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Authors: Elaine Barbieri

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BOOK: Renegade
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Tucker paused, his expression hardening. “I think it’s time the two of us became acquainted.”

Chapter Four

Jenny walked slowly along Winston’s main street. Traffic was beginning to stir with the new day. She had left her pa at the ranch with the excuse she needed supplies from the mercantile, a lie that she had felt was necessary to tell.

Jenny tied up her wagon and stepped down onto the boardwalk. She touched the thick brown hair she wore in a bun underneath her plain straw hat. She frowned at the sunshine that filtered down onto her fair, ordinary features. She had always known she was plain. Brown hair, brown eyes, undistinguished features, and slim beyond fashion, she had even taken to wearing plain cottons that suited her totally ordinary appearance.

She had decided earlier in life that her role had been defined for her before she was born. She was the daughter of Randolph Morgan, who had raised her lovingly and the best way he knew after her mother died in childbirth. She had assumed housekeeping
duties at their ranch as soon as she was able, and she knew that the possible joining of Matt’s and their land when her father was too old to run his own ranch gave him great comfort. She was grateful she could afford her father that much, since she could afford nothing else.

Yet she was so plain, and Matt was so handsome.

Jenny recalled with a tinge of guilt the first time she met Matt, when she was eight years old. Always thin, small, and timid, she was picked on mercilessly by the bullies in their one-room schoolhouse. Forced to run and hide during recess rather than be considered a tattletale by others, she had bumped into the tall, already good-looking older boy who had demanded unexpectedly, “Don’t you ever get tired of running away? Why don’t you fight back?”

Jenny had never forgotten the questions Matt had asked her—just as she had never forgotten him. With that question ringing in her mind, she had nervously faced down her tormentors afterward. When they eventually gave up tormenting her, she had felt powerful without having exerted any physical effort at all. She knew she had used Matt’s strength when her own was lacking, but she had felt no guilt. Matt had stimulated courage in her with his simple questions. She valued it, just as she valued him.

“You trust too easily, Jenny.”

Mary Sears, her friend since childhood, had made that inexplicable comment the previous day. Mary had appeared reluctant to say more, but those
words had struck a chord because she had noticed a change in Matt recently. Matt had begun avoiding direct contact with her gaze and appeared averse to discuss their future. Since theirs was a friendship of years, she had known instinctively that something was wrong. Mary’s words, whether they revealed a hidden jealousy or not, only confirmed her thoughts.

“Aren’t you tired of running away? Why don’t you fight back?”

Matt’s comments from years earlier rang again in her mind. She was determined he would never have to ask those questions again.

Stopping still, Jenny saw the woman she was seeking emerge from the hotel. Samantha Rigg hesitated on the walk, but even gaudily dressed and heavily painted, Jenny realized she was beautiful.

Jenny took a deep breath and approached her directly. She halted a few feet from the beauteous saloon girl, remembering Matt’s angry question.

Yes, she was tired of running away.

Samantha came face-to-face with a plain young woman with a resolute expression. Her heart pounded. She knew who the woman was, yet anger and guilt competed in her mind as she waited for Jenny to speak.

“I know who you are. You’re Samantha Rigg. My name is Jenny Morgan, and you know why I’m here.” Her face flushing a pale red, Jenny began slowly.
“This is a small town. It doesn’t take long for everyone to hear stories that are circulating. I’ve heard the stories about Matt and you. I know he is attracted to you and you to him. Seeing you now, I can understand why. You’re both extraordinarily pleasant to look at and you seemingly deserve each other.”

Pausing to swallow, Jenny continued. “But the truth is just the opposite. Matt doesn’t deserve a woman like you. The Matt I know is a good man who has learned the importance of devotion and consistency the hard way. Your lifestyle indicates that you don’t know what devotion or consistency means.”

“You can tell all that by appearances, huh?” Samantha’s eyes narrowed with dawning belligerence.

“You go out of your way to make that impression obvious. So I’m asking you to leave Matt alone and concentrate on someone else. He’s taken.”

“He’s taken?” Samantha’s response grew increasingly tense. “Do you really believe that?”

