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Authors: Charlene Sands

Tags: #Romance, #Western

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BOOK: A Cowboy Worth Claiming
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On a shaky breath he said, “I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for me.” He held up the jewelry box. “For keeping this safe. It’s the only thing I have left of my life before my parents were murdered.” Chance spoke with firm resolve. “You can count on me, Edward. I’ll do whatever you need.”

Chance thought about Lizzie’s crazy notion that he was brought here to marry her. Now, it seemed possible that’s what Edward had in mind.

“Thank you.” Relief crossed Edward’s features as he nodded. Chance could, at the very least, give him that much peace of mind. But then the old man’s face turned beet-red and he began coughing. Chance rose to help him, but he quickly gestured for him to sit back down. When his coughing fit ended, he leaned back against his chair.

Once he’d caught his breath, he explained, “We’re in a bad way financially. Got barely enough to make it through the month. It’ll break Lizzie’s heart, but this here furniture, her mama’s furniture, is next to go. Won’t get all that much for it, that’s why I haven’t brought it up to Lizzie yet. That girl is dang upset about her dolls. She had orders and was rushing off to collect the money in town. Took her more than a month to sew those dolls and the girl feels she’s let me down.” He stopped. Squeezed his eyes shut and pinched his nose. He was near tears. “Only, I’m the one letting her down. My granddaughter has calloused hands from working the ranch. She cooks our meals and at night, she fashions her dolls until she about collapses into bed.”

“I have some cash saved up,” Chance said, wanting to spare the old man any more pain. He’d give him everything he had.

Edward shook his head. “I’m a prideful man. It was hard enough asking you this favor, I won’t take your money.”

“Then what can I do for you?”

“My last ranch hand quit a month ago. Can’t say as I blame him. Toby stuck around without pay for three weeks. Just as a favor to Lizzie and me. Fact is, I need to get my Longhorns to the railhead. We got thirty head that’ll bring a good price. But I got no one to go with Lizzie on the drive.”

“Lizzie? She drives cattle?”

Edward’s eyes lit with pride. “She’s been going on drives with me since she was a youngster. The railhead is in Prescott. Should only take five days to get there.”

His cough took hold again and plagued him for the next half a minute. Chance rose up as he’d done before, wanting to help, to give the man some aid, but once again Edward gestured for him to sit down. Each cough took more life from him, as if an evil force counted down the breaths until he took his very last one.

“Grandpa?” Lizzie called from the other side of the door.

Edward sat up and caught his breath quickly, hiding his true condition from his granddaughter. “I’m fine, Lizzie. Don’t fret.”

Chance questioned him. “She know what you got planned?”

He shook his head. “Nope. But we haven’t got much choice. She won’t put up much fuss once I explain.”

Chance had doubts about that. He’d seen some of Lizzie’s fussing. “Why not sell the steers to a neighbor? Have them drive the cattle.”

“I thought of that. They’d take too big a cut of the profits. Wouldn’t leave us enough to live.”

Chance didn’t like the idea of driving cattle with a female, but Edward wouldn’t have asked if he didn’t think it necessary. And it wasn’t much of a drive. Hell, they’d be back in a week. “Then it’s settled. I’ll go.”

Edward leaned back in his seat and rested his head on the chair’s carved wooden backing, closing his eyes. His voice became a mere whisper. “Thank you, but there’s more. And this…this is going to be a mite more difficult.”

Chance braced himself. “You want me to shoot someone dead?”

The old man smiled. “Of course not.”

“Then how bad could it be?”

He opened his eyes and Chance was hit with the impact of the old man’s determined gaze. “I want you to find Lizzie a husband.”

Chapter Two

A
fter she’d dried off and changed into a brown dress, Lizzie pushed through her bedroom door, keeping her misery close to heart. It wouldn’t do to have Grandpa knowing how desperate she was. She found him and Chance Worth sitting in the front room, head down, whispering, in obvious cahoots about something. The second they spotted her they clamped their mouths shut. What in heaven’s name were they up to? And why did her Grandpa see fit to summon him here in the first place?

