Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In (5 page)

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
3.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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The sorrel mare nodded her head as if in agreement.

Neal grinned. “I thought so. He's not the only one that can spot a good horse.”

He moved past them to where his saddle and his rigging rested on worn sawhorses at the end of the aisle. They had been cleaned and oiled by his brother, no doubt.

He checked over his bull-riding rig carefully, as much from habit as anything else, and slipped his hand into the handle. Suddenly he was trapped in the rope, dangling from the bull's side. The room tilted as sweat broke out on his forehead.

He yanked his hand away. Taking a step back, he sucked in a heavy breath to slow his racing heart. As much as he wanted to believe it had been a moment of dizziness caused by his headache, he knew it wasn't. It was pure and simple fear.

One of the horses whinnied again. Neal focused on the animal. Maybe a horseback ride was what he needed.

Sure. Once he got back in the saddle, a ride would blow the cobwebs from his mind.

If he could even stay upright on a horse. Sometimes he had trouble just standing.

He looked around. He was alone. Now was as good a time as any to find out if he could do it. When there wouldn't be any witnesses if he fell off.

He saddled the mare and led her outside. Dizziness made him sway when he swung up into the saddle, but he stayed on. Once his head stopped reeling, he sat up straight. It felt good to be back on a horse, even if it did make his ribs ache.

Without a word to anyone, he turned his mount and rode out into the wide, rolling grasslands of the Flint Hills with one special destination in mind.

* * *

R
OBYN
MULLED
OVER
Adam's surprising offer as she and her mother ate lunch at the Hayward House restaurant, but she didn't mention it. Later, as she drove the familiar miles back to the ranch, her mother sat beside her and rambled about the things that needed doing around the ranch before it could be sold. Her monologue didn't require a reply, so Robyn was free to let her mind drift.

If nothing else, Adam had given her self-esteem a nice lift. He not only wanted to take her out, but he was the one who'd submitted her name for the scholarship. It was nice to have her skills noticed and appreciated. He thought she was a good nurse. Well, she was, and she'd be a fine nurse practitioner, too. Someday.

At the thought, her happy mood faded. Even if she wanted to, she couldn't go after her NP now. That dream would have to wait, but she refused to accept that she wouldn't reach it. One of her dreams had to come true.

Adam's flattery aside, the real question remained. Should she go out with him? The prospect was tempting. He was fun to be around, very good-looking and nice...for a doctor.

She glanced at her mother. Maybe going out with Adam would prove to some people once and for all that she wasn't waiting for Neal to drift back into her life and sweep her away.

She could do better than a bacon-brained, two-timing, stubborn, ill-tempered rodeo cowboy.

“Robyn, you missed the turnoff! We were going to stop and give Ellie her prescription, remember?” Her mother's voice snapped Robyn back to the present.

“I'm sorry, Mom, I forgot.”

Turning the truck around on the narrow highway, she drove back and turned into the Bryants' half-mile-long gravel lane. As they pulled into the ranch yard, she saw Ellie beside the corral, trying to catch a loose horse. The sorrel mare paced wide-eyed with her head high and trailing the reins. Her chest was bathed in lathered sweat and flecks of foam. Ellie gave up trying to catch her and hurried to the truck.

“Oh, thank goodness. You have to help me find him.”

Robyn stepped out of the truck. “Find who? What's wrong?”

“It's Neal. He rode out hours ago, and his horse just came in without him.”

CHAPTER FIVE

A
N
HOUR
LATER
, Robyn reined her borrowed horse to a stop and studied the ground closely. The prairie grass was dry and brittle, and the dirt was hard as brick. If Neal had ridden this way, there wasn't any sign that she could detect. She wiped another trickle of sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. What the hell had he been he thinking?

It had to be close to a hundred degrees today. This summer had been the hottest and the driest she could remember. The relentless heat was sucking the life out of the countryside, and it would suck the life out of anyone foolish enough to venture into it without plenty of water.

She bit her lip as her worry intensified. Neal's empty canteen had still been on his saddle. Unless he had another, he was without water.

The idiot!
Why would he go riding in this heat when he wasn't used to it? He'd only been out of the hospital a few short weeks. The man was in for the tongue-lashing of his life when she found him. If she found him. Half a dozen riders were spread out across the enormous ranch because no one had an idea where Neal might have gone. She had a suspicion, but it was a long shot.

She pushed the wide brim of one of Ellie's cowboy hats back, lifted her canteen and took a quick drink, then poured some on her hand and rubbed it on her face and neck. It helped a little, but her back and shoulders were so hot it felt like someone was trying to iron her shirt with her still in it. She screwed the lid back on her canteen. She wouldn't waste any more water trying to get cool. She might need it all.

The strong, hot breeze quickly dried the dampness on her face as it stirred the tall, drooping sunflowers beside the trail and hissed through the long brown grass around her.

Nudging the pinto forward, she rode toward a deep draw that cut a zigzag course across the prairie. She let the horse pick his way carefully down the steep trail. Decades of cattle going down to water had trod a narrow cut in the high bank. Her stirrups scraped the sides as they descended.

