Authors: Kate Watterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Western, #Erotica
More foolish than ever now. He had something to live for and it had been a long time since he’d felt that way. Even purchasing the ranch, while it represented a new life, hadn’t affected him like the woman sitting across the fire.
Victoria had combed her shining hair and was braiding it simply in the way he’d taught her, her fingers graceful. At first he’d been astonished to find a young woman who didn’t have such a simple skill, but then again, she’d explained with a hint of defensive embarrassment, her personal maid had always done her hair. Once on the wagon trail with her aunt and uncle, she’d just tied it back with a ribbon and tucked it into the bonnet she wore to protect her complexion.
Already, since riding with them, though she kept her hat on almost all the time, she was no longer the epitome of the pale English rose but had acquired a hint of gold on her skin.
Both Jace and Robert also were riveted, and it was evident she’d noticed that no one was talking but all three of them were just sitting there by the fire, watching her. She secured the end of the braid with a small leather thong and moved the thick rope of golden hair over her shoulder, and her dark blue eyes considered each one in turn. “Is there some reason all of you gentlemen are so quiet?”
They were hardly gentlemen, and Cole least of all, since he’d taken her virginity just hours ago.
Robert, ever the diplomat, was the one to answer. “I think we’re all trying to figure out how to handle what happened between you and Cole from here on out.”
“Oh.” Her response was barely audible.
Cole wasn’t sure what came next either. Just because she’d given herself to him earlier didn’t necessarily mean he had a claim. She’d offered and he’d accepted and he didn’t regret one touch, one kiss, and to his dying day he’d remember what it felt like to be inside her, but he had no illusions she was his alone.
Even in the firelight, her vivid blush was visible but she was also remarkably poised and sat with ladylike composure on a fallen log Jace had dragged close to the camp for her, demure in her trousers and boots, her blouse loose at the neck, exposing her slim throat. It took her a moment, but she said with admirable composure, “I’ve been thinking quite in depth about what will happen when we reach the Crescent Moon.”
They’d named the ranch after the shape of the small, secluded valley, and since they finally had the deed and it was all theirs, it was the subject of conversation on the trail pretty often. Victoria probably knew as much about it as they did by now.
Jace rose from where he’d been poking at the fire with a stick to stir the embers. “I think you’ll find us pretty interested to hear what you’ve come up with.”
“I can’t cook.”
No, she couldn’t. Robert had tried to teach her how to make biscuits but it was clear from the results she’d never touched a pan, much less flour and lard. “Nope,” Cole agreed laconically. “That you can’t, my lady.”
She sent him a quelling glance, but she had the innate grace to half-smile. “You didn’t have to agree so readily.”
“It took me two days to recover from eating that biscuit. Thought I’d swallowed a horseshoe.”
But he grinned when he said it, both in reassurance and because he had the impulse to grin anyway. She did that to him.
Victoria laughed, but then went on doggedly, “I can’t saddle a horse, or sew a shirt or make soap either.”
“We can buy our soap and shirts, and you’ll learn to cook,” Robert argued. “One of us will saddle your horse for you. We understand about your upbringing. It doesn’t matter.”
Leave it to Robert to know exactly how to sum up the situation. It didn’t matter to any of them she had none of the skills needed for a woman to contribute to a working ranch. She’d brought grace into their restless lives. Buying the ranch was a good start, but Victoria might take what had been a collaborative effort to escape their pasts and give them an actual future.
In the flickering firelight, she lifted her chin. “It matters to me. I have learned enough about what it is like to lose your pride. My father’s disgrace taught me some unfortunate lessons about self-reliance. I want to learn all of those tasks, and well enough that not only can I be useful, but if it was ever necessary, take care of myself.”
“It won’t be necessary.” Cole said the four words with more force than he intended.
“He’s right,” Jace chimed in tersely, tossing the stick in the fire. “We’ll take care of you.”
“You don’t understand. I no longer want to be the pampered lady. It has brought me nothing but grief.” She hesitated, her face holding a poignant expression. “I want to be a part of it all, not just a…a burden. A dependent. You are all going to work the ranch together. Can’t I fit in somewhere?”
