SHE’D NEVER TRUST A MAN AGAIN…
And all Dana Westlake wanted was to be left alone to mend her broken heart. Then one stormy night, a wounded cowboy appeared on her doorstep. And though Dana tried to protect her emotions while she nursed Chay Lone Elk’s wounds, she couldn’t stop her pulse from racing at his touch, or her heart from melting.
Chay’s wild days on the rodeo circuit were behind him. Now the brooding bachelor lived for one thing - the Montana ranch that would one day be his. But wen city-girl Dana treated him with her tender care, Chay realized exactly what he’d been missing - the love of a good woman…
Dana woke with a groan after a long and restless night. Rising, she took a quick shower, then pulled on a bright yellow flowered sundress, hoping the cheerful color would brighten her mood. It didn’t.
Feeling sleep deprived and listless, she fixed breakfast out of habit, though she had no appetite for anything but a glass of orange juice and a piece of buttered toast.
Sitting there, she knew she couldn't go to work. She couldn't face her boss and her co-workers, all of whom had been invited to the wedding. Many of her clients were people she knew, people she saw on a regular basis.. By now, she was certain they had all heard that her fiancé, Rick, who was vice president of one of her company’s best accounts, had run off to Las Vegas with his secretary.
Her mind in turmoil, she drank the last of the orange juice, took a bite of toast and threw the rest in the garbage, along with the untouched waffle. It had been over a year since she’d had any time off. Her vacation was overdue for a real vacation, and now seemed like the perfect opportunity to take some time off from work. She knew her father would call it cowardly of her to run away at a time like this. He would tell her to stay and face the music, chin up, and all that, but she couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t, at least not now. She needed some time alone, time to sort her thoughts. Time to come to grips with the fact that she was never going to trust another man and that she was probably never going to get married, never be swept off her feet by a handsome knight on a white horse. Because you couldn’t trust knights, either. Even Lancelot had been a tarnished cavalier!
Certain that she was doing the right thing, she called work and told Mr. Goodman that an emergency had come up and that she needed to take two weeks off before the wedding in addition to the week she was already taking for her honeymoon. Since she was a valued employee and she hadn’t had a vacation in over a year, her boss reluctantly agreed. Next, she called her mother and told her what had happened. Hearing the sympathy and understanding in her mother’s voice brought quick tears to Dana’s eyes.
“I’ll take care of everything,” Marge Westlake said. “Where are you going?”
“I thought I’d go up to the mountains.” Dana had a small house up in the foothills that her grandmother had left her. Though the house was only a few hours away, it had been years since Dana had gone up there. Now it beckoned like a haven of safety, a place where she could hide and lick her wounds.
“That’s a wonderful idea, dear,” her mother said. “You just go and relax and don’t worry about a thing.”
“Thanks, Mom. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Tell Dad I’m sorry…”
“Pish tosh,” her mother said airily. “Don’t give it another thought. Call me when you get there.”
“All right, Mom. Thanks again.”
After hanging up, Dana packed her bags, dumped them in the back seat of her Toyota, and left town. It was a beautiful day for a long drive. The sky was blue, the air warm but not hot. Rolling down the window, she turned on the radio, then settled back in her seat and focused all her attention on the road, determined not to think of the reason why she was going up to the Hollow..
Gradually, the city fell behind. Neat houses and strip malls gave way to scattered ranches and stands of timber. Tall pines lined both sides of the road.
Some time later, she turned off the freeway and onto the winding road that led to Wardman’s Hollow, Montana. As she drove down the main street, she was glad to see that the old part of the town hadn’t changed much since she had been there three and a half years ago. Old Town looked just as she remembered it. Long low buildings built of wood and native stone lined both sides of the street. Hitching posts still stood in front of some of the older buildings, like the Shotgun Saloon and Maud’s General Store, both of which dated back more than a hundred years. The newer part of town was as modern as any city in the country, with a Wal-Mart and a Target, and the ubiquitous McDonald’s, of course. There were a number of gift shops and restaurants, some dress shops, and a multiplex movie theater. Wright's Ranch Market marked the end of the older section of town and the beginning of the new. The market had been handed down from one Wright to another for generations.