“Yes, I do. As I said, Matt is a good man. He’s faithful to his commitments.”

“No matter how they rankle?”

Jenny’s color darkened. “They didn’t rankle until you showed up.”

“But they do now.” Not quite understanding her motivation, Samantha took an aggressive forward step. Noting that they were drawing interested glances, she lowered her voice and continued. “If Matt really loved you, he wouldn’t have spent last night with me, and this warning wouldn’t be needed.”

“You’re lying! Matt did not spend the night with you!”

Samantha did not reply.

Drawing herself up shakily when Samantha remained silent, Jenny continued. “If he did, you simply took advantage of a weak moment…of a masculine need that Matt could not control.”

“He made no attempt to control it.”

“But he regrets his actions! He despises himself for what he did!”

“I truly doubt that.”

Again in control, Jenny said firmly, “I came here to tell you that your time with Matt, whatever future you believe it had, is over. It is done, do you understand?”

When Samantha chose not to reply again, Jenny added, “Matt and I have a firm history behind us that will pave the way for our future together. You have nothing.”

“Nothing but passion.”

“Passion fades.”

“Ours won’t.”

“You’re in for a surprise,” Jenny warned.

“No, you are.”

Appearing unable to continue the soft-spoken but heated conversation, Jenny said simply, “Stay away from him. In the end, it will be for your own good, as well as for Matt’s and mine.”

Concluding their conversation abruptly, Jenny turned on her heel and headed for the mercantile,
leaving Samantha to face a silent but deadening truth.

She was jealous.

Her emotions confused, Samantha was suddenly determined in spite of all else that she would remain in Winston until she could accomplish her goal. Yet admittedly, her instincts were untrustworthy and her behavior made a mockery of the dedication for which her father gave his life.

She knew of only one answer. His name was Sean McGill.

Before she could change her mind, Samantha walked to the stagecoach office to send a telegram. She emerged a few minutes later, already beginning to regret her actions. Sean would come—she knew he would—yet she should not have wired him. She should have worked out the situation by herself. Calling him in was akin to admitting a defeat, and she had never admitted defeat before.

Samantha became suddenly determined. With any luck, she would prove herself by aggressively searching every inch of Matt’s land for physical evidence of his guilt
before
Sean came.

And there was no time to start like the present.

Jenny smiled as she turned off onto the trail, but her smile fell as soon as she was out of sight of town. The midday sun of the pleasant day beat down on her head, but she did not feel its warming rays. Her heart was broken after her encounter with Samantha Rigg.
She had ended their conversation and had entered the mercantile to shop as if nothing unusual had occurred. She had braved the curious gazes and the whispers that had abounded, all the while admitting to herself that she was more shaken than she had imagined she would be.

The revelation that Samantha Rigg was lovely despite the heavy makeup and gaudy dress that displayed her womanly assets clearly had been difficult. Yet despite her outer harshness, the saloon woman had sounded sincere in her feelings for Matt.

The familiar question returned.

“Aren’t you tired of running away?”

She had avoided the true meaning behind the phrase that Matt had uttered so many years ago. The true solution to her problem was not to speak to Samantha as she had originally thought. She needed to speak to Matt. She had known him all her life. He would tell her the truth no matter how much it hurt them both.

Resolved, Jenny slapped her wagon’s reins against old Stormy’s back and clucked the aging gelding to a faster pace. She needed to get home so she might store her groceries and then visit Matt at his ranch. He was amply chaperoned by Willy and Nat, and even if his two hired men should not be present, Pa would not protest. He would believe she simply wanted to see her betrothed. He would—

Jenny’s thoughts halted abruptly when Matt
appeared unexpectedly on the road in front of her. Her heart flip-flopped at the sight of him.

Matt rode up beside her with a half smile. “Hello, Jenny. I needed to see you today so we could talk.”

“I need to talk to you, too,” Jenny responded simply.

“I thought we might ride together to a place where we’ll have a little privacy.”

“All right.”

