Sections: Free Home | Members' Entrance | Contact

Chapter One

Wyoming in the fall. Was there anywhere in the world more beautiful? Mac Lucas didn’t think so as he dropped his duffel bag on the veranda of the Lone Star Ranch, and looked out at the soul-restoring view of endless blue skies, grassy plains and grazing cattle all the way to the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

For six months he had been away from the place, working with geologists and scientists to find an ecologically sound way of extracting the oil within the shale deep underground on a tract of his land near Cheyenne. Finally they had found a way that wouldn’t destroy the fragile ecosystem or damage the water table of the area.

Now, thankfully, it was done, the oil was pumping steadily, the revenue sufficient to protect the future of the Lone Star for his lifetime, and probably for that of his children, if he ever had any. And at last he was home, away from the madness of the city, back to the wide open spaces that let a man breathe.

The cool air brushed over him, and he stretched his muscles. It felt great to be back in his normal working cowboy gear, a chambray shirt and batwing chaps, out of the suits he had been forced to wear.

He turned as he heard the sound of an approaching horse. It was Jeb, his foreman, looking dusty and tired. “Mac, welcome back,” he called, as he dismounted.

Mac shook the older man’s hand. “Thanks Jeb. It’s great to be back. And thanks for the daily updates. Things have been going well.”

Jeb nodded. “Weather’s been kind to us this year, the cattle are doing well. Just a couple of problems to report.”

“Problems?”

“Had a visit from the sheriff this morning. Been some cattle rustling going on. Apparently, there’s a gang going around. They shot old Jacob Connor when he tried to stop them over near Cheyenne.”

“They shot him? Is he… alive?”

“He is. Just. He’s in the hospital there. But they reckon the gang’s heading this way, and the sheriff’s warning everyone to be careful.”

“We’d best make sure all the men are armed then. Warn them all not to go near if they see anything, just to report back.”

“Right, boss.”

“And get Calla to put a call in to Jacob’s place. Find out if they need any help. I’ll go to the hospital later myself, see how he’s doing.”

“Got it.”

“And what about Ethan? Will he and Abby be okay?”

Ethan Proudfoot and his daughter Abby were their nearest neighbors, running a small holding a couple of miles away. Mac had been friends with Ethan for years, though Abby had always vanished like wood smoke in sunshine whenever he turned up at the house.

Calla, his housekeeper and Jeb’s wife, who was friends with Abby, said she was just shy around men. But he couldn’t help wishing that, for once, she would stay and talk to him. He wondered if she vanished on sight because she sensed his attraction to her, and hoped not. He had no wish to embarrass her or make her feel uncomfortable.

Jeb hesitated. “Ethan’s not doing so well. His brain tumor… well, it’s advanced a lot since you last saw him. He’s more or less bedridden. Abby’s pretty much running the place singlehanded.”

Mac frowned. “How’s she managing? Is she still working at the library?”

“No. Had to give it up when Ethan went downhill. Can’t leave him on his own for too long now, she says.”

Mac grimaced. Abby’s mother had died when she was young, and she had grown up managing the household and helping her father with ranch tasks. From what he’d heard, she could hunt, fish, work the land and shoot like a pro. He had no doubt that she could manage the small holding alone, but how could she do it whilst caring for her father? More to the point, however good a shot she was, there was no way she would be able to defend herself and her father against a gang of armed men.

“I’ll go over there now,” he said, abruptly, thrusting away the horrible thought of Abby being threatened.

“Okay. Might be worth mentioning it to Calla, she was talking about dropping a pie off for them.”

He nodded. Calla was renowned for her baking prowess. “Got it.”

An hour later, pie in hand, Mac reached the Proudfoot holding. Looking around, he could see small signs of neglect. Paint was peeling from the veranda, and the barn roof looked like it could do with some repairs. But the place was tidy and the animals he could see looked well fed and cared for.

