The cowhand named Obie spat on the ground. The glob landed at Josie’s feet. As she stepped back, Ty grabbed Obie by the collar and lifted him to his toes. “Mind your manners, Jones.”
Ty lifted him higher. “What did you say?”
“Mizz Bright’s no lady.”
Josie blanked her face, but she felt the sting of Obie’s words. After her father died, she’d learned to be tough. She drove hard bargains and wore trousers when she worked. She liked pretty things as much as any woman, but she’d traded lace for denim and hat pins for a Stetson. She liked the Stetson just fine, but sometimes she longed for the lace.
Right now, she didn’t care about either. She had to keep Obie from quitting.
Ty had no such concern. Using both hands, he hurled the man against the wall. Obie hit with a thud but came back swinging. Ty ducked, then landed a punch that sent Obie to the ground. Gordie cussed, then swung at Ty. The blow snapped back his head.
“Stop it!” Josie ordered.
Fists still flew and curses filled the air. Blood spilled from a cut on Ty’s jaw, but he didn’t seem to care. Josie knew better than to get between brawling males. Instead she went to the water trough on the side of the barn, filled a bucket and lugged it back around the corner.
She’d have gladly doused the three of them, but the fight had already ended. Obie was sitting on the ground, wiping blood from his nose. Gordie had dropped to his knees and was tossing up his breakfast. Ty alone had stayed on his feet, but he was destined for a black eye, maybe two.
Josie saw red. “I can’t believe you gentlemen!”
Obie glared at Ty. “Believe it, Mizz Bright. I quit.”
“Me, too,” said Gordie.
Panic welled in her middle. “But–”
“Get lost,” Ty ordered.
Gordie managed to stand. “She owes us wages.”
Josie felt ill. She owed them a month’s pay and didn’t have it.
Ty pulled a billfold out of his pocket, then looked at Josie. “How much?”
She shook her head. “I can’t let you do it.”
“Sure, you can.”
She bit her lip. “This isn’t your problem.”
Ty looked peeved. Before she could argue, Gordie named the exact amount.
Ty opened his billfold and held out the money. As Obie took his share, he glared at Ty. “You owe me for the smokes.”
“Sure.” Ty tossed a handful of pennies to the ground. “That ought to cover it.”
Obie sneered at him. “You’re gonna pay for this, Donner.”
“I expect so.”
More broke than prideful, Obie stooped to pick up the coins, then motioned for Gordie to follow him to the bunkhouse. With Ty shadowing them, the men packed their things and saddled their horses. She didn’t know whether to be angry with Ty or grateful. She needed help, but Obie and Gordie had given her nothing but grief.
As the men rode off, Ty started to chuckle.
Josie put her hands on her hips. “What’s so funny?”
In spite of the bruises, he looked pleased with himself. “I always did like a good fight. I guess I still do.”
“That was good?”
“One of the best.” His expression turned serious. “Those men disrespected you, Josie. I won’t tolerate that treatment for you or for Isabel. I have it coming. You don’t.”
Josie disagreed. “No one deserves meanness. That includes you.”
He grinned. “There you go again.”
“Being nice to worthless fools . . . You have a real knack for it.”
“In your dreams,” Cara had said to Kevin when he’d made that outlandish request, but he’d only grinned with mischief and said,
“something like that.”
Now, dressed in jeans and wearing leather boots Kevin had provided, Cara sat upon Dream Catcher, the five-year old mare who had been born at TCC’s stables when Cara had been living with Kevin. Growing up with horses on her parent’s estate, Cara had forgotten how much she loved riding. She and Kevin would take an occasional ride in their early years of marriage, before he’d been too obsessed with work to take the time.
The day Dream Catcher was born, Cara had rushed to the stables and the moment she’d seen the feisty little filly, she’d fallen a little bit in love. To sit upon the sweet mare and ride off into the hills of Maverick County with Kevin seemed almost like a dream.
The Texas sun lowered onto the horizon and burst hues of orange gold onto the valley as they rode in silence. There was a quiet settle to the land, a peace like nothing Cara had experienced for a long time. She’d been so caught up in the fast pace of Dallas, that she’d forgotten what it was like to be with nature. Kevin seemed to understand that, setting the slow pace and enjoying the scenery. There was an odd sense of comfort being here with him. She could almost forget his blackmail and his manipulation.
She slid a glance his way and let go a little sigh. Looking just as comfortable atop a horse as he was cutting a deal in his downtown office, Kevin acclimated well. Dressed in solid Wranglers, a blue plaid shirt and black Stetson, her husband dressed down very nicely.
“You’re staring at me,” he said with a grin.
“Oh, you’d like to think so.” Caught, Cara averted her gaze, hiding her own grin.
“I know so. See anything you like?”
Cara sobered at his question. “I don’t know, Kevin. Do I?”
Kevin clucked his jaw a few times. “You need to lighten up, Cara. Enjoy the scenery.”
“And you think you’re part of that scenery?”