She turned suddenly and looked behind her. A second set of scrape marks lined the dirt just below hers. Another rider had come this way. She had guessed right. She knew now where Neal had been heading.

At the bottom of the draw, a tiny trickle of water strung together muddy puddles and filled the deep hoofprints left by thirsty cattle. Four Black Angus steers watched her warily from downstream, where they stood knee deep in the mud. Their tails swung constantly to keep away the flies that hovered over their backs. A fresh set of prints from a horse led upstream. Robyn turned to follow them. She couldn't believe Neal was foolish enough to try to make such a long ride in his shape. He could barely walk. What would possess him to go all the way to Little Bowl Springs Canyon?

Even as the thought crossed her mind, she knew the answer. It had been their special place when they were young. It was where he'd first made love to her.

* * *

N
EAL
TRIPPED
AND
fell face-first onto the prairie. After a long moment, he opened his eye, and a forest of bluestem grass settled into view in front of him. Lifting his head off the ground, he spat out the dirt caked at the corner of his mouth.

Carefully, he pushed himself to his hands and knees. Agony pounded inside his skull and his ribs ached. The urge to lie back down was overwhelming.

Slowly, he sat back on his heels and forced himself to study his surroundings. He got his bearings again as he squinted at the rolling grassland broken by deep, narrow gullies and rocky canyons. He hadn't made much progress.

This part of the ranch was virtually inaccessible except on horseback or on foot. And he was still on foot. His horse was nowhere in sight.
Jake didn't train 'em like he used to.

What had Robyn called him that morning? A stupid, stubborn oaf? He closed his eye against the bright light. She had the stupid part right. He'd ridden out without telling anyone where he was headed, and now he was going to pay for it. By his best guess, he had four more miles to stagger or crawl before he got near the ranch house. Since his horse wasn't standing nearby, he could only hope the mare had gone back to the barn. If she hadn't, it could be dark before anyone became worried enough to start a search.

He forced himself to stand. After a moment, the dizziness receded. He held on to his aching ribs with one arm and braced the other on his thigh. His hat lay a few feet away. He moved toward it with unsteady steps. Painfully, he bent to retrieve it and settled it on his head.

The shade it provided his scorched face was a relief he knew would be short-lived. He held up a hand to block the glare as he judged the time by the position of the sun. It was still high in the afternoon sky, which meant it would be three or four more hours before the temperature began to drop.

He had no water, no shade and little strength after spending much of the past month in bed. All in all, he was in a pretty tight spot. His biggest danger now was the risk of heatstroke.

He started walking in the direction of home. A small canyon cut a meandering course through the prairie a half mile away. Its high walls would provide him with some shade, and there was water at the bottom of it. The stagnant pools wouldn't be drinkable, but they would help to cool him.

The source of the small stream lay a mile in the other direction, in a small gorge where a spring bubbled out of a rocky ledge. There, the water would be cold and clear as it tumbled out of the earth and fell into a series of small pools carved out of the limestone slabs. But that spring lay in the opposite direction of the ranch house.

He'd been headed there before his ignoble dismount. The spring held a special place in his heart. A place from his childhood and his youth, but he'd been a fool to try to ride that far his first time out.

He looked back across the grassy plateau behind him. To try to reach the spring now would add hours to his hike home later. He sighed and began to walk toward the canyon wall and the ranch beyond it.

He cursed the sweltering heat, his worthless horse and the rough ground littered with rocks that hid in the long dry grass and tried to trip him as he made his way toward the canyon and the promise of relief from the relentless sun. He was almost to the rim when he stumbled and fell to his hands and knees.

A grunt of agony escaped him. Pain lanced through his ribs, and he struggled to catch his breath. When he did, he let loose a string of swearwords that would have singed the ears off a sailor.

In the silence that followed, he heard hoofbeats. A moment later, a horse and rider clambered up out of the canyon in front of him.

“From the sounds of it, I'd say you aren't dead, at least.”

Neal hung his head. Thankfully, someone had found him, but why did it have to be Robyn?

“Just what do you think you're doing?” she demanded, reining her horse to a stop beside him.

He stared at the ground between his hands and wished with all his heart that she had discovered him while he was still on his feet.

“Would you believe I lost a contact?” He pushed up and sat back on his heels with his hands braced on his thighs. “I guess it doesn't matter, it was the left one.”

He peered at her face. His brother's gaze would have slid away from his eye patch. His mother would have grown tight-lipped and told him not to joke about it. But not Robyn. She struggled to keep a smile off her face and lost as she shook her head.

“Oh, honestly!” she declared, dismounting.

He felt his own face relax when she dropped to her knees in front of him. “Honestly? I was trying to decide whether I should jump to my feet and shout for joy that someone found me before I wound up as a set of bleached bones or to pound the ground in frustration because it was you.”

“I could ride off and pretend I never saw you.”