She passed the Bar W cattle ranch. Like Wright's Market, the Bar W dated back for generations. Cattle branded with the Bar W brand grazed on both sides of the road. A few of the cows looked up as she drove past. The town had been named for Cleve Wardman, who had first settled the place in the late 1800s. The southern edge of the Wardman property bordered a section of Dana’s land.
She felt a sense of freedom when she pulled into the front yard. The house looked just as she remembered it. A weathered single-story dwelling with a red brick fireplace and forest green shutters, it sat in a small clearing surrounded by towering pines, wildflowers, and blackberry bushes gone wild. A covered wooden porch spanned the front of the house. Her grandmother’s rocker still sat in one corner.
Switching off the engine, Dana grabbed her handbag and suitcase and hurried up the three steps to the front door. Slipping the key into the lock, she gave the door a shove, then stepped inside.
A fine layer of dust covered everything. Lacy gray cobwebs hung from the corners of the ceiling. She knew the place would have been in much worse condition except that her parents had spent a week there last winter and two weeks the summer before that.
Still, she was glad there was work to do. It gave her a sense of purpose. Then, too, staying busy would keep her mind off her reason for being there in the first place.
It wasn’t a large house, but it was solid. Her grandfather had built it for her grandmother when they were first married. The interior was rustic. The living room was painted off-white. Colorful rugs covered the hardwood floors. The windows on either side of the front door faced the east. A rack of antlers hung above the stone fireplace. A bear rug took up most of the floor space in front of the hearth. As a little girl, Dana had listened countless times to the story of how her grandfather had killed that bear.
The kitchen was painted a cheery shade of yellow. White lace curtains hung from the big double window that offered a view of the garage, the backyard, and the winding stream where Dana had learned to fish when she was a little girl. Four scarred chairs surrounded an equally scarred round oak table that held many memories for Dana. She had drawn pictures on that table, and written letters to her mom and dad when she got older. It was at that table that her grandmother had taught her how to make apple pies and sugar cookies and gingerbread men. There was a laundry room off the kitchen. The appliances in both the kitchen and the laundry room had all been upgraded through the years, though the house still lacked air conditioning. Two bedrooms, one painted a robin’s egg blue, the other a pale green, took up the back part of the house. A large bathroom with a tub and a shower was located between the bedrooms.
Dana dropped her suitcase and handbag on the floor inside the door, then spent the next two hours cleaning the house. She swept the floors and dusted the furniture. She uncovered the dark brown leather sofa, the matching easy chair. She wiped the dust from the kitchen sink and the counter, polished the stove, plugged in the ancient refrigerator, glad that she had thought to call ahead and ask the utility companies to turn on the gas and the electricity before she arrived.
She put clean sheets on the big old four-poster bed, pulled some clean towels out of the linen closet and hung them from the rack in the bathroom. She let the water run in the sink for several minutes. When the rusty water turned clear, she washed the sink, then scrubbed the small, claw-footed bathtub.
When she finished up in the bathroom, she grabbed her suitcase and went into the bigger of the two bedrooms and put her clothes away.
That done, she took a long hot bubble bath, then donned a pair of comfortable old sweats and a pair of Reeboks that had seen better days. She brushed her hair until it snapped and crackled, then tied it back in a pony tail.
Returning to the kitchen, she pulled a pad of paper and a stubby pencil out of one of the drawers, and then sat down at the round oak table that had been made by her grandfather. Blowing a lock of hair from her forehead, she began writing out a grocery list.
She felt almost cheerful as she drove to the store. For the next three weeks, she would hide out in her house in the woods and lick her wounds. She wouldn’t think about work, she wouldn’t think about her poor mother returning all those wedding gifts, she wouldn’t think about Rick and his new love. She would simply relax and enjoy the beauty of the mountains. She didn’t need a man in her life. Lots of single women lived perfectly happy, productive lives. If they could do it, so could she. She just hoped she didn’t end up a bitter old lady with a house full of cats!
Chayton Lone Elk rested one shoulder against the side of the barber shop, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth as he waited for Ashley and her friends to come out of the Sunset Boutique across the street.