He walked up the steps onto the veranda and paused. Inside the house he could hear shouting. He frowned. Quietly, he opened the door and went in.

The shouting was coming from Ethan’s bedroom. “You slut! You thieving slut! You think you can just whore it about–”

There was a thud, and then Mac heard the sound of a woman’s alarmed cry. A second later, the door opened and Abby staggered out, one hand holding the side of her face, whilst the other covered her breast. For a moment, she didn’t know he was there, and he saw the anguished pain in her eyes and the tears tracking down her cheeks.

“Abby.”

She jerked upright and looked at him, horrified. “Mac!” She spun away abruptly, retreating rapidly to the kitchen. “What are you doing here?”

He followed her to the kitchen, where she was filling the kettle. He could see that her hands were shaking. “Calla sent you a pie,” he said gently, laying it on the counter.

He watched her thin shoulders stiffen. “That’s very kind of her,” she said, keeping her face averted.

Mac frowned. Abby had lost weight, a lot of it. “If you’re making coffee, could I beg a cup?” he asked easily. “I only got back a couple of hours ago, and I’m suffering a bit from jet lag.”

“Of course.”

She took two mugs from the shelf, and poured coffee into them. Mac went to the fridge to get milk.

A quick glance at the contents told him why Abby had lost weight. There was very little food in there, and he was willing to bet that what was there was destined for her father. He closed the fridge door and slid the milk across the counter to her.

“Thanks.”

She added milk to the drinks and passed one over to him. He took it to the kitchen table and sat down. Abby picked hers up and stood rigidly by the sink, looking out of the window at the yard, and the far off land to the mountains. 

The silence stretched. Finally, Mac said softly, “I know you’ve hurt your face. There’s no point in hiding it. Come and sit down and drink your coffee.”

He saw her wince, and then she turned slowly and sat at the table. Mac bit back a curse. A livid bruise marred one side of her pretty face, and if he wasn’t mistaken, she was going to have a humdinger of a black eye.

Abruptly, Mac got up and went to the freezer. As he expected, there was very little in it, but there were ice cubes. He took out a tray and dumped them into a tea towel. Folding it into an icepack, he turned back to her. “Let me put this on your face,” he said. “It’ll help the swelling.” Gently, he put his hand out to hold the back of her head. She stiffened and jerked away, but he stepped closer, his face grim. “Sweetheart, you’re hurt,” he said gruffly. “Let me help you.”

Abby was rigid as he lay the icepack gently on her injured face. She tried not to wince, but couldn’t prevent a small gasp.

“Easy, honey,” he breathed.

She sat still, submitting to his ministrations. It was difficult to have him so close to her. She was vividly aware of the threatening strength and power of his big body looming over hers, his subtle, masculine scent, and his penetrating eyes focused intently on her.

She eased away from him, raising her own hand to hold the icepack in place. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He stepped away, and then turned to look at her.  “In all the years I’ve known your father, I’ve never heard him raise his voice, let alone a finger, against you,” he said.

Abby stared down at the bleached wood of the table. “No, he never did. But he’s ill,” she said, softly. “Confused now. The doctor says it won’t be long–” She bit her lip.

“But whilst he’s confused, he’s violent?”

“Yes.”

“And he holds the purse strings?”

Her head shot up at that, and then she sighed. “You noticed, huh?”

“I noticed.”

“He thinks I’m some Jezebel, out to rob him. I’ve been using my savings from the library to keep things going, but I’m almost out.”

Mac felt a surge of admiration for her. She was amazingly loyal to her father, even in the most difficult circumstances. Ethan must be truly confused to mistake his precious daughter for a mercenary woman of the streets. To his knowledge, Abby had never even had a boyfriend.

His mind flickered back to Abby staggering out of the room, holding not just her face but also her breast, and his face darkened. Was she hiding injuries?

“Anyway,” she said, briskly, lowering the icepack, “enough of my problems. What brings you here?”

