Authors: Debra Mullins
“Naw. Word got out ‘bout you lookin’ for a wife is all. Was in the paper.”
“Is that so? Well, that might explain a few things.” Stifling a grin, Donovan took a sip of the bourbon. So, Sarah had advertised that fact, had she? Good. So far his list of eligible women was a mighty short one. He thought back to the incident with the Turner twins, then shrugged. It was worth a bit of bother if he ended up finding the right wife.
“Yep,” Amos said. “Folks been talkin’ since the paper come out on Wednesday.”
Better yet, Donovan thought, finishing off his drink. If the paper got out to some of the surrounding spreads, he might get lucky and marry himself a rancher’s daughter instead of a spinster from town. He placed his empty glass on the table and tossed some money down beside it. “I’d better get Senseless out to the ranch. See ya later, Amos.”
“I’ll come with ya.” Amos left his half empty glass on the bar, hitched up his britches and trailed along behind. It was unusual that Amos would leave a single drop of whiskey untasted, much less half a glassful, but Donovan didn’t comment. He walked out of the saloon, greeted the three men still engaged in their checker game, and headed for Senseless.
But his horse was gone.
He stopped and stared at the empty spot on the hitching post where he’d tied the bay. Rage rose, hot and fast. Who had stolen his horse? Six months ago, no one would have dared….
He turned and stalked back to where Amos was making conversation with Mort, Johnny and Gabriel.
“Mort, did you see who ran off with my horse?” Donovan demanded.
“Nope.” Mort chewed on his toothpick. “Saw him loose himself from that hitchin’ post and go off down the road yonder.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“Well, Johnny here had just kinged Gabriel, and—”
“Never mind.” Donovan had the suspicious feeling that everyone was laughing at him, and he knew this group well enough to understand that demanding answers would get him nowhere. “Which way did he go?”
“Thataway.” Johnny pointed down Main Street. “He was walkin’, not runnin’. You could probably still catch him.”
“Thanks.” Donovan set off after his errant horse.
Sarah locked up the back door to the newspaper office and turned toward home. She walked along the back fence that set the Calhouns’ property away from the town by rote, her mind in turmoil.
The newspaper article had not generated the results she had intended. The gossip mill was grinding away with speculation over the article. No doubt everyone was wondering if Sarah intended to be a contender for the position of Mrs. Jack Donovan. Ever since Saturday night, she had noticed the pointed looks and overheard the urgent whispers as she walked by. And each incident chipped away at the fragile confidence that she had managed to rebuild since Luke Petrie.
It was as if the last three years had never happened.
The one redeeming feature of this entire mess should have been Donovan’s annoyance. She had imagined several scenarios, all involving a snarling, irate Donovan bursting into the newspaper office and venting his displeasure with much shouting and pulling of hair. And she would fend off his vituperations with witty, biting comments that would set his teeth on edge until he went mad with frustration.
But she’d been denied even that small pleasure. Rumor had it that the man was out of town—he didn’t even
about the article.
As she strolled toward the back of the Calhoun house, a whinny drew her attention, and she glanced over at the corral.
Sarah picked up her skirts and ran over to the huge bay gelding standing outside the fence. Her own bay filly whickered at the other horse from inside the corral.
“Senseless?” she asked incredulously. Reaching out to grab his reins with one hand, she stroked his neck with the other. “What are you doing here?”
“That would be my question.”
Startled, Sarah saw Donovan approaching from the front of the house.
“I thought you were out of town,” she blurted.
“Keeping track of me, sassy girl? I’m flattered.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she snapped. When he extended a hand for the gelding’s reins, she held them out of his reach. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Taking back my horse.” He leaned over her, his broad chest a whisper from her face, and snagged the reins from her hand.
“Your horse? This horse belongs to Cutter Johnson.”
Still standing only inches away, he arched a brow at her. “Accusing me of horse stealing now, Sassy?”
“Of course not. And don’t call me Sassy.”
“Sarah, then. I’m thinking that if anyone’s a horse thief around here, it’s you.”
“You’re the one standing here with my horse. What am I supposed to think?”
“You bought this horse from Cutter?”
“You bet I did.”
She closed her eyes and let out a long sigh. Things had just gone from bad to worse. “Well, Mr. Donovan, you just bought yourself a passel of trouble. You can expect this to happen anytime you’re in town.”
“You plan to steal my horse whenever I come to town?”
Her eyes flew open, and she scowled up into his grinning face. That darned dimple conflicted with the wicked laughter in his eyes, giving his face a mischievous cast that she found all too attractive. “Don’t be ridiculous. No one stole your horse. Senseless used to belong to me, and he has a tendency to think this is still his home.”
Donovan glanced from Senseless, to the bay filly in the corral that was almost his exact match, and back to Sarah. “He used to be yours?”
“Yes. My mother and I had to sell Senseless three years ago when my father died. We needed the money. First we sold him to Mort Tanner.”
“Mort? Short guy, blue eyes, hangs out at the saloon?”
“Yes, Mort.” Sarah took a deep breath. “Well, that didn’t work out. When Senseless was ours, he developed a liking for my mother’s molasses cookies, so he ran away from Mort all the time and ended up here. We finally had to give Mort back his money, and we sold Senseless to Cutter Johnson, who was much farther away. We thought that might solve the problem. And until now, it did.”
Donovan was frowning at her. “So you mean to tell me that anytime I come to town, my horse is going to wander over here?”
She twisted her hands together. “Probably. That’s why I named him Senseless.”
He stared at her for so long that she had to battle the urge to shift her feet like a schoolgirl caught playing with her mama’s jewelry. Finally he just shook his head. “Woman, since I met you, all sorts of crazy things have happened to me.”
