Authors: Heather Blanton
McIntyre slid his hand out of its sling and took up a rein.
Holding his breath, he snapped the leather and the horse jerked
the buggy forward. The pain in his chest was brief, sharp, but gone almost
instantly. A good sign, he assumed.
“Are you sure you should be driving?” Naomi asked.
“I think I can manage to
take us an hour out of town.” He leaned into her, unable to avoid a little
teasing. “But if I feel the need to rest, I’ll be sure to find us a quiet
Blushing again, Naomi
snatched her gaze away, but then slid closer to him and hooked her fingers
around his arm. Her touch made him puff up like a rooster. He was proud to have
a fine woman like Naomi by his side. Beautiful, courageous, decent.
And those virtues yanked his
bit every time he started getting ahead of himself. Truth be told, she deserved
much more than the likes of Charles McIntyre.
“Can you tell me where we’re
“No.” He maneuvered their
buggy around a freight wagon and pointed the horse toward the western edge of
the valley. “I have to show you.”
Naomi bit her lip and
narrowed her eyes. “A secret?” She tossed her hair over her shoulder and wagged
her head. “For shame, I didn’t think you kept any of those.”
At first, their path angled
upward through thick pines. An hour out of town, the buggy crested a ridge and
the road flattened out. Aspens filled the woods on either side of them, their
leaves quaking in the spring breeze. Naomi stretched and arched her back. “Are
we almost there? And where is there?”
“Wagon seat wearing out its
welcome, princess?” Grinning, he motioned forward with his chin. “Right around
Moments later, McIntyre
steered the horse off the road, around a mammoth boulder, and brought the team
to a stop.
A wide, majestic valley
yawned open before them, going on for miles. Rugged, snow-capped peaks bordered
a series of flat, grassy plains and rolling, wooded hills. Hardwoods and pines
darkened the lower elevations and painted the sides of the wide green Animas
River that meandered through the heart of the valley. Overhead, a hawk
screamed, the sound echoing into the distance.
The view always made
McIntyre feel as if he were gazing down from the edge of heaven. Naomi’s
silence, however, surprised and concerned him.
“But …?”He glanced down at
her and was startled to see her eyes shining.
“John’s accident,” she
whispered. “He disappeared over a cliff like this.”
McIntyre sucked in a breath
and nodded. A wagon accident on the Million Dollar Highway had claimed her
husband’s life, thus stranding her and her sisters in Defiance. His body was
never recovered. McIntyre ached for Naomi, but he would be eternally grateful
that things had turned out the way they had.
Should he say he was sorry
for her loss? This struck him as somewhat disingenuous. “I am sorry, but I’m
also glad it brought you to Defiance.” That, at least, was honest.
She blinked and quickly
wiped away the tears. “Me too. So, what am I supposed to see?”
“It’s mine,” McIntyre swept
his arm across the vista, “all sixteen thousand acres.”
She surveyed the view once
again, looking appropriately impressed this time. “Are you going into the
He set the brake, tucked the
reins away below his feet, and then jumped from the wagon. “I am planning on
many things.” McIntyre helped her down and led her to the overlook, stopping a
few feet from the edge. The height was dizzying. He laced his fingers with hers
and drank in the amazing vista as if for the first time. “I have, in fact, a
lifetime of plans. I plan to build my ranch—my
right down there on
the river.” He gazed down at her, his heart affected by her in a way he
couldn’t explain. “I
want to do it alone.”
God, I don’t want to build a
life without her.
He slid his good arm around
her and pulled the other from its support. With a light touch, he tipped her
chin, and this time went through with the kiss. He started to pull away, but
his resolve failed him. Their lips blended and McIntyre’s body jolted as if
he’d been hit by lightning. Clutching her face between his hands, he kissed her
deeply, with a frightening need.
Naomi slid her arms around
his neck, tightening her grip as if she was holding on to a rescuer. The world
vanished, and McIntyre held her tighter and tighter, desperate to savor her and
this moment. He wove his hands through the gossamer softness of her hair like a
man starved for beauty. Standing on the edge of this cliff, the taste of her,
the hunger of her mouth, the months of not being able to touch her, made his
head swim, his heartbeat roar in his ears.
She let her fingers comb
through the black curls at the nape of his neck. She gripped his shoulders and
clung to him, and he could feel her yearning. McIntyre understood for the first
time in his life a need that went beyond his body and ignited a deeper desire.
But his hands, trained by years
of encounters with willing women, slid around to the front of her ribs. Almost
instantly, mercifully, he registered the depth of the temptation and released
her as if she was a wildfire bursting to life.
He backed away, disgusted by
what he’d almost done.
Her chest heaving, Naomi
stared back at him, her eyes filled with fear and desire. His self-control
hanging by a thread, McIntyre realized they were both fighting a raging blaze
that stole his wits and fogged his judgment. He stood for a moment, hand
outstretched to her in apology.
“I am so sorry, Naomi.”
Snatching off his hat, he turned away and ran his hand through his hair.
“Forgive me. I swore I would never treat you like … one of my girls.”
Everything has to be
different with Naomi. She’s my chance to start over.
“You kissed your Flowers
like that?” She sounded both astonished and disappointed.
He almost laughed, recalling
treated his prostitutes. “No, I did not. I’ve never kissed
any woman like that.” Twirling his hat in his hands, he smiled from surprise.
“Your kiss hits me like good whiskey—a jolt and a smooth burn.” He reached up
to rub his neck. “And it’s been quite a while since I’ve had a, uh … drink.”