He told her briefly and succinctly what the sheriff had said. When he’d finished, Abby looked worried. “I’ll get the guns ready, bring the cattle closer to the house,” she decided. “Then I think I’d better–”

Mac shook his head. “Abby?”

“Yes?”

“Perhaps I could suggest another option?”

She cast a wary glance at him. “What’s that?”

“Would you and your father come and stay at the Lone Star for a while?”

A deep blush spread across her features. “No. It’s out of the question.”

“Why?”

“You’re a single man. It wouldn’t be right.”

He sighed. “I’m an old fashioned man, Abby. I wouldn’t suggest something indecent. Your virtue would be safe with me. Calla, Jeb and your father would be there as well.”

“Even so, we can manage. There’s no need–”

“Was today the first time your father hit you?”

The silence stretched and he read in her closed face that it was not. “You need help with him, Abby,” he said, quietly. “If he was himself, he’d tell you not to put yourself at risk.”

For a moment, she looked trapped. Mac’s eyes narrowed. Moving to the Lone Star was undoubtedly the best option, and Abby must know it. But something about the idea was worrying her. “Suppose you level with me, Abby,” he said. “What’s really bothering you about coming to the ranch?”

Abruptly, Abby stood up and turned to dump her mug in the sink. She wondered briefly what he would say if she told him the truth – that she didn’t want to be near him because she’d always been attracted to him and didn’t want him to know. Oh, she had no doubt that if he ever did find out he would let her down gently, he was a kind man. But he was well out of her league, and she knew it.

There was another reason, too, why she didn’t want to go. Embarrassed, she turned to face him. “I… don’t want Calla and Jeb to see this.” She gestured to her face. “I don’t want them to know that my father…”

“That your father hit you.”

She stared down at the scuffed toes of her boots.

Mac nodded. “What if I could help?”

“How?”

“If I could, would you come to the Lone Star?”

For a moment, she hesitated. “Maybe my father could go? I could stay here and look after the animals.”

Mac shook his head. “Not with a gang of cattle thieves roaming the area. It’s too dangerous.”

“I’d be fine. I can shoot.”

“No.”

“Are you always this bossy?”

“You can bet on it. Where the safety and security of my friends and family are concerned, definitely.”

She grimaced. “Okay. Fine. Just until the thieves are caught.”

“Right. Good. Go and pack what you need for yourself and your father. I’ll sort out the rest.”

“But what are you going to do? I can’t just go, there are the animals.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll see to everything.”

He was like a force of nature, sweeping away every obstacle in his path, she thought, an hour later.

First, he’d gone in to speak to her father. After ten minutes, he’d emerged looking somber.

Abby had been hovering anxiously outside the door. “Mac, are you all right?”

He nodded. “He didn’t know who I was,” Mac said, quietly. “I don’t think he even knows where he is.”

“No,” she agreed. “The doctor said it might take him that way, at the last.”

Mac nodded. “You’re doing the right thing, bringing him to the Lone Star,” he said. “He’d be too much for anyone to manage alone, now.”

Then, in the time it had taken her to pack, he’d arranged for three of his men to come over to the house to stay and protect the property. He’d arranged for Jeb to come over to collect Ethan. He’d called Ethan’s doctor to let him know the situation. And he’d set Calla the task of finding a male nurse for him.

When she’d protested at the expense, he’d just looked at her and smiled. “I’ve been friends with your family for years, honey,” he said gently. “Friends are supposed to help one another.” Abby had stared at him nonplussed, and then given in. How was she supposed to disagree with a statement like that?

By the time Jeb arrived, she was settled in Mac’s car, a scarf concealing the bruising on her face. Once Jeb had gone inside, Mac got into the car.

“Where are we going?” Abby asked curiously.

“To Billings.”

“Oh. Right.”

He didn’t tell her why they were going to the nearby city, and she didn’t ask. So far, he’d arranged everything efficiently, and she was beginning to feel that she could trust him. What he proposed to do about her face, she couldn’t imagine, but she had no doubt he had something up his sleeve.

