was burnt. The bacon was underdone. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a worse breakfast, but it was Delilah’s breakfast, so he would eat it as he tried to close the bridge between them.
The breakfast table had seen better days. When he’d first left, it had been a new table. Polish dark oak that shimmered in the sunlight that poured through the ivory lace of the large window – but now the sunlight just showed nicks and dark grooves. Had their father plunged the knife in the table, perhaps over the newspaper, when it looked like a bet he’d made had gone poorly?
The walls weren’t in much better shape. The old floral wallpaper that their mother had loved so much, the latest fashionable print, had faded in the sun and yellowed with tobacco. It was even starting to peel in the corners, but the floors were scrubbed and swept. It was clear that Delilah was doing the best that she could, although cooking didn’t seem to be one of her acquired skills.
Staring at the two of them now, the brother that he’d been so close to and the sister that he’d protected fiercely, was like looking at strangers in a house that had never been his. When did Delilah take to studying her hands rather than looking at him squarely in the eye and arguing with him fiercely? When did Mitchell take to brooding rather than joking and softly poking fun at him?
“I don’t want you to worry,” he said quietly after he cleared his throat during the uncomfortable silence. “We have the ranch back, and we’ll make it work again. I promise.” This was supposed to a celebratory breakfast. They were supposed to cheer and toast to their future, but they were all bleak.
“A ranch with two heifers and three horses,” Mitchell said wryly. Looking at Mitchell was like looking in a mirror for Boyd. They both had gold spun hair, although Boyd’s had lightened a shade or two more from the sun, and the same flashing green eyes. Boyd was broader and more muscular from the ranch work, while Mitchell was a little softer and paler from being indoors and attending all his lectures.
His hands were blistered now and dirt was starting to cake under his nails. Boyd wasn’t directly responsible for his brother’s new path in life, but if he’d made some better choices in their youth, maybe they wouldn’t have ended up here.
“Hush, Mitchell.” Eyes still cast down, she fidgeted a little in her seat. Before Boyd had returned, it had been seven years since he’d seen his sister. Like her brothers she had golden locks that shimmered under the sun, but where they shared green eyes, she had their mother’s dark chocolate eyes that used to flash with laughter. Now he couldn’t even look into them long enough to see what was there. She’d lost the spirit of her childhood, and yesterday she’d lost the man she was to marry.
Today, she’d gotten up and cooked him breakfast.
He owed it to her to make this right. “It’s the truth, but I don’t need you to remind me. I got the ranch back, and I’ll stock it.” Schooling his features, he quickly shoveled the last of the eggs into his mouth. “I’ll be gone for most of the morning. Mitchell, if you’d resume the search for the bull, I’d appreciate it.” There was almost no hope of finding the bull. Although it was still listed in the inventory, Boyd had yet to lay eyes on it. No doubt it had wandered away through one of the many broken fence lines. It had been gone so long that they would probably never find it. Chances were good that it was now in someone else’s barn despite having the Ingram brand on its rear.
Mitchell grunted but nodded. His younger brother might be pissed, but he wasn’t a fool. He knew that they’d have nothing if they couldn’t find the bull. Boyd could only hope that one or both of the heifers were pregnant. Their father hadn’t been all that responsible about separating the bull and heifers.
“Delilah, if you’re feeling up for it, do you think you could work a little more on the house?”
“Of course.” She smiled. “Maybe I can find something valuable.”
It seemed that in the last few years of his life, their father had started a collection of absolute junk. Boyd had been appalled when he’d opened the bedroom door to find it filled with papers and trinkets and crates. It was even worse in the attic. According to Delilah he wouldn’t let her anywhere near his things, so she’d made sure that the living areas were clear. Maybe it was the gambling losses. Maybe it was the loss of his sons, but somewhere along the way, their father had developed some strange habits.
“Just be careful,” he warned. “Those stacks don’t look stable, and I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“I promise to watch myself.” She graced him with a small smile, and he felt some hope stirring in his chest. Maybe they would be able to get back to the point that they’d been at before he left. Get back to being a family.
Boyd pushed his chair back and stood, and Mitchell mimicked his actions. “Where are you going? If you want to talk business, you should have me by your side,” Mitchell asked.