“Lizzie, dear girl, come sit with us for a spell.”

“I will for just a little while.” She smiled at her grandpa and plopped down on the sofa as far away from the stranger as possible. She wasn’t afraid of him, no sir, but she’d been close enough to feel his warm breath on her throat, to feel his arms tug her close while riding his mare. Why, she’d practically seen him naked at the lake and didn’t like for one minute the warm sensations he’d stirred in her.

“That’s my girl.” Her grandpa leaned back in his seat and drew a deep breath. His cough was getting worse every day and it scared her to see him look so pale. She cooked hearty meals to keep meat on his bones, but even still, his shirts hung loose from his shoulders. Didn’t matter how much bread she added to the stew, or how much jam she spread across his biscuits, she couldn’t seem to build his strength and fatten him up. “You look nice and dry, Lizzie. Feeling better now?”

She couldn’t feel better. She’d lost their only means of income and just thinking about those dolls soaked at the bottom of the lake made her stomach clench. She looked down at her brown skirt and nodded. “Yes, a little bit.”

“It’s a lucky thing Chance coming along when he did, bringing you home. Course it’s been a while but I recall how cold that lake is. Would have been a mighty uncomfortable walk with you dripping wet. Did you thank him, Lizzie?”

She darted Chance a glance and found him watching her, his gaze flowing over the hair she didn’t bother to untangle, curling every which way now and tied back with a thin strip of ribbon. When their eyes met she found his filled with amusement. “I, uh—”

“She thanked me, Edward.”

She shot him a quick look and he arched his right brow. He’d done a good thing, covering for her, but somehow she still felt pinpricked. If he hadn’t come along, she might’ve had a chance at rescuing her dolls. Now, all was lost and she didn’t know what else to do but to try to replace them with new ones made from the scraps of material she had left in her sewing basket.

Her grandpa coughed again, and the pain she noted on his face made her turn away. Every day she witnessed how much strength his coughing sapped from his body. The doctor from Red Ridge had come out to check on him and gave him an elixir, which she prayed would help, but nothing seemed to do a lick of good.

“Edward, I’ll get you some water,” Chance said, rising from his seat.

“I’ll get it.” She bounded up quickly and rushed to the kitchen area.

“Get…some…for our guest.” Her grandfather struggled to get the words out between coughs.

She poured two glasses of water from a pitcher but by the time she returned, thankfully, his coughing spell was over. She handed the water to her grandfather. “Please, Grandpa, you need to drink more. The doctor says it’ll help.”

“All right, Lizzie.” She stood over him until he took a long sip. Then she turned to Chance and offered up the other glass.

“Don’t mind if I do.” His hand came out to accept the drink and when their fingers brushed, she was startled by the jolt and nearly jumped out of her skin.

Something powerful happened whenever he touched her. The stirrings were unexpected and…and downright confusing. Thankfully, Chance didn’t seem to notice her distress. She figured it’d be a good idea to keep her distance. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be on the ranch too long. “I’d best start supper.”

“It’s early yet,” her grandfather said. “Sit down, girl. Take a rest.”

Lizzie did as she was told. Everyone seemed content to just sit there, comfortably, without uttering a word. She didn’t begrudge her grandfather the rest or her company, but when he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, Lizzie couldn’t help but steal another look at Chance. His throat worked as he finished off the water in his glass. Why did she find watching him swallow so darn fascinating?

“Chance is here to help.” Her grandfather spoke quietly, keeping his head back against the chair. “In case you were wondering, Lizzie. And I owed him something.”

She noticed the square walnut box sitting next to Chance on the sofa. She’d grown up seeing that box—it was as if it belonged here on the ranch. For as long as she could remember, that box had sat in the bottom drawer of her mama’s china cabinet.