Cole got a sense where she was going. Though he’d been the lucky one to walk her to the river, he’d wondered if it wouldn’t have been the same result if it was Robert or Jace who had been privileged to see to her safety.
And her pleasure.
Surprisingly enough, it didn’t bother him. He hadn’t ever really thought about whether he’d be jealous of sharing a woman, because he’d never cared enough about one single female to worry about it. Jace and Robert were both good men; the three of them very different, but like brothers. Though Cole was from an unconventional background himself, he thought he understood that first taste of true freedom she was experiencing.
To go from critical eyes dissecting your every move to the oblivion of wide open spaces and complete lack of censure…surely if you were young, beautiful and passionate, a person might embrace the change in every way possible.
He wouldn’t want her to be any other way.
“Burden doesn’t apply,” Robert said gruffly for him.
“Let me rephrase, then.” Victoria paused delicately and then said, “I want to belong with you all at Crescent Moon Ranch.”
Cole gazed at her with such intensity he was sure the fire flared. “Sweetheart, you already do.”
She hesitated. “One woman living with three men is unconventional.”
“An English lady with three outlaws is even more out of place,” Robert said in his reasonable, calm way. “You don’t owe us anything.”
What they had experienced earlier by the river hadn’t seemed like she was paying a debt, Cole thought, but more as if she had been a bird with clipped wings that could now fly free. Jace had been just plain born wild but both he and Robert had come from civilized backgrounds, and he understood that first intoxicating taste of liberation. He’d left Boston without a backward glance, but then again, he was born half Lakota. The spirits had called him and he had answered.
They had also delivered Lady Victoria Mead to him under a bush in the Kansas wilderness. It meant something, for the spirits never acted without reason, or so his grandmother had told him, and at the moment he believed her.
A prairie wind made their fire flicker. “
This is meant to be
,” the keening breeze whispered.
“I owe you my life,” she said quietly, the light playing over her delicate face. “But that isn’t what I mean.”
As they watched, she rose and went to where her bedroll had been laid out by the side of the camp protected by the closest copse of trees, and lay down, tugging the blanket up over her slender form.
The arc of the valley below was lushly green, the glitter of a stream bordering one side, cottonwoods in ranks along the banks, the rest of it open meadow that climbed eventually in the far distance to the foothills, and beyond that, magnificent in the background, rose the mountains.
She’d never seen anything like it in her life.
Victoria reined in her horse at the top of the ridge they had just crested and sat there, in awe of the view, moved enough that tears stung her eyes and her throat tightened. This would be her new home. The ranch house was a tiny dot in the distance, the corrals and barns more significant than the house itself, the cluster of trees near the buildings indicating a source of water.
“We own about as far as you can see,” Jace told her in a matter-of-fact drawl. “In the winter the pass closes up and it’s pretty isolated here. Nothing like what you’re used to.”
“Good,” she said, and meant it, nudging her horse with her heel to head down the trail.
He grinned and urged his mount, a sleek bay, alongside hers. “I’m revising my opinion of foreign bluebloods thanks to you, darlin’.”
“For the better, I hope.” Her voice was dry.
“Oh yeah.” Under the brim of his hat, his blue eyes were intent, his gaze steady. “I know what happened with you and Cole, but…” He hesitated, and then said quickly, “But I don’t care. I’m that damn in love with you.”
Robbed of speech, Victoria could only stare at him, their horses side by side on the faint path through the scrub brush.
Softly, he went on. “I don’t see any need to keep it to myself. It isn’t like Robert and Cole don’t know how I feel… We don’t have a lot of secrets between us. Riding the trail will do that.”
After a moment, she said quietly, “I’m flattered.”
“I’m not the only one,” he imparted in the same laconic tone, but there was nothing casual about how he looked at her. “Robert’s pretty sweet on you too. And Cole, hell, he won’t ever say it, but he’d walk through fire for you. We all would.”
