Colorado Heart (9781101612026)

BOOK: Colorado Heart (9781101612026)
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Praise for the novels of Cindy Holby

“A strong story with a lot of excitement and action added in.”

—
Once Upon a Romance

“A wondrous adventure, full of action and suspense, which will enchant readers.”

—
Romantic Times

“The history, the characters and the plot blended flawlessly for a well-rounded story and hard-won happily ever after.”

—
Night Owl Reviews

“I couldn't put this book down once I started it. I highly recommend
Rising Wind
be added to your must-read list.”

—
Fresh Fiction

“A fast-paced, romantic adventure filled with laughter and danger . . . The pages turn very quickly and their story of adversity keeps the reader absorbed.”

—
Romance Reviews Today

“A delightful western romance . . . The storyline is at its best when it concentrates on the lead couple, especially during humorous interludes.”

—
Midwest Book Review

“Cindy Holby takes us on an incredible journey of love, betrayal and the will to survive. Ms. Holby is definitely a star on the rise!”

—
The Best Reviews

“Like no other book you'll read, and you owe it to yourself to experience it.”

—EscapetoRomance.com

“Ms. Holby has created a delightful and fast-paced medieval fantasy full of characters that felt real and poignant.”

—
Romance Reader At Heart

Berkley Sensation titles by Cindy Holby

ANGEL'S END

COLORADO HEART

Colorado Heart

Cindy Holby

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) • Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

COLORADO HEART

A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / November 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Cindy Holby

Cover art by Jim Griffin.

Cover design by George Long.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ISBN: 978-1-101-61202-6

BERKLEY SENSATION
®

Berkley Sensation Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

BERKLEY SENSATION
®
is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

The “B” design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

For the men in my life, each one a hero.
Rob, Josh and Drew.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A special thank you to my agent, Roberta Brown, my editor, Kate Seaver, and the members of HCRW for all the sound advice through the years. And of course my wonderful werearmadillos who share all the ups and downs this crazy business throws at us every day.

ONE

W
inter, always a deceptive mistress, had been downright brutal this year, especially in the mountains of Western Colorado. Certainly there were days when she was a calm and gracious lady, painting the valleys and ridges with gentle snowflakes and crisp air in a sky so blue that it hurt the eyes to look at it. But then there were days when she was vindictive and mean. She sent howling winds that would slice right through a man like the sharpest sword and swirling snow that could disorient you so quickly, that if you weren't careful, you'd fall right off a mountain. During her bad spells the days were so dark that you couldn't tell if or when the sun was up or down, and if you were lucky enough to have some sort of shelter, you could easily lose track of the days.

Jacob Reece stared out of his office window at the drifts of snow that made him feel like a prisoner in his own home. Winter had hung on too long, there was work to be done and a life to be lived and Jake was itching to do both. He felt as if he'd been frozen in the snow all winter, but now that spring was on the horizon, he was like a bear waking up from hibernation. He was hungry for something; he just couldn't figure out at the moment what it was.

Jake had spent many a winter morning trudging the path that led to his barns and bunkhouse in a seemingly endless circle to check on his stock and his men, who were more than willing to lie in their beds and sleep after they had finished the minimal chores that could be done, considering the weather. The early afternoons he spent walking the polished wooden floors of his sprawling ranch house, while outside the snow blew and swirled until it drifted up to the eaves. Most late afternoons he cleaned the guns that filled his case and cussed at his cook, Fu, who cussed back in Mandarin while banging the pots and pans in the large kitchen of Jake's house that was the Chinaman's domain. In the evenings he read the many books that filled the shelves on either side of the large stone fireplace in his wood-paneled office. But mostly Jake just stared out the windows of his lonely home and waited for the snow and the howling wind to cease their brutal attack.

The nights were the worst. He lay alone in his big feather bed with its abundance of pillows and quilts and thought about what he would do when the weather broke. He made plans for his ranch but those plans didn't do anything to alleviate the strange longing that seemed to fill his soul. Something was missing in his life; he just couldn't put his finger on what it was.

He thought he'd be married by now. It was part of his plan, but fate changed that for him in a hurry. The woman he thought to make his wife fell in love with another man.
Love.
As far as Jake was concerned, love was for fools. It didn't pay the bills and it most certainly didn't get the work done. It might keep a body warm on a cold and snowy night, but that was about all it did.