He hesitated. He knew that his brother was brilliant at business and he’d be successful with a ranch, but he also knew that once Mitchell started a project, he wouldn’t stop until it was completed. If there was one thing that Boyd could do to make up for the problems he’d caused, it was to send Mitchell back to school so he could finish up his degree. He was a scholar, and that was difficult enough for the son of a rancher.
“Look for the bull,” he said quietly. “I’ll let you know if I think that big brain of yours is needed.”
His brother’s lips tightened in anger, but he didn’t argue. Delilah stood as well and cleared her throat. Looking between the two of them nervously, she rubbed her hands on the dingy skirts of her dress. “Boyd, will you be back in time for dinner?”
She nodded but didn’t look happy or upset. She just looked resigned. Finding Delilah’s fiancée and teaching him a lesson or two was at the top of Boyd’s list, but he didn’t know if it would make his sister smile easily again or not.
Bowing his head, he went out to take care of the horses. Apparently the ranch workers had been gone for years after it became clear that their father couldn’t pay them. So now he fed, groomed, and cleaned up after his own horse. It didn’t bother him. For years, he’d been working on ranches. This was in his blood.
Too bad it wasn’t his own blood, his own family, that he was thinking of when he’d walked away.
Pushing the memories away, he mounted his horse and headed off the ranch. There was one man in town who might help him. One man who had a brilliant reputation for business and a reputation for kindness. Ezra Rossiter. It wasn’t in Boyd’s nature to ask for help, but he needed investors if he was going to get the land back up and running again.
Then he could fix his messes. Once he had enough money, he’d send Mitchell back to school and provide a dowry for Delilah to find a man who would see her as a person and not as money.
Exhausted from the stress and sleeping poorly, Boyd slowed his stallion on the road and turned his head. Was the Rossiter ranch to the left or the right? He barely remembered Ezra Rossiter from when he did live here, but the man’s reputation as a business man and a rancher was renowned. He was also known for his generosity. If there was anyone who could offer his advice or an investment, it was Rossiter.
He just had to remember how to get there.
Taking his chances, he turned to head down the left path when suddenly, his horse reared up beneath him. With a shout, he grabbed the reins and steadied himself just as another horse burst forth from the crossroads and galloped past him. As he got his horse under control, he looked behind him just in time to see the boy on top of the horse.
Gritting his teeth, he turned his stallion and gave chase. If there was one thing that Boyd couldn’t let stand, it was a thief. This town was filled with hardworking men, and Boyd would not stand by while someone profited off their hard work by stealing things that didn’t belong to them.
For a young boy, he was an expert rider with excellent control of the horse, and Boyd wondered for a moment if the kid would outride him but the boy took a sharp left into the meadow and slowed the horse down. Wondering about his plan, Boyd slowed as well at a distance and watched. The rider dismounted and led the gorgeous chestnut painted horse to a small pond while he sat in the tall grass next to it.
Keeping his distance, Boyd slowed and observed. The boy wasn’t exactly acting like a thief, and he seemed completely unaware that Boyd had even followed him. Hopping down from his own saddle, he approached the boy slowly. “If you were planning on getting away with the Rossiter horse, you should have ridden farther,” he mused.
The boy shot up and widened his eyes.
No, not his eyes.
Sucking in his breath, Boyd realized his mistake. Despite the pants, it was obvious that the boy was a woman. Her waist was too slender and her hips too wide, not to mention the long black hair that was falling out beneath the cap.
And those gorgeous hazel eyes fringed in dark eyelashes.
“That is a dangerous charge,” she challenged with angry flashing eyes as she crossed her arms fiercely. “I am not a horse thief. Arion belongs to…the Rossiter ranch. I’m simply exercising him.”
It was the hitch in her voice that made him narrow his eyes. She was lying. “Now that you’ve exercised him, I’ll escort you back to the Rossiter ranch so you can return him.” He would even consider not reporting the woman although he wasn’t sure why he was feeling amiable toward her. He’d see his fair share of female thieves, so he wasn’t usually likely to give them any more leeway that he would a man.