When she was a young fanciful girl, she’d sneak into that drawer when no one was looking and ever so carefully open the box to stare at the blood-red ruby. Her imagination would run wild, thinking it a rare stolen treasure, a gem that was more beautiful than any she could ever fathom. Had it belonged to a princess from a faraway land, a pirate queen or a stately woman of wealth?

Lizzie never touched the ruby for fear her dirt-smudged fingers would mar the perfection of the stunning pear-shaped stone. Eventually, she came to learn the story about the ruby and how it had fallen into her grandfather’s possession.

The ruby she’d once secretly coveted belonged to Chance Worth. And her grandfather had summoned him here to return it. “I know now that you sent for him,” she said, “to return the ruby.”

Grandpa leaned forward and spoke with resolution. “And to
help
us, Lizzie,” he reminded her.

Lord knew, they needed help, but so far all the stranger had managed to do was to prevent her from rescuing her dolls and make things worse. She didn’t have a good feeling about this. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “How can he help?”

Her grandfather’s face brightened and it was a joy to see, so rarely did he smile anymore. “Now, Lizzie. I want you to think before reacting, okay?”

She nodded, wary. Usually when Grandpa said that, she didn’t like what came next.

“Chance has agreed to drive our herd to the railhead in Prescott with you.”

Alarmed, she shook her head. “But, Grandpa, you and I will drive the herd, once you’re feeling better.”

A flicker of sadness stole over his face and her heart dropped. There was something so resolute in that look, so final. “I’m not getting better, Lizzie. I’m weak and getting weaker every day.” The bleak reality struck her as he reached for her with cold, fragile hands. “I wish it weren’t so for your sake, dear girl. I wish I could go with you on the drive, the way we used to.”

“Grandpa, we could do it again. We could. The winter was harsh this year and I know that’s what made you sick, but it’s spring now. You’ll gain your strength back.”

Her grandfather peered at Chance and the two locked glances. “Chance knows cattle drives. He’ll make the trip without any difficulty and the two of you will be back shortly.”

Her body tensed. The emotions she’d kept at bay all these months were too much for her. Tears welled in her eyes. She rose and shook her head, lowering her voice, unable to hide the pain. “I don’t want to go without you.”

Her grandfather squeezed his eyes shut briefly then met her gaze. “We have no choice, Lizzie.”

She shot a glare at Chance and then marched out of the room so the stranger wouldn’t see the tears spill from her eyes.

* * *

Lizzie boiled up strips of beef in a big pot, added beans and potatoes to the mix for son-of-a-gun stew. It was a recipe she’d learned from the cookie, years ago, when she’d gone on cattle drives with her father and the crew. She’d been without a care in the world then—the ranch was thriving and those drives were an adventure for a young girl. But now, she had enough worries to fill the cookie’s chuck wagon and then some.

She’d had a good cry out by the barn minutes ago, trying to justify leaving grandpa all alone. She didn’t want to go on that drive. Not without him. And she surely didn’t want to drive cattle with Chance Worth. Why, he’d most likely mock her every step of the way and she’d hate every minute of it.

She stirred the stew and sniffled.

“Need some help?”

She whirled around to find Chance leaning against the wall, arms crossed, watching her. “How long have you been there?”

He moved into the room, ignoring her question. “Your grandpa’s taking a nap.”

He did that, napped several times during the day. She’d find him looking fatigued and the next thing she knew, he’d be on the sofa, head at an awkward angle against the back cushion, sleeping. “He needs rest.”

“Can’t argue with that.”

“Well, mercy. I think you and I agree on something.” She rubbed her nose and sniffled again. She didn’t want Chance in the kitchen, hovering. He was too big. And he made her nerves stand on end. “Why don’t you get settled at the bunkhouse? There’s a few beds in there that aren’t—”

“I want to talk to you about the drive.”