Now March was over and at last he had something to look forward to. As Jake marked the days off his calendar, he took some comfort in the knowledge that soon he would not have to fight his way through the blowing snow that had drifted up to the rooftops, just to do the simplest chores. Soon he would be able to simply walk to the barn to check on his horses, and his men, who were growing fat and lazy with the forced confinement in the bunkhouse, would go back to work and earn their keep. Now that it was the end of March, winter, which had held Angel's End in its grip since the end of October, would soon be over.

With April came the thaw, and they could all go back to work. Then he would know how many of his thousand-plus cattle had survived the winter. Where Jake was concerned, not knowing was the worst of it. If he didn't know, then he couldn't plan. Planning ahead was what got him to this place in his life. He'd scraped his way up from nothing, to owning his own ranch and a thousand head of cattle, all by the time he was thirty years old. It took hard work, planning, and never taking your eyes off your goal.

“Ready to eat, Mr. Jake?”

Jake turned from the window in his office, and a final March evening of musings, to where the Chinaman stood in the doorway in his silks and braid.

“It depends,” Jake said. “Is it beans again?”

“It is beans,” Fu said.

Jake sighed. All of his careful planning wasn't enough to get him through the worst winter in years. Jake was tired of beans, tired of bacon and especially tired of the long and lonely winter evenings.

Fu stood in the doorway of Jake's office with a large spatula in his hand. Jake eyed it warily. Fu had been known to throw things when he was angry. As long as it wasn't a knife, he figured he was safe. The man could pin a fly to the wall with a paring knife if the notion took him.

“If you want something else then you need go to town to bring me something else to cook. I can't make magic in kitchen when nothing in larder but beans and bacon.”

Fu had been singing that same song for a week. “If I could get to town then I wouldn't have to worry about you making magic in the kitchen.” Jake felt his temper rising. “I could just eat there! The company would definitely be better.”

“It not Fu's fault that snow is waist deep,” Fu argued back. The two men had definitely spent too much time together of late. Just the sound of Fu's voice grated on Jake's nerves.

“Tomorrow, Fu,” Jake returned. “I'm going to try to make it to town tomorrow.”

“There is a crazy donkey outside.”

“Donkey?” Jake looked at Fu like he was crazy, which he might very well be. Being cooped up did strange things to a person. Made them see things or talk to people who weren't there. “What donkey?”

“Same donkey come to see Mr. Jake last year when miners die,” Fu said. “Same donkey standing by barn right now.”

Jake followed Fu to the kitchen and looked out the broad window that faced the barn. Sure enough a gray donkey with an oversized backside stood by the barn door, twitching her tail while she brayed to be let inside.

“What in the hell?” Jake grumbled. “What is that fool donkey doing out here, and how did it manage to get here all the way from town?”

“Last time donkey come, it bring bad news. Maybe it bring bad news again,” Fu said.

Jake was afraid that Fu was right. The donkey should have been safe and sound in Jim Martin's livery in Angel's End. Had something happened in town? There was only one way to find out. He kicked off his slippers and yanked on the knee-high, buffalo-hide boots he kept by the back door for when the snow was deep. He pulled on his long wool coat and bundled his scarf several times around his neck. A toboggan over his ears and his thick gloves over his hands completed his outfit.

“You got any recipes for donkey?” he asked Fu before he opened the door.

“Fu have no magic to make donkey taste good.”

“That figures,” Jake grumbled as he opened the door and stepped into the dimming light. Not that he planned on actually eating the donkey.

The wind had lost its sharp edge since he was out this morning. It no longer cut through a body like a knife; instead it swirled around his coattails like a mischievous child, teasing him and then running away, only to come back and tease again. The snow held its crusty surface, even though bits of it slid loose into the path he'd beaten down in his daily treks to the barn and bunkhouse. Jake kicked some from his path and it flew out in every direction before it spattered onto the frosty blanket that covered everything within sight.

The one thing you could count on in his small valley was that winter would inevitably loosen her grip, even if her fingers had to be pried off, one at a time. At least what he saw was a start. The sky was clear and the moon, behind the spiky ridge of the mountains, promised to be bright in the sky when it finally made its ascent.

“Libby!” Jake called out to the recalcitrant donkey who stood with her nose pressed to the crack between the double doors of the barn. “What are you doing here?”

Libby turned to Jake, laid her ears back and let out a hoarse, honking, teeth-baring bray. Jake plowed onward to the barn until he was able to grab onto her halter. “Don't tell me you came all the way from town,” he said as he pushed open the door wide enough for them to slip in.