Shifting from one foot to the other, he glanced at his watch, wondering what the devil they could be doing in there that was taking so long. Ashley was the boss’s daughter and if she wanted to spend all day in town, there wasn’t a thing Chay could do about it. Lord save him from giggly teenage girls, he thought sourly. To Chay’s dismay, Big John had decided Chay should act as chaperone for as long as Ashley’s friends decided to stay. As near as Chay could tell, they didn’t plan to leave any time soon. They had already been at the ranch for three weeks and it had been the longest three weeks of Chay’s life. Sometimes he thought if he had to endure what they called music for one more day or listen to one more minute of their silly chatter, he would go stark raving mad. Boys and clothes, clothes and boys, it was all they talked about. The only thing keeping him sane was the fact that school started in another couple of weeks.
Chay shook his head as he glanced at his watch again. He figured it was a safe bet that his charges would be in the boutique at least another twenty or thirty minutes, plenty of time for him to run over to Wright's and pick up a carton of cigarettes and then go grab a beer at the Shotgun Saloon.
Tossing his cigarette away, he crossed the street and went into the market.
Betty Wright smiled at him as she rang him up. She was a pretty woman in her mid-thirties with short, curly auburn hair, twinkling brown eyes, and a pixie grin.
She shook her head as she bagged the carton. “Chay, don’t you know these things will kill you?”
“We all gotta die sometime.”
“You really should quit smoking.”
“I know. And I will, too, just not this week.”
Betty looked at him and laughed. It was the same conversation they had every time he came in to buy a box of Marlboro’s.
Chay was coming out of Wright's a few minutes later when he heard a muffled crash followed by a soft oath. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw a pretty young woman in the parking lot. The handle on one of the plastic grocery bags had broken and a dozen or so boxes and cans were rolling around at her feet.
“Here,” Chay said, hurrying toward her. “Let me give you a hand.”
"I can manage." Stooping, she picked up three of the cans and tossed them in the trunk.
"I’m sure you can,” Chay remarked. Reaching under her car, he scooped up five cans of assorted vegetables and deposited them in the trunk with the others.
Dana studied the stranger out of the corner of her eye as he picked up the last couple of cans. He was tall, well over six feet. He had broad shoulders beneath his dark blue shirt, the sleeves of which had been cut off, exposing muscular arms browned by the sun. Fine lines fanned out from the corners of his eyes. A pair of faded blue jeans hugged unbelievably long muscular legs. His thick black hair fell past the collar of his denim shirt. He was, without doubt, the most blatantly handsome man she had ever seen. Next to him, Rick Matheson looked like a washed-out, ninety eight pound weakling.
"Thank you, Mr...." She couldn't stop staring at him. Lean and rugged, he looked every inch a cowboy, from the crown of his black Stetson to the soles of his scuffed leather boots. But it didn’t matter if he was Mr. America and Brad Pitt all rolled into one. She had sworn off men forever.
"Chay. Chayton Lone Elk."
"Thank you for your help, Mr. Elk," she said stiffly.
Chay watched as she slid behind the wheel and drove out of the parking lot. Who was she, he wondered. He had never seen her before, he would bet his best horse on that. Of course, she might just be passing through, but if that was the case, why was she stocking up on groceries? More likely she was new in town. Maybe she was the new owner of the old Longworth place over off Three Mile Road.
With a shrug, he walked back to the barber shop, the beer he had intended to have forgotten. There were too many pretty girls in the world to worry about one little golden-haired female he didn’t even know and would likely never see again.
Taking up his place outside the barber shop, he pulled a pack of cigarettes from the carton and lit up.
She'd had the prettiest blue eyes he had ever seen. The prettiest, and the saddest.
He tried to put her out of his mind, but he was still thinking about her when he drove Ashley and her friends back to the ranch later that afternoon.
Dana stared out the front window as lightning zigzagged across the skies, followed by a long rolling boom of thunder that sounded as if it was going to come right down through the roof. Rain fell in icy sheets. A fierce wind rattled the windows and flattened the grass. The trees bowed before its power.
Turning away from the window, she added more wood to the fire crackling in the hearth. The electricity was out and the only light in the house came from the fireplace and a few candles.
She was glad the stove was gas and not electric as she filled a sauce pan with milk and put it on the stove to heat.