Protectively, she reached out to touch the horse’s flank. “Arion needs to cool off before we go back, and I rode him out here to be alone, so if you don’t mind…”
“I do. I am on my way to see Ezra Rossiter, and it would be rude of me to allow someone to steal his horse right out from under his nose.” Slowly, he walked around to study the stallion. “Arion. Named after the Greek immortal horse sired by Poseidon. Does the horse live up to its name?”
“He’s magnificent,” the woman said fondly. There was an obvious bond between the two as the horse swung his head around to nuzzle her.
Had Ezra hired a woman to work on his ranch? That seemed highly unlikely. Although Ezra was progressive in his business, he doubted the man was progressive enough hire females. “Who are you, exactly?”
“Wi..Wendy,” she stuttered a little. “My brother works on the ranch, and Mr. Rossiter lets me work from time to time as long as I’m not in the way. I would appreciate it if you didn’t mention seeing me. I’m not doing anything wrong, but he’s explicitly told me to keep to myself.”
She had an educated speech and stood with the stiff posture of a lady. She might ride like a ranch hand, but she was no worker. He still wasn’t entirely convinced that the woman planned on riding off with Arion.
“I might consider not telling him of this little incident if you’ll answer some questions for me,” he said easily. He wasn’t one to let an opportunity to gain some information go by, and since he knew little about Ezra, he could use Wendy.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“Boyd Ingram. I have a ranch on the outskirts of town. There’s no need to be defensive. I just want to talk to the man.”
“I believe that I’m the one who’s supposed to be asking you questions,” he reminded her. Slowly, she unfolded her hands and waited. “I was in town this morning, and I heard that Ezra had some other ranchers over for dinner last night. Was it personal or business?”
“I’m not privy to what goes on inside the house.”
She was a young woman, probably overlooked by the other ranchers. He was confident that she knew far more than she was letting on. “But you’ve heard things?”
“Fine,” she huffed. “I may have heard about a dinner, but I think it was a combination of personal and professional.”
Boyd nodded. “I’ve heard that Ezra acts more as an ally to other ranchers rather than as competition. Why is that?”
Wendy snorted. “Have you seen his ranch? He doesn’t need to be anyone’s competition, but he’s a good man. He won’t let another rancher’s cupboard run bare. There’s enough demand for everyone, so he helps where he can.”
She was proud of him. More than proud. He stored that information away for later. When he opened his mouth to ask another question, she put her hand up to stop him and hoisted herself back up on the horse. “I won’t be blackmailed into speaking of Mr. Rossiter’s personal business. You’ve gotten all you’ll get from me. Enjoy the rest of your day, Mr. Ingram.”
“Why the pants?” he found himself asking as he took the reins so she wouldn’t gallop away. “Ezra won’t let you work in skirts?”
“My choice of clothing is none of your business,” she said coldly. Tugging the reins out of his hands, she glared at him before she urged the horse into a trot. Although he knew that she was hiding something, he didn’t hurry to get back to his horse and follow her. She may be lying about something, but he believed she was no thief.
By the time he made it to the Rossiter ranch, he noted that Arion was in one of the pastures happily munching away, and the woman was nowhere in sight.
Curiosity got the best of him, and he found himself searching for her again. When he didn’t find her, he dismounted the horse and tied it to the post. A stable boy raced out to greet him. “The young woman who works here. Wendy. What can you tell me about her?”
The boy frowned. “Wendy?”
“Yes. Is she your sister? The one wearing the trousers?”
Eyes widening, the boy quickly backed away and then took off running. Apparently Wendy had some power over the boy. He knew how siblings could be.
It was just as well. He didn’t plan on being here long enough for his horse to have a caretaker. After speaking to a few workers, he found Ezra Rossiter in one of the cattle pastures speaking to someone else.
Not wanting to interrupt, he leaned against the fence and waited for them to finish.
From looks alone, Ezra Rossiter was an intriguing man. Big as a bear with a full bushel of auburn beard that probably itched like crazy under the Texas sun, he was an imposing man. He gestured wildly with his hands and his voice boomed loudly enough that Boyd caught snippets of conversation, but there were also some things that suggested Ezra was getting on in his years. Grey streaked his beard, and even though he gripped a walking cane, he seemed unsteady on his feet.
