Clara pushed Foxfire to a lope, feeling the joyful stretch of the colt’s body between her knees. There was an old barbed wire fence between the ranch land and her grandmother’s property. But the wires were down in several places where the cattle had butted against the posts. It would be easy to jump the horse through.
They came up fast on the fence, with Clara leaning forward in the saddle. She was urging her mount to a jump when she caught sight of the gleaming new barbed wire at the level of the colt’s chest.
Some fool had fixed the fence!
With an unladylike curse, she wrenched the reins to one side. The pressure on his bit-tender mouth sent Foxfire into a frenzy. He reared and stumbled sideways. Thrown from the saddle Clara slammed to the ground. For a terrifying instant the colt teetered above her, hoofs flailing. Then he regained his balance, wheeled and galloped away.
Clara lay gasping on her back. Cautiously she moved her arms and legs. Nothing felt broken, but the hard landing had knocked the wind out of her. She took a moment to gather her wits. First she needed to catch her breath. Then she would need to get up and catch her horse. After that she intended to hunt down the addle-pated so-and-so who’d replace the sagging wire and give him a piece of her mind.
“Are you all right?” The voice that spoke was distinctly male, with a gravelly undertone. The face that loomed into sight above her was square-boned with a long, stubbled jaw. Tawny curls, plastered with sweat and dust, tumbled over blazing blue eyes.
It flashed through her mind that her virtue could be in serious danger. But the man leaning over her didn’t look lustful. He looked concerned—and furious.
Clara struggled to speak but the fall had left her breathless. It was all she could do to return his scowl.
“What in hell’s name did you think you were doing?” he growled. “You damn near ran that horse into the wire. You could’ve cut its chest to pieces and broken your own fool neck in the bargain.”
Summoning her strength Clara rose up on her elbows and found her voice. “What right do you have to question me?” she retorted. “Who are you and what are you doing on Seavers land?”
His gaze flickered over the straining buttons of her plaid shirt, then averted to his own muddy boots. The boots, Clara noticed, were expensively made. Most likely the rough-looking fellow had stolen them.
“Begging your pardon.” His voice was razor-edged. “Until you fell off your horse, I was on the other side of the fence—Mrs. Gustavson’s fence, if I’m to believe her, and I do. She’s hired me to make some repairs.”
Clara scrambled to her feet. One hand brushed the damp earth off the seat of her denim jeans. “Mary Gustavson is my grandmother, and this fence has been down for as long as I can remember. Whose addle-brained idea was it to put the wire up?”
Josephine Wylie marched back inside the livery, still madder than a dunked cat. If those two mangy curs had done anything to hurt Danny–
Her eyes lit on the fancily-dressed stranger, and she suddenly had a target for her anger.
He smiled and stepped forward. “I believe introductions are in order. I’m Ryland Lassiter.”
She ignored the hand. “You’re also a flea-brained fool. What in Sam Hill did you think you were doing?”
He stiffened, slowly lowering his hand. “I was coming to the aid of that stalwart young man at your side.”
Hah! Did he think he was going to win her over with his highfalutin talk and that toe-tingly deep voice of his? She planted her fists on her hip. “By going up against two gun-toting varmints with nothing but a pitchfork?”
“Now see here–”
She didn’t give him a chance to finish. “Mister, you might be the biggest toad in the pond where you come from, but that don’t mean beans around here. If you want to risk your own hide, that’s your business, but your blamed fool actions put Danny in danger too. That’s either pebble-brained stupidity or grizzly-sized disregard for others, neither of which I can stomach.”
“Nor can I.” The man’s words were controlled but she didn’t miss the flash of temper in his storm-gray eyes. “I also can’t abide bullies. When I arrived, Danny was already trying to face them down. I only–”
“What!” Jo’s heartbeat kicked up a notch as she swung around. “Daniel Edward Atkins, I’ve told you before, nothing’s worth getting shot over. If someone gives you this kind of trouble, let it go and we’ll get Sheriff Hammond to handle it afterwards.”
The boy kicked at a clod of dirt. “I’m big enough to hold my own.”
She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Danny, I got to know you’re going to mind what I tell you when I leave you in charge.”
He gave a reluctant nod, then glanced past her, reminding Jo they weren’t alone.
And that she had some crow to eat.