“Do you know Jacob Connor?”

Abby frowned. The name rang a bell. “I think my father knows him,” she said, thinking back. “I’m sure I met him when I was younger at a cattleman’s convention. He runs cattle somewhere south of Billings…”

Mac nodded. “That’s him. Well, he was attacked by the gang rustling cattle. He’s in the hospital.”

“Oh, no!”

Mac nodded. “I gather he’s quite seriously hurt. I wondered if you would care to come with me later to visit him.”

“Oh! Yes, of course.”

“Great.”

An hour later, they reached the outskirts of the city of Billings. Mac pulled up outside a pharmacy. “Stay here,” he said briefly. “I won’t be long.”

He was back a few minutes later carrying a large paper bag. Dropping it onto the back seat without comment, he continued to drive until he reached a neat looking building.

“Right,” he said, parking, “come with me.”

Abby frowned. She could see brass plates fixed to the wall outside of the building. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought the place was a doctor’s surgery.

She walked slowly across the car park with Mac, looping the scarf around her face as much as possible. Where on earth was he taking her? “Mac, what–”

Mac stopped, and turned to her, taking her hands in his. She glanced up at him in surprise. “Abby, do you trust me?”

Abby looked at Mac, his handsome face, short black hair and intense brown eyes and swallowed, worriedly. “Is there a reason why I shouldn’t?”

Mac’s face relaxed. “Not a reason in the world. I have your best interests at heart.”

“O-kay.”

Slipping his warm hand in hers, he led her towards the building. She stopped short at the door. It was a doctor’s surgery. “Mac–”

Then they were inside, and a receptionist was smiling at them.

“Mac,” she whispered urgently, “I don’t want–”

But it was too late. They were being ushered into an office, and a friendly looking man in a white coat was coming round the desk to shake Mac’s hand.

Abby’s thoughts were whirling. Why had he brought her to a doctor? What had he heard or seen her father do before she realized he was there? Feeling sick and threatened she backed slowly towards the door.

But the doctor smiled as he turned to her and held out his hand to shake hers.  “You must be Abby. I’m Dr. Taylor. Mac rang and said you’d bumped your face.”

Abby shook his hand warily. “Abby Proudfoot. Pleased to meet you.” Mac had told him she had hurt her face? She relaxed imperceptibly, even as she thought vengeful thoughts about what she’d do to Mac for putting her in this position.

“Now then, my dear, Mac is going to wait outside while I check you over. Okay, Mac?”

For a moment, it looked as if he was going to argue, then he gave a sharp nod and left the room.

“All right, my dear,” the doctor said kindly, “take a seat.”

She sat, feeling uncomfortable.

“Now then, first of all I must stress that everything said in a doctor’s consultation is confidential. Whatever we discuss in here won’t go back to Mac or anyone else.”

Abby tensed. Why had the doctor felt the need to tell her that?

“So, to start, let me take a look at your face. It looks like you might have quite a shiner coming on there.”

He was thorough; she’d give him that, she thought, after he’d checked her cheekbones, jaw, eyes and ears. When he’d finished, he sat down, frowning. “I don’t think there’s any permanent damage,” he said, somberly. “But in my experience, bumps on the face normally occur after bumps elsewhere. Why don’t you let me check the rest, just so I can make sure you’re all right?”

For a frozen moment, Abby just stared at him, and then she gave a weary sigh. He was right. Her father had been difficult, and increasingly violent, for weeks. Her body felt sore all over, and some of the bruising was so severe that she had been worrying about it. At least a doctor would be able to reassure her that no permanent damage had been done.

“Did Mac tell you?”

Dr. Taylor shook his head. “You’re moving in that cautious way that people do when they’re hurting,” he said.

“You won’t tell–”

“No.”