Going to the kitchen window, she pulled the curtains aside, though there was little to see but darkness. She had always been afraid of storms, yet she was drawn to them just the same, fascinated by the power of the wind and the rain. She loved the thunder, but she had been afraid of the lightning that scorched the heavens for as long as she could remember.
She gasped as a jagged bolt rent the skies. In the distance, a tree went up in flames. She leaned forward. Was she imagining things, or had she seen a man out there in the rain? With a shake of her head, she drew back and let the curtain fall into place. She had to be seeing things. People didn’t go horseback riding in the middle of a storm.
Frowning, she stirred the milk in the pan, poured it into her favorite mug, then pulled a box of hot cocoa mix from the cupboard. She added a couple of teaspoons to the cup and then, as though drawn by an invisible hand, she went to the window, pulled back the curtains, and peered outside again.
Another bolt of lightning revealed that there was indeed a man outside. He was slumped over the withers of his horse. Good Lord, what man in his right mind would be out on a horrible night like this? And what was he doing in the middle of her backyard?
Closing the curtains, she moved away from the window, one hand at her throat.
What should she do? Suddenly aware that the milk was overheating, she went to the stove and turned off the fire and then, moving cautiously, she looked out the window once again.
She could barely make out the shape of the horse. It was standing in the same place as before, its head down. There was no sign of the man. Where had he gone? Was he trying to get into her house, even now?
What should she do?
There was a gun on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard. It was a reproduction of a Colt .45 that belonged to her father. Dana’s mother hated guns and refused to let her husband keep it at home. She had refused to let Dana’s father teach Dana how to handle the weapon. In spite of that, Dana’s father had taken her into the woods and taught her how to load and fire the Colt. She was glad now that he had done so. Of course, she had never fired at anything except targets.
Her hand was shaking as she picked up the Colt. After checking to see if the gun was loaded, Dana went to the window again. The horse hadn’t moved. It stood with its head down, its back to the wind. And then, in a flash of almost blinding light, she saw the man. He was lying face down in the mud. Was he hurt? Dead? Drowning?
Dana watched him for several moments, and when he didn't move, she ran out the back door, her slippers squishing in the mud. Slipping the gun into the oversized pocket of her bathrobe, she turned him over.
Another flash of lightning revealed a jagged gash on the right side of his head, just above his ear.
"Mister?" She shook his shoulder. "Mister?"
He groaned softly as his eyes opened.
“Can you hear me?” she asked anxiously.
A soft grunt was her only answer.
"You’ll have to stand up,” she said. “I can't carry you."
He muttered something she didn’t understand.
Assuming he was agreeing with her, she took hold of his arm and pulled. He sat up, then rolled onto his knees. Using her hand for support, he managed to get to his feet.
Wondering if she was doing the right thing, Dana put her arm around his waist and headed for the back door. It was like trying to move a tree. He towered over her. His arm, resting on her shoulder, felt like a lead weight.
Her slippers were ruined, the hem of her robe covered in mud, by the time she got him into the kitchen. She left her slippers outside, kicked the door shut with her heel. One handed, she pulled a chair out from the table and he dropped into it.
Now that the rain was no longer washing it away, blood oozed from the cut in his head and dripped down onto the collar of his sheepskin jacket. He was soaked to the skin. Grabbing a dish towel, she pressed it against the wound.
“Can you hold that there for a moment?” she asked.
He nodded, his hand replacing hers on the towel. She frowned, thinking he looked vaguely familiar. She was tempted to ask him who he was and what he was doing riding around on a night like this, but decided her questions could wait. The man was bleeding, after all.
She eased him out of his jacket and hung it on a hook beside the back door, unmindful of the puddle that quickly formed beneath it. She helped him out of his shirt and t-shirt, pulled off his boots and his socks, and tossed them aside. Going into the living room, she grabbed a blanket from the back of the sofa. Returning to the kitchen, she draped it over his shoulders, then went into the bathroom to see what kind of first aid supplies she could find.
The medicine cabinet was woefully inadequate. A box of gauze pads, a roll of adhesive tape, a tube of first aid cream, a bottle of aspirin. She hoped it would be enough.