He took a deep breath and
tried to clear his head. The feel of her in his arms had snatched the earth
right out from under his feet, and his balance with it.
, he told
. He worked his jaw back and forth and reminded himself of
what needed to be said, no matter the consequences. “Naomi, when you were
nursing me back to health … all that talk, about God’s grace and forgiveness …
Can you forgive as well, no matter the offense?”
“Yes, I think so,” she said,
her caution evident. “The Lord knows I’ve had to ask for forgiveness enough
“All right,” he said more to
himself than her. He took another deep breath, pinching the sweat above his
lip. “Mine is a sordid past, Naomi, and I believe certain aspects of it may
affect you directly. A man doesn’t run a brothel for years without … well,
He had made so many
mistakes, and soon Defiance would throw them right in her face. She had to
“I’ve been with my share of
women.” He half-turned to her, but couldn’t look at her. “I didn’t realize
until I met you that I’d never made
to any of them, never
in love with a single one.”
He heard her swallow.
“Charles, I don’t think I need—”
He slapped his leg with his
Stetson and straightened up. “Let me finish.” Feeling like a man about to step
before a firing squad, he took a deep breath and turned to her. Sunlight
spilled through the aspens and shimmered over her hair like a lace tablecloth.
She watched him intently, her catlike stare alert, but he saw fear there, too,
and hated himself for being the cause of it.
“When I turned fifteen, my
father took me to the largest brothel in Atlanta. We stayed for three days.”
Naomi’s jaw loosened. “Really,
“That’s the way it has
always been with the women in my life, Naomi. I’ve used them, plain and simple.
Treated them like a commodity, as you’ve so often accused me.”
She held her features still,
but the muscle between her eyebrows twitched almost imperceptibly. The knife
was in. Now McIntyre needed to figure out how
to twist it.
are the first
woman …” He took a step toward her as he searched for words. “You are the first
woman I have ever cared for more myself. I want you so much, it’s all I can
think about. And yet, I don’t want to touch you until we’re married.” He lifted
his face to heaven and fanned the air with his hat. “God knows I have
felt like that before. I had never even
about denying my
passion,” His gaze dropped back to her, “until you.”
Jamming his hat on his head,
he marched toward her. His sudden, determined stride sent her back-stepping
till she bumped into the wagon. McIntyre reached out and clutched the railing
on each side of her, trapping her. “The stagecoach routes are opening up.
People will be traveling again.” A crease in her brow revealed her confusion,
and he cursed himself for being so inept at this.
Just spit it out.
“There are women who may
come to Defiance. Women who will expect … my hospitality.”
In every sordid
. “And that will hurt you.” He tightened his grip on the
wagon, the force turning his knuckles white. “If I could, I would take another
bullet instead of putting you through that.”
Naomi shook her head and stared down at her clutched hands, trying
to get rid of the sick feeling in her gut. “Don’t say that … I don’t understand
saying, but please don’t say
“I’m saying we all gave ourselves to strangers …”
He tried to look into her
face, but Naomi avoided him. She needed a moment. A lump forming in her throat,
she wondered if he was saying good-bye. She couldn’t bear to lose him too.
“It’s the kind of thing that
destroys people, Naomi, if they can’t get past it. Ghosts come out of the
woodwork, reminding you time and again of the terrible things you’ve done.”
She looked at him then and
was saddened by the guilt and shame playing out across his face. She’d once
thought his black beard, always trimmed to perfection, gave him such a
mischievous demeanor. Now, his sparkling brown eyes showed signs of defeat, and
pain etched itself in his creased brow. His bravado gone, here was a man
stepping up to give the devil his due.
Wishing she could take away
his pain, she touched his cheek. “What are you saying really? That you don’t
think we can be together because of who you
? I’ve told you, your
sins are in the past, Charles.”
“No! No they are not.” He
shook his head, and softened his tone. “I deeply regret that you may be forced
to deal with the things I’ve done, but my past is definitely not dead and
buried. Most likely it will dog us forever. I need you to understand that … so
you can choose.”
Reeling from everything he’d
said thus far, good and bad, Naomi dropped her hand and absently fiddled with
the wedding band she still wore. He rested his forehead against hers, the
movement pushing his hat back.
“Naomi, I don’t want you to
end up hating me.”
Still spinning her ring
around her finger, she bit down on her lip and ruminated on his confession. Or
was it a warning? So what if a couple of these old flames showed up? What if
they flaunted their past relationships with Charles right in front of her? What
would she do?
Pull out some floozy’s hair.
But more importantly, what
do? She looked up. “Ghosts from your past cannot hurt anything
but my pride.” She laid her hand on his heart and spoke slowly. “
break my heart. But still I wouldn’t hate you.” She grinned. “I might shoot
you, but I would not hate you.”
They laughed softly
together, and then Naomi shook her head. “Seems to me the real question here is
are going to do if any of these women show up.”
“I am done with them.” The
uncompromising tone in his voice gave her hope. “I’m done with that life. I’ll
make it clear the moment any of them set foot in Defiance.” He clutched her
hand and moved a breath closer. “I give you my word I will honor you, Naomi,
and what you mean to me.”
She heard a fierce
determination in his voice and prayed it was born of love and not fear that he
He brushed her bangs aside
and searched her face. “You make me believe …” He shook his head, an
incredulous smile tipping his lips. “You make me believe.”