Fifteen minutes later, the examination was complete. Dr. Taylor sat at his desk and looked at the trembling young woman opposite. “Well, the good news is that you haven’t broken any bones,” he said shortly. “You have extensive bruising, but you will heal. The bad news is that you have bruises that look like fingers marks on your arms and thighs that suggest that someone tried to force you sexually.”

There was a long silence. He watched the blood drain from her face, even as she wrapped her arms defensively around herself.

“I’m sorry to ask you this, my dear, but did he succeed? Because if so, there are other tests we need to do…”

“I… no,” she choked out, mortified and ashamed. “He tried, but I managed to fight him off.”

“You must have been very frightened.”

“Yes.”

The tears came unbidden then, and Dr. Taylor silently passed her a box of tissues. It was good that she was crying; mental healing would only occur once she had dealt with the shock of the situation.

After a while, once she had calmed, he said, “We should report this to the police.”

“Oh! No…”

“But he might try to do it to someone else.”

Abby’s eyes fell. “He won’t.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because he... the man who did it, is ill. He didn’t know what he was doing. I’m… not looking after him alone, any more.”

“I see.” Dr. Taylor thought for a while, and then seemed to come to a decision. “You’ll need painkillers,” he said finally. “I’ve got some here I can give you. And Mac… would you object if I told him you’re okay but fragile, and need to take it easy for a couple of weeks?”

Abby nodded. “That would be all right.”

“I’ll give you a number for a counselor, as well,” he said gently. “Either now, or later, it might benefit you to talk to someone. This lady is very good.”

Abby took the number and thanked the doctor. There was no way she could afford to pay a counselor; she could barely pay for groceries. And the thought of talking to anyone about what had happened was an anathema to her. But maybe in the future she would feel differently, she thought, putting the number in her bag.

Half an hour later, Dr. Taylor had spoken to Mac and given her the relevant medication. Abby stalked out to the car with Mac, inwardly furious at him for taking her to a doctor without any warning or discussion. Even if the visit had benefited her, she felt enormous resentment at the highhanded way he’d done it.

They got in the car in tense silence. Mac turned to talk to her. “Abby–”

“Don’t. Don’t talk to me.”

“Look, I’m sorry if you think I shouldn’t have brought you here.”

She gave him a fulminating look. “You shouldn’t have brought me here. Not without asking me first. How dare you put me in that position?” Her voice rose as she worked herself up. “You embarrassed me, you were high handed, overbearing–”

“Whoa! Now just a minute. What did you expect me to do? You were hurt, I didn’t know how badly–”

“It’s only a black eye!”

“Don’t lie to me! When you came out of your father’s room, you were holding your breast as well as your face. What did he do to you, Abby?”

“Nothing! He did nothing to me, you’re mistaken–”

Mac reached out suddenly towards her breast, and instinctively, she flinched back towards the door. Mac breathed deeply. “I’m not an idiot, Abby,” he said roughly. “I know what I saw. And you wouldn’t be that jumpy if there was nothing wrong.”

Abby bit her lip, well aware that she’d given herself away. “What do you expect me to do? I’m not used to being in cars with men who try to paw me. That’s got nothing to do with my father. That’s to do with you being a pervert!”

“What!” For a moment, he just stared at her, and then his own temper triggered. “How dare you? If you were mine, I’d put you over my knee for a remark like that!”

“I’d like to see you try! So, you beat women as well as being an arrogant, dictatorial–”

“Beat women!”’ For a moment, he looked absolutely shocked. “Is that really how you see me?”

“You said it! You said you’d put me over your knee.”

“For a spanking, not to beat you!”

“So, what’s the difference? Either way, you’d be hitting me.” She stopped, suddenly calming down. “Is that what men do with women? Hurt them?”

Mac went pale. “Is that what your father did to you?”

Abby’s eyes glittered with tears; she refused to look at him. He stared at her in dawning horror. “He didn’t–”

“No!”

“But he tried?”