She stopped in the bedroom long enough to pull on a pair of thick socks and change out of her wet bathrobe and nightgown and into a pair of sweats.
Returning to the kitchen, she dropped the items she had collected on the table, then removed the dish towel from his head. The cut was about three inches long and looked very deep. She was afraid he needed more care than she could give him.
"Just sit tight,” she said, replacing the towel. “I’ll get my purse and my keys and drive you to the hospital. I think you might need some stitches.”
"Doesn’t matter what I need,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere. The bridge is out."
“Are you sure? Well, it doesn’t matter. There must be another road.”
“Are you saying we’re stuck here?”
She bit down on the inside of her cheek. She was sorely afraid that the first aid instruction she had received when she was a Girl Scout wouldn’t do her much good now.
He looked up at her, his dark brown eyes dulled with pain. "You got any whiskey?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, I don’t drink." Going to the sink, she filled a glass with water, shook three aspirin out of the bottle and handed them to him.
“Whiskey would be better,” he muttered wryly.
He swallowed the aspirins and drained the glass, then set it on the table. Closing his eyes, he swore softly, and then removed the towel from his head. He explored the wound with his fingers, then pressed the towel against his head once more.
“Do you think you can stitch it up?”
Dana stared at him. “Who, me?” She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“You know how to sew, don’t you?”
“Yes, but you’re not asking me to make you a shirt.”
He started to smile, then grimaced. “If you can’t do it, I can. Just thread a needle for me.”
“You?” she exclaimed, horrified by what he was suggesting. Stitch his own wound? That was the stuff of movies.
“I’ve done it before.”
In the end, she agreed to do stitch up the wound rather than have him think she was too chicken, though why she cared what he thought about her was beyond her comprehension. She didn’t even know the man. And didn’t want to. She’d had enough of men to last a lifetime.
She found a needle and thread and since she didn’t have any disinfectant, she turned on one of the burners and passed the needle through the flame, although she wasn’t sure what good that would do, since there were probably germs on the thread. She gathered up a dozen candles and placed them around the room for light, setting the biggest one in the middle of the table.
“Sure wish you had some whiskey,” he muttered as she sat down beside him.
“Me, too.” Even though she didn’t drink, she was certain a shot of straight whiskey would help to steady her hand and calm her nerves. “Okay, hold still. I’m sure this is going to hurt you a lot more than it does me.”
“I’m sure it will,” he muttered, and closed his eyes.
Taking a deep breath, Dana closed her mind to the fact that she was sewing human flesh. She was always reading news stories about people who had done things far beyond what they thought impossible because there was no one else to do it. She was about to find out if she was one of them.
Murmuring a silent prayer for strength and a steady hand, she bent her head to her task.
After what seemed like hours, but was more like twenty minutes, she took one last stitch and tied off the thread. Not too bad, she thought. Still it was a nasty wound. What if he had a concussion?
She taped a gauze pad over the stitches, then went to the sink and washed her hands. She pulled a clean towel from the drawer, dried her hands, then glanced at her patient to find him watching her.
"You should get out of those wet…ah, trousers," she suggested.
He made a soft sound of agreement and rose to his feet.
Her eyes widened when he began to unfasten his jeans.
"Wait! I didn’t mean here. You can undress in the spare room. There’s a bed in there, too." She studied him a moment, noticing how pale he looked. “Do you think you can make it on your own?”
“Sure.” He took a step forward, staggered, and caught hold of the back of a chair.
“Oh, yeah,” she said dryly, “you don’t need any help at all.”
Slipping her arm around his waist, she helped him down the hall to the back bedroom.
She was practically carrying him by the time they got there. Sweat dripped from his forehead. His chest was sheened with perspiration. Had she been interested in such things, she would have said that it was a very nice chest.
“Hold still,” she said; then, trying to ignore what she was doing, she unfastened his jeans and dragged the wet denim down over his long, long legs.
She glanced at his briefs. They were wet, too, but she if he wanted them off, he was on his own. She helped him into bed and drew the covers over him.
He was asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.
She stared down at him for several moments, thinking how handsome he was. And then she realized why he looked so familiar. He was the cowboy who had come to her aid in town that afternoon.