People she’d known her whole life repudiated her because of her father’s debts. It was a different world, and she hadn’t been dramatic earlier, she was glad to be free of the prejudices of her class. These men hadn’t known her all that long, but they had a loyalty that moved her. “What happened at the river wasn’t exactly planned.” She was determined to be as honest with Jace as he had been with her. “But it wasn’t an accident either.”
Of course they did. She wasn’t at all experienced, and she didn’t need to be told the three of them were not sexual novices. Victoria couldn’t help it, she blushed, well aware of Cole and Robert following behind them, the soft thud of the horses’ hooves a reminder of their presence. Helplessly, she gestured with her gloved hand. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Who said you have to say anything?” Jace flashed a wicked smile, touched his spur to his horse and clattered down the steep descent into the valley, so at one with the animal he looked as if he were a part of it.
An hour later they rode into the shaded courtyard of the Crescent Moon Ranch. The house itself, she saw, was made from peeled, weathered pine logs, the façade low and the building simple but sprawling, a wide porch across the front. The corral fences were in need of repair even to her inexperienced eye, and as they rode up, she noted the stone chimney had half fallen over on the roof.
“Needs some work,” Cole commented as he slid from the saddle. “I expected it would.”
“Structure is sound, though.” Robert dismounted and went to politely assist Victoria from the saddle. “And you can’t find a better place to run cattle.”
He smiled at her, the slanting sun touching his chestnut hair and his hazel eyes warm. “Welcome home, my lady. What do you think of our little valley?”
“Little?” She smiled back. “It’s about half the size of England as far as I can tell, and I think it is extraordinarily wild and beautiful.”
“I am not sure about wild, but yes…beautiful.” His hands lingered at her waist, their gazes locked. “Very beautiful.”
He didn’t mean the landscape. Victoria wasn’t sure how she might have responded, but she had learned that Robert was ever conscious of how others felt and he didn’t disappoint. Instead, he let her go and took the reins of her horse. “Don’t let the inside of the house shock you. We’ll get it fixed up nice in no time for you.”
How odd was it, she wondered as she walked up the steps to the porch, to be a commodity all her life, and to so suddenly find herself
. This was a strange country, yet she was comfortable here, even with the wildness of her surroundings, even with the questionable pasts of her companions. She knew they were good men, and that was enough.
He was right, she discovered as she pushed open the door, the interior was less than ideal. Dusty, with only a few sticks of rickety furniture, the main room wasn’t appealing except for the huge hearth made of what looked like all kinds of smooth rocks, not at all like the brick fireplaces in England. The ceilings were higher also, and wide, dusty windows faced the vista of rangeland with the mountains in the background.
There were bedrooms, she discovered down the hallway—three plain spaces with sparse furnishings. That was the extent of the house except for what looked like a kitchen on the other end, complete with an iron stove and low windows under a slanted roof.
It wasn’t an elegant London town house. Neither was it a sprawling country mansion set amidst the lush greenery of Wiltshire like where she’d spent her childhood. That aside, she liked the overall homey feel of the space, and if it was rustic, she didn’t mind. Her former homes were lost forever, not just to the debts that had claimed them, but to bad memories.
It was odd to realize it, but she’d hadn’t minded sleeping under the stars either, though a hot bath would be a boon, and she spied an overturned tub in the corner that might be just for that purpose. The courtyard, too, was charming, with stately trees and a small spring. There were even a few chickens pecking around, though she would not have the slightest idea what to do with one. A meal that didn’t consist of beans and bacon would be most welcome right now, but she wasn’t complaining. Fate had stepped in, and despite a few minor problems, she had been given a second chance at a new life.
Most women, she thought as she wandered over to one of the dirty, streaked windows, were given one man. One lover. One hero.
Her luck had finally turned. She’d been gifted with three.
They’d planned on eating dinner around the hearth, but the fallen chimney precluded a fire, and they had discovered it was full of birds’ nests, not to mention it was a warm night. As a result, they’d chosen the porch for their meal, and though it was just the same old trail fare, it tasted somehow better now that they were home.