A flush slowly warmed her cheeks. “Surely you don’t blame me for this.”
He shrugged. “I’m just saying life has gotten a lot more interesting since you started chasing after me.”
Her jaw dropped. “I never—!”
“You did,” he asserted, the corners of his mouth twitching.
“Mr. Donovan, you know that’s business!”
“And what’s with this Mr. Donovan stuff? You can call me Jack, after all we’ve meant to each other.”
“I barely know you!”
“And I’ll call you Sarah,” he continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. “Though Sassy suits you better. ‘Specially after that kiss you laid on me the other night.”
? You were the one…”
“You sure are pretty when you get riled.” He caressed her cheek, making her protests fade to incoherent splutters. “Makes me want to carry you off to the nearest hay pile and see how hot you can get.”
“Mr. Donovan… Jack…” she spluttered.
“I like the way you say my name.” He stepped a little closer until her breasts just touched his chest. “I bet there’s a hay pile in that stable over there, isn’t there?”
Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. He seemed to give off some kind of heat that enticed her closer and made her want to forget that he considered her good enough to bed, but not good enough to marry. Already her breathing had gotten faster, and she took a step away, hoping the distance would help her regain some control.
“That kind of talk is inappropriate,
“Come on, Sarah.” His voice deepened to a gentle coaxing. “You and I both know that there’s fire inside you just dying to get out. I don’t know why you’re so afraid of it.”
“I’m not afraid of anything, least of all a man who dresses like an outlaw and has no concept of social graces.”
“Social graces, huh? At least I know who I am, sassy girl. Can you say the same?”
She clenched her hands into fists. “Please take your horse and get off my property. And I’ll thank you to keep your innuendoes to yourself in the future.”
“Innuendoes, hell! I was saying it straight out. You were made for loving, Sarah, but you’ve got yourself locked up so tight that even the sunlight can’t get close.”
She pressed her lips together. “That’s the second time you have insulted me. Please leave.”
He shook his head. “No insult intended. I just expected a woman like you to recognize the truth when you heard it. Guess I was wrong.”
“I don’t like your version of the truth, Mr. Donovan.” She met his gaze, hoping the hurt didn’t show in her eyes.
“Then let’s hear yours, sweet Sarah. It’s locked up inside you somewhere, but you’ve been living other people’s truth for so long that I doubt you’d recognize your own anymore.” He turned as if to leave, then paused. “And by the way, I sure do appreciate you writing that newspaper article about me. Should make wife hunting awful easy now.”
His arrogant tone made her want to scream. “Well, I certainly hope you get
what you want, Mr. Donovan.”
“I always get what I want, Sarah.” He tugged his hat brim. “Have a nice day now.”
He left her there, her emotions churning, her pride smarting, as he walked away with his horse, whistling.
Damn his handsome hide.
A week later, Donovan walked into his darkened house, having left the rest of the hands at the bunkhouse after a long, dusty day of herding his new cattle. Moonlight streamed in through the window, but he didn’t really need the light. He was comfortable in the shadows.
He hung his hat on a peg by the door and ran both hands through his sweat-drenched hair. He could do with a bath but felt too tuckered to haul out the tub and heat the water. The kitchen pump would have to do.
He stripped off his shirt, appreciating the relief as the cool night air struck his perspiration-damp flesh. Dropping the filthy garment to the floor, he stuck his head under the pump, letting the cold water wash the grime from his skin. Despite how tired he was, he much preferred a long, hot, dusty day herding cattle to what had transpired in the week since sassy girl had published her newspaper article.
Jack Donovan knew the rhythm of the hunt as well as he knew the beat of his heart. He knew the smell of the chase, the taste of it. And in his former profession, he had always been the predator.
This was the first time he had ever been the prey.
He muttered a curse, then doused his head under water again and scrubbed at his face with both hands, as if to wash away the memory.
It didn’t work. He straightened, water streaming down his cheeks and neck, and scowled into the darkness. Darn that woman. She plagued him night and day, in person or not. Everything led him back to Sarah, even his damned horse.
He swiped his hands over his hair, squeezing the water from the ends, and then glanced down at the part of him that was still clothed. With a shrug, he bent down and pulled off his boots. It was nearly midnight, and no one was here but him. He might as well wash all of him at once.
As he peeled off the garments and dropped them on the floor, his gaze fell upon the pies sitting on the table— all six of them—and the accompanying notes. Six different flavors of pie, baked by six different women, all interested in marrying up with him. He clenched his jaw. That darned Sarah—she made him hotter than a steam engine in the middle of July, but she was still all wrong for him.
He turned back to the pump, naked and aroused despite himself. Damned woman. Everywhere he turned now, he bumped into marriage-minded females. They cajoled, flirted and fainted. They stopped him on the street, rode out to the ranch, and followed him around town. The only place they never followed was into the saloon, but he had a feeling that might be next. He had even taken to bringing Matt or Amos along with him everywhere to help keep them at arm’s length. The gifts of food were only a small part of what had turned into a full-fledged, hound-dog pursuit of Jack Donovan.
At first he had been amused by Sarah’s article. Now it was getting increasingly annoying.
He gave himself a quick rinse, then gathered up his dusty clothes and padded naked through the dark, empty house. As a man who had often walked in the shadows of society, he was downright shocked at the behavior of some of these “good” women. Their chase held none of the subtlety of a true hunt. If they’d been out on the trail, they wouldn’t have been able to trap so much as a field mouse. They were too noisy, too clumsy. Heck, he’d met saloon girls with less obvious wiles.