He studied her face so close to his own. Lord, how he loved the sparkle that shimmered in her eyes, the way the sun turned her skin a warm honey-brown, the way her lips curved when she smiled. She was still so beautiful, and he had let her slip through his fingers. He really was a fool.

“No. My pride isn't what it used to be,” he conceded. That was the truth. He leaned forward and braced one hand on the ground as he pressed his left arm against his ribs.

“Are you hurt?” Her smile vanished, and he missed it instantly.

“No, but I hope you have some water.”

“Of course.” She jumped up, grabbed the canteen off her saddle and handed it to him. He took it gratefully and raised it to his lips.

“What happened? What on earth possessed you to try to ride all this way on a day as hot as Hades? Your mother was worried sick when your horse came in without you. She, my mother and half a dozen men are out scouring the ranch for you. You never even told anyone where you were headed. You used to have better sense.”

Neal drank his fill, then pulled off his hat and poured the water over his head and neck. “God, that feels wonderful.”

“Well, don't waste it. It's a long ride home,” she scolded.

He eased his hat back and handed her the canteen. “It will be a long ride if you keep harping at me. My skull hurts enough without you beating me over the head with how stupid I've been. Believe it or not, it did dawn on me that I overestimated my ability.”

He was oddly pleased to see the look of concern that filled her eyes.

“Are you sure you aren't hurt?” she asked.

“Nothing except a large bruise on my pride and a headache. My ribs are sore, but I don't think there's any new damage.”

She curled her fingers lightly around his wrist. His gaze was drawn to her hand. It felt cool against his hot skin, soft yet capable. Her touch had always been magic. He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her breathless.

After a moment, she seemed to notice his gaze, and she jerked her hand away. “Have you been out in the sun all this time?” she asked quickly.

“Yes,” he admitted. Maybe that was what was wrong with him. He'd been in the sun too long. Or maybe he'd hit his head harder than he thought. Why else would he be thinking about making love to her under the wide-open sky, to a woman who had left him and married another man?

She wouldn't have married him if you had married her first.

The thought filled him with regret. His idea of a life without strings had made it easy for her to leave him.

Had it been easy?

He rubbed his forehead as the pain came pounding back. Here he was again, going over what-ifs in the hot sun. “I don't suppose you have any aspirin?”

“I think there's some in the first-aid kit. Let me check.” She stood and began to rummage in her bulging saddlebags.

“You've got a first-aid kit?” he asked in surprise.

“What can I say? I think like a nurse,” she snapped. “I tried to pack everything I thought I might need, but the ambulance wouldn't fit. Do you want to tell me what happened?”

She knelt down and handed him two aspirin. He swallowed them with another long swig from the canteen and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “I thought a ride might do me some good, help loosen up my muscles, take my mind off of things.”

He studied her face. Softly, he said, “I was going up to Little Bowl Springs.”

Her gaze slid away from his. It seemed that she hadn't forgotten their special place. “I guessed as much. How'd you lose your horse?”

“No story there,” he said bitterly. “She stumbled in a gopher hole, and I fell off.”

He closed his eye and sighed. “Can we discuss this on the way home?” The cool water had helped briefly, but his headache was back with a vengeance. He wavered on his knees. The heat seemed to be smothering him, making it hard to breathe.

R
OBYN
BIT
HER
lip as she studied Neal's pale face. Relief at having found him made her almost giddy. Thank God he was safe. It took every ounce of self-control she could muster not to throw her arms around him in a heartfelt hug. It was only because she was glad he wasn't hurt, she told herself. Not because she wanted to hold him close one more time.

She dismissed that disturbing thought. He'd been out in the sun for hours. She could plainly see he wasn't in any shape to spend another few hours in it riding home. Little Bowl Springs was only a mile away. There was shade and plenty of water; they could rest up and ride home in the cool of the evening.

It made sense, except she had never expected to go back there again. Especially with him.

She stood up and pulled her cell phone from her pocket. Ellie answered on the second ring.

“I found him,” Robyn said.

“Thank heavens!” Relief filled Ellie's voice. “Is he all right?”

“He's had a fall and too much sun, but he seems okay.”

“Where are you?”

“About a mile south of Little Bowl Springs.”

“We're by the windmill in Section Three. I don't think we can get a truck all the way up to the springs, but we can get one as far as the south side of the creek about three miles from you.”

Robyn stood aside as Neal climbed to his feet and leaned against her horse. He grabbed the saddle horn with both hands and tried to put his foot in the stirrup, but he missed. He hung on to the horn and rested his head on the tooled leather. She made up her mind.

“Look, we're going to head up to the spring and wait until evening to start back. I need to get him out of the sun. I'll call you before we leave there, and you can meet us at the creek crossing.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I'm not used to this heat, either, and there's no rush to get him home. Is Mom with you?”

“No. She's gone to pick up Chance. She said to tell you she'll wait for you at home.”

“Good.” That was one less worry for now. She said goodbye, folded the phone closed and stuffed it into her pocket. She gathered the reins and grabbed Neal's arm. He tried to shrug off her hand.

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
3.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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