“Me,” he said, lowering the brim of his hat. “No ma’am. I wouldn’t presume.”
Cara chuckled. Okay, maybe she should just lighten up. She didn’t like Kevin’s blackmail, but she could enjoy the ride. If for no other reason, she was atop Dream Catcher on a glorious late summer evening.
“I see a whole lot I like,” Kevin said quietly, after a minute.
Cara sensed his gaze on her and a burning heat crawled up her neck. She didn’t dare look at him. A lump formed in her throat. She didn’t trust herself to respond.
They rode in silence until the dirt path led them to a rise. “Wait here,” Kevin said mysteriously, and clicked his mare into a trot. He rode on about ten yards to the peak of the rise then turned toward her. “Okay, come on up.” He gestured with a wave.
Dream Catcher followed the path in a trot, until Cara met Kevin at the top of the rise. Looking into his eyes first then following the direction of his gaze, Cara gasped at the view below. “Oh, Kevin. This is amazing.”
A small well-kept cottage on the TCC property was lit outside by at least a hundred pillar candles. A table, dressed in white linen was set with fine china, crystal wine glasses and lilies of every variety.
“It’s beautiful.” Tears stung her eyes. Why couldn’t he have done something like this years ago when their marriage was shaky? When she needed attention. When she needed to know she was more important than his business. Oh, Kevin, she thought, why are you doing this now when it’s too late? Her questions plagued her, but she pushed them out of her mind.
Lighten up, Cara.
This is temporary.
“I’m glad you like it.” Kevin pushed his horse on and Dream Catcher followed him down the other side of the rise. When they reached the cottage, Kevin dismounted. He walked over to Cara and reached for her. She slid down the left side of the horse into Kevin’s arms. He held her, their gazes entwined as luminous candles lit the backdrop.
“You were always gorgeous in candlelight, babe.”
Cara smiled, the compliment warming her heart.
Kevin tilted his head, the brim of his Stetson grazing her forehead. She braced herself for the kiss, tightening up inside in anticipation.
Kevin brushed his lips slightly over hers in the lightest feather touch of a kiss then backed away. Cara blinked, a little surprised.
He took her hand. “Have a seat.” He guided her to the table and pulled out the chair for her. “I’ll see to the horses.”
She watched him take the reins of both horses and go behind the cottage. When he returned and sat down, a chef appeared at the table wearing a white coat and tall hat, a waiter standing just behind him. “I hope you enjoy the meal Mister and Missus Novak,” the chef said.
“I’m sure we will,” Kevin returned, with a nod.
Cara sat quietly while the waiter served their first course, a little pastry puff filled with light cheese and raspberries. She took her first bite and closed her eyes. “Oh…this is heaven.”
When she opened her eyes, Kevin’s gaze was on her, watching her enjoy the pastry with a gleam in his eyes. “The chef came highly recommended.”
Cara was again tempted to ask, why was he going to so much trouble? The question still plagued her, but she’d already decided that she would just go with the flow and see where that would take her, so she remained silent on the subject. “I can see why. He’s already got my vote for Chef of the Year.”
Kevin poured them each a glass of light wine.
Cara sat back in her seat and stared into Kevin eyes. “You can be so charming, when you want to be.”
“I want to be. Right now. With you.”
Why? Cara didn’t understand it, but the voice in her head told her to go with it and enjoy these last few days with Kevin. Soon enough, their marriage would be over.
When they finished all four courses of the main meal Kevin suggested they go inside the cottage for coffee and dessert. “The chef made us something special.”
“I should be full, but I can always fit in dessert,” Cara said, feeling the zipper of her jeans expanding a bit. She was slender and at five foot eight, she could afford to eat a decadent dessert once in a while.
Kevin stood and reached for her hand. With fingers entwined, they entered the cottage, climbing the steps, their boots scraping the wooden floors. Cara made a quick tour of the quaint cottage noting the rustic stone fireplace, cozy chintz sofa and several swag-draped pane windows. “It’s lovely here.”
“It was the groundskeeper’s home at one time. TCC let it go to ruin, practically. I renovated it and now it’s available-”
“For impressing your dates?” she blurted, in a teasing tone.
Kevin whipped around and grabbed her by the waist, bringing her flush up against him. “You have a mouth on you, don’t you?”
Cara pulled her head back to look at him fully. “You always liked my sassy mouth.”
Kevin’s gaze devoured her mouth. He cupped her head with one hand and pulled her close, his lips ever so close. “I still do.”
Cara’s heart pumped double time when he kissed her. He tasted of robust wine and warmth. He tasted familiar and fine. He tasted of all the sweet things in her life she missed. “Kevin.”
“I love it when you whimper my name,” he said between kisses.
“I didn’t whimper,” Cara protested mildly. Kevin cupped her derriere and tugged her in. Hip jamming hip, she felt his desire, rough against rough as their jeans brushed.
Kevin nibbled on her throat. “Really? Guess I’m gonna have to do something about that.”