Or so he thought. The donkey's huge backside was too big for the opening and she brayed her annoyance. “What has Jim been feeding you?” Jake asked as he wrangled his way around Libby and pushed the door open wider. She trotted in with an indignant shake and went immediately to the feed bin while the chickens squawked their annoyance as they fled from her path.

Oscar, his huge yellow barn cat, crept out of a stall, stretched, meowed and twined his way around Jake's ankles. His horse, a golden palomino called Bright, put his head over the stall door and neighed in recognition to Libby. The rest of the horses looked curiously at the interloper as they lazily stretched and shook themselves awake from their afternoon doze.

“What brings you here?” Jake asked the donkey. He ran expert hands over her flanks to check for injuries and sniffed her coarse bristle mane for the scent of smoke. Fires were always a hazard, especially in winter. A fire at the stable certainly would have sent the donkey running for the hills. Fortunately, or unfortunately for his nose, all he smelled was donkey and something else that was unfamiliar and disturbing. It belonged to an animal, he was certain, and did not hold a threat. He dismissed it as not worth the bother at the moment, and something Libby had probably picked up in her flight. Still something was amiss. Why else would the donkey be here?

Libby nuzzled through the feed bin, which was for the most part empty, and once more brayed her displeasure. Jake scooped a handful of feed into the bin and looked the donkey over once more.

“Why do you always come here when something is bothering you?” he asked. He didn't expect an answer but that didn't stop the nagging worry. Libby had shown up on his property last fall and led him to the mining camp in the mountains above Angel's End. Jake, upon following her, had found the entire population of the camp dead from a measles epidemic. It was a gruesome scene and not one that Jake cared to repeat.

Lib responded by planting her hoof on top of his foot and bearing down.

“Dang it!” Jake shoved her aside and hobbled around the barn as pain shot through his foot. The buffalo hide was good for staying dry, but it didn't offer much protection from stupid critters that were put on earth to torture him.

“That's it,” Jake said when his foot finally stopped throbbing. “I'm taking you back where you belong.”

Lib opened her mouth wide and hee-hawed in his face. Jake pushed her aside and went down the line of stalls and opened the one that housed Skip. Skip was a scrappy little mustang the color of mud. There was nothing appealing in any way about his looks, but he was solid and strong and had a
don't quit
attitude that Jake loved. He'd much rather ride Skip through the deep snow than Bright, who was too valuable to risk on the fool's mission he had planned.

After saddling Skip he went back to the house to change.

“Mr. Jake going to town?” Fu asked as he followed Jake upstairs. “Night coming. Mr. Jake will freeze or fall into snowbank, even fall off mountain,” Fu chattered on as Jake stepped onto the thick rug that covered his bedroom floor.

“Dang it, Fu, I'm not going to ride over any mountains. I'm just going to town. If that stupid donkey can make it all the way up here, then I sure as hell ought to be able to make it back down.” Jake unbuttoned his shirt with sharp jerking motions.

“Fu make list.” The Chinaman pulled a piece of paper from the sleeve of his shirt and handed it to Jake.

“You knew I was going all along, didn't you?” Jake asked as he dropped his shirt on his high bed. He would more than likely miss its comfort in an hour or so. With luck he'd be in town by then. And not freezing to death in some drift.

“Mr. Jake need to drink whiskey and talk to his friends,” Fu said.

The rest was lost to Mandarin as Fu left the room muttering to himself.

Jake changed into a warm pair of long johns, a heavy flannel shirt, a thick knitted sweater and a sturdy pair of pants. He pulled on two pairs of socks and stuffed his feet into his boots. He went into his office and retrieved his Colt .45 and holster from the rack. Hungry wolves didn't care if their prey had two legs or four, and he wasn't about to make things easy for them. He finished up by putting on a short heavy jacket, followed by his duster, leather gloves and toboggan. He shoved his hat on top of the toboggan and got a Spencer from the gun rack next to the front door.

“Here's hoping I don't freeze to death,” he said to the reflection he saw in the mirror of the coat stand. “Dang it, Fu is right. I do need some company since I'm standing here talking to myself.” Jake shook his head at his foolishness and walked out the front door, shutting it securely behind him.

“You heading to town, Mr. Jake?” Two of his hands, Randy and Dan, came out of the bunkhouse as he approached the barn, both dressed for the weather. Jake knew they were as antsy as he was.

BOOK: Colorado Heart (9781101612026)
8.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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