She blinked. Then turned her attention to stirring the stew. “What about it?”

“We’ll go day after tomorrow.”

She nodded, lowering her voice. “I suppose if we have to,” she said, though she couldn’t bear the thought of Grandpa being alone for more than a week.

“And you’re gonna listen to me every step of the way. No tantrums, no arguments. We do things my way, Lizzie.” His eyes were hard, his voice gruff. “We need to make good time and I don’t want a female slowing us down.”

She dropped the wooden spoon in the stew and braced her hands on her hips. “My name’s not Lizzie, not to you. It’s Elizabeth. I don’t have tantrums and I won’t slow anybody down. I know more about drives than any other woman in the territory.”

He cocked half a smile, satisfied. “Good. Then you and me shouldn’t have a problem, so long as you realize I’m the trail boss.”

“It’s
our
herd and
our
lives at stake. Not yours. If I disagree with you, I’m gonna tell you.”

“You took a broken-down boat out in the lake and nearly got yourself killed. Hardly testimony to your clear thinking and good judgment. And don’t deny it. God knows you’re denying enough about your life.”

She stiffened at his curious remark. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He walked toward her, the rowels of his spurs jangling as his boots scraped against the wood floor. He stopped inches from her, his gaze dark and direct. “You want to help your grandfather? Then you go on this drive without any fuss. Don’t make him feel bad. Give him some peace of mind.”

Peace of mind? What was he talking about? She’d done everything she could to help her grandfather. She’d worked all day and into the night to keep the ranch going, earning extra cash whenever she could. Could she help it that she’d rather go on the trail drive with her kin, than with a stranger whose uncouth ways were bound to rile her?

But what if he wasn’t speaking about that? What if he had something else in mind? Her mind reeling, she spoke softly now, suddenly unsure. “What do you mean ‘peace of mind’?”

Chance reached for her face, taking her chin in his large hand and forcing her eyes up to his. A moment ticked by as he studied her, unblinking, his nearness, the intensity of his gaze stirring her senses. They stood that way, facing each other, his grip tight yet gentle and when she thought he’d say what was on his mind, he seemed to think better of it. He released her and backed up. “I think you know, Lizzie.”

She put her head down, refusing to look in his eyes and whispered, “I don’t. I swear I don’t know what you mean at all.”

He sighed and walked away from her. After a time, his footsteps faded and the door squeaked closed behind him. Marching to the window, she pulled aside the curtains and watched him stride into the barn, readying to settle on the ranch and barge into her life.

She wished Grandpa had never sent for him.

It was one of a long list of wishes that Lizzie hadn’t seen come true this year.

* * *

Chance strode into the barn to check on Joyful and retrieve his saddlebags. The sorry sorrel he’d noticed earlier snorted quietly as he walked by. The slight effort seemed laborious for the animal that looked weary and old enough to have seen war days. Wasn’t a wonder why Lizzie chose to walk into town today—the mare wouldn’t have hastened her trip at all.

It was hard to believe that Edward had kept the ranch running this long. Chance was damn glad he showed up when he did, though he wasn’t looking forward to having Lizzie along on the cattle drive. Without a crew and a string of horses to switch out, she’d have to put in long hours and eat her share of dust on the trail. Good thing they only had a hundred miles to travel to the railhead.

Chance wouldn’t let Edward down.

Leastways not with the short trail drive.

Finding Lizzie a husband was another matter.

He approached his mare, muttering, “The old man’s worried over his granddaughter and I’ve got to find her a man.”

Joyful turned to the sound of his voice, her brown eyes on him. Chance stroked her mane, running his hands along the length of the coarse hairs and then gave her a pat as thoughts of Edward’s quickly laid-out plan came to mind. Chance wasn’t too sure it would work. His old friend explained the situation—so far Lizzie had pretty much shooed away any of the would-be suitors that Edward had brought out to the ranch.

BOOK: A Cowboy Worth Claiming
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