With a choked gasp, she scrambled out of the car. Mac was behind her in an instant, catching her before she was half way across the car lot. She cried out in pain as he grabbed her arm, and he let go instantly. “I didn’t grab you that tightly!” he ground out, and taking hold of her, he thrust her sleeve up her arm. The five black bruises in the shape of finger marks screamed at him.

Abby stood perfectly still.

He stepped back, his face grey.

Abby felt sick.

Slowly, he pulled her sleeve back down, covering the bruises. “Abby, if I promise you have nothing to fear from me, will you get back in the car with me?”

Abby looked at him, slowly. His ashen complexion looked haggard, and his own hands were shaking. He looked as if everything in his world had ground to a sudden stop. “Yes,” she said, and heard him release a shuddering breath.

They walked back to the car together in silence. Abby glanced up at him, perturbed at the bleakness in his expression.

He halted just before they reached the vehicle, turning to her. “Abby, I know this might be the wrong thing at the wrong time, so say no if you want, but just now, all I want to do is hug you.”

“What?”

“Please. Sweetheart. Just a hug. The thought of you being hurt is killing me.”

She hesitated. There was nothing more in the world she would like than the comfort of a hug just now. But to be so close to him after all these years of daydreaming and wishing, would be torture.

Even so, she might never have the opportunity to be so close to him again. She could live forever on the memory of him in her arms.

She nodded. With a muffled groan, he gathered her up in his arms, pulling her gently towards his warm, firm body. His arms went around her as he pressed her head against his chest, his big, work-roughened hands tangling in her long, chestnut hair. She felt his head lower, and he dropped a light kiss on her hair. “Oh, honey,” he whispered roughly. “I could kill him for hurting you.”

She shook her head. “He’s my father. He was always wonderful to me, and I love him. He can’t help what happened.”

“No, I know.” He stroked her back softly. “Did he…”

She sighed. “He tried,” she admitted. “But I got away.”

He expelled a harsh breath. “Promise me you won’t go into his room without someone else with you from now on,” he said. “I couldn’t stand to have you hurt again.”

“I promise,” she said quietly.

For a moment, she rested quietly against him, listening to the powerful beat of his heart, feeling his gentle warmth, and breathing in his clean, masculine scent. It was wonderful. After months and months of feeling unsafe and alone, she could finally, for a moment, relax.

If only they were a couple. The secret longing crept unbidden into Abby’s mind. Not just for the feeling of security he gave her, wonderful though that was. She pressed closer to him. No, somehow she felt as if the world was right when she was with him. As if he was her other half. A fanciful notion she knew, but there it was. That was how she felt.

Mac felt the easing of tension in Abby’s small body, and closed his eyes. Every protective instinct he had – and he had a lot – was screaming over the abuse Abby had received. He wanted to protect her and care for her. He wanted to feel her in his arms, secure and loved. He wanted to marry her.

The realization slid over him like a warm blanket on a cold night. For years he had been drawn to her, always wishing he could get closer to her. Her father had talked about her a lot, especially over their long games of chess, and he had always been hungry for more information. Mac suspected that Ethan had been fully aware of his feelings, and had been supportive of them. But, like Calla, he had always explained Abby’s evasiveness as shyness.

Not that she seemed all that shy now, he reflected. Admittedly, she’d had little choice but to interact with him, but she had not hesitated to express her feelings in an extremely forthright way. But if she wasn’t shy, why had she always avoided him?

As she pressed her small body closer to him, he felt his body react sharply. There was something about her that was so feminine, so appealing, so arousing…

Abruptly, he moved her away from him. After a revelation like the one she’d just shared, the last thing she needed was an awareness of his attraction to her.

Surprised at the sudden withdrawal, Abby looked up. Mac’s face looked flushed. And then he smiled down at her, his warm brown eyes laughing. “Abby, I’m starving,” he said simply. “Do you fancy going for something to eat?”

 


Would you like to read the rest of this story? It's available in our members' area. Joining is quick and easy. Click HERE!