When he’d finished his conversation, Ezra took notice of Boyd and sauntered over. “You look like a worker, but you’re not one of mine.”
“No, sir. Boyd Ingram.” He stuck out his hand, and Ezra didn’t hesitate to take it and shake it.
“Mr. Ingram. Your father just passed a few weeks ago. I heard about that.” Cocking his head, he studied Boyd. “I also heard of the lengths you went to to get your land back. Sutters claimed that your father deeded it upon his death to make up the losses of a poker game?”
Boyd nodded curtly. To his credit, Sutters had been a decent enough man. Boyd had been mortified when Mitchell had written him a letter stating that their father had lost the ranch from gambling.
Gambling. Of all things.
He already knew that the news was spreading through town. That’s why the ingrate of a fiancée had called off Delilah’s wedding. He either didn’t want to be part of the scandal, or he didn’t trust that the Ingram boys could get the land back.
What he didn’t know was that Boyd would do whatever it took to protect his family. Travis Mayfield would get his comeuppance soon enough. “We negotiated the land, but we didn’t have enough resources left over for the stock.” By resources, he meant money. It had taken nearly every penny that Boyd had to buy the land back, and he still owed Sutters some money. “That’s what I was hoping to discuss with you.”
“You want investors,” Rossiter murmured. “Unfortunately, you’re going to have a hard time with that.”
“It’s no secret that the ranch is in disrepair. Ingram lost half of his stock because they escaped from broken pens. Most were malnourished because he didn’t have the money to feed them and because his fields were over grazed. There were brush fires that raged out of control and destroyed barns. The amount of money that it would take to get your ranch up and running again is far more than you’ll find in investors of this town. Some of these ranches are barely standing on their own.”
Boyd gritted his teeth. He didn’t need a reminder of the disaster that he was facing. “I’m not looking to fix everything at once. I just want to start.” He didn’t want to admit that he had no way of making any money yet, with a missing bull and two heifers.
“Huh.” Ezra stared at him. “You’ve been gone for a while, haven’t you? A wandering worker? Your daddy’s funeral was weeks ago, so why are you still here? Your family’s ranch didn’t mean anything to you then, so why does it now? You could have just cut your losses and walked away.”
“How is that any of your business?” Boyd growled.
“You want me to invest in the ranch, but a ranch is far more than just land and animals. It’s about the people who run it. If you want me to invest in you, then you need to tell me about you.”
With a low growl, Boyd shifted and straightened to his full height, but Ezra didn’t even bat an eye. “Fine. As I’m sure you know, I have a sister and a brother. Delilah and Mitchell. They were affected by this, and I want to make things right by them.”
After a few seconds of silence, Ezra nodded. “All right. I’ll think about it.”
Think about it. That didn’t bode well for Boyd, but since the older man was already walking away, the conversation was apparently over.
Ezra had a reputation for generosity. If he wasn’t going to help him, then who would?
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Controlled by her father, Willie Rossiter grew up in the safety of Gentry Woods, the largest and most profitable ranch in town. Behaving more like a man rather than like a lady, Willie has given her father a headache with her rebellious, unusual conduct. However, she will soon have to face the ugly truth and deal with an unwanted arranged marriage. Will this be enough to break her spirit and transform her into a model wife? Will she ever be able to forgive her father and trust men again?
Boyd Ingram has just returned home from war and has too many hurdles to overcome. Getting married to Willie seems like the only solution, although he knows that this relationship is nothing more than a business arrangement. To his surprise, Willie manages to rock his boat with her nerve and stubbornness. Will Boyd be able to handle Willie’s personality or is this marriage doomed to fail? Are the effects of fighting in the war so strong that they could determine the rest of his life?
Their marriage is built on mistrust and resentment. However, they will soon discover what family is all about. As the dangerous cut-throat west life closes in around them, they’ll have to lean on each other and trust their love if they want to survive. When secrets come out and threaten something Willie treasures above all else, will Boyd be able to protect her? Will they wake up to what they mean to each other before it is too late?
“A Rebellious Lady to Love” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.