Jenny’s heart pounded as she prepared to step down from her wagon in the privacy of a forested glade a few minutes later. Her breathing shortened the moment Matt touched her hand. She could not help responding to the warmth in his gaze when he then slid his arm around her familiarly and guided her to the sunny spot to sit.

She waited until Matt began hesitantly, “I have something to tell you, Jenny.”

“I know already.” Upset, attempting to avoid a confession that would stir unpleasant feelings, Jenny turned her head. Tears filled her eyes when Matt gripped her chin to turn her gaze back to him and inquired, “What do you know?”

“I know about Samantha Rigg. I know that you’re attracted to her, and that you…you slept with her.”

“Who told you that?”

“Samantha did.”

Matt’s expression revealed his surprise. He scrutinized her sorrowful expression for long moments
before he said sincerely, “I’m sorry I hurt you, Jenny.”

“It’s true, then.”

“Yes.”

Jenny studied Matt’s expression. He did not attempt to evade the truth, and his honesty somehow touched her heart. He had not meant to hurt her. But he had.

“Why, Matt?” she replied instinctively. “Didn’t you understand what the future we had planned together and the candor that we always expected from each other meant? Didn’t you realize that you could come to me no matter how you felt? Didn’t you know that I’d try to make things right for you whatever it cost us?” And lastly, “Didn’t you comprehend how learning about it all after everyone else would make me feel?”

Jenny waited the long moment until Matt finally responded, “I don’t really know why I did it. I only know that I did, and that I regret it at this moment even more than I imagined I could.”

The new, indefinable quality in Matt, as well as his deep and true sense of remorse, moved her. Never touched so deeply before, Jenny asked in a whisper, “Was it because Samantha Rigg is beautiful? I mean, I know I’m plain. I’ve always known I’m plain, just like I always knew you deserved so much more.”

“You’re not plain, Jenny.” Matt was defensive. “Maybe some people might say that at first glance,
but it’s not true. You’re wholesome, that’s all, and you’ve proved that you’re real and understanding with everything you just said. I sensed those qualities in you the first moment I saw you. That means much more to me now that I’m older and wiser than being beautiful ever could. Everything I just said is true, just like the fact that you’re too good for a man like me is true.”

“Does that mean—?”

“If you think I’m trying to find a way to call everything off between us, you’re wrong.” Matt’s response was adamant.

Jenny unconsciously released a relieved breath. “I’m glad.” She continued shakily. “Truthfully, I didn’t know what I was going to do when I saw you today, but right now I just want to know why. Why did you do it, Matt?”

Matt shook his head. “I wish I could truthfully answer that question.” His light eyes shone with a glow she had never witnessed before when he continued. “There are a lot of questions that I wish I could answer right now, but there’s one thing I know for sure. What I felt for Samantha was fleeting. What I feel for you is entirely different.”

“You’re sure?”

“It occurs to me suddenly that in the back of my mind I always wanted someone like you, Jenny—someone I could talk to, someone whose understanding nature proves she really cares about the real me. You’re a wish come true.”

Touched by his softly spoken words, as well as by an inner quality she was unable to ignore, Jenny did not move as Matt slowly lowered his mouth toward hers. Yet she was unprepared for the wealth of emotion that Matt’s gentle kiss generated. She responded when his caresses grew more yearning and his kiss deepened. She trembled with a similar desire when Matt struggled to control his burgeoning emotion.

Their excitement increased with each kiss.

The wonder grew greater with each caress.

Bewildered by the unexpected emotion between them, Jenny drew back from Matt abruptly. Not quite certain of her reasoning, she said breathlessly, “I…I have to go home now, Matt.”

Matt was unnaturally silent, his gaze unexpectedly dark. She sensed a protest he did not utter as he helped her back onto the wagon seat. Yet she was startled when he stepped up to sit beside her and then took her into his arms to kiss her with unrelieved passion.

Visibly shaken, he then handed her the reins and stepped back onto the ground.

Not sure what to do then, Jenny clicked old Stormy into motion and rode off without daring to look back.

Tucker smarted as he rode toward the cabin hidden in the Texas wilderness of his brother’s land. He had known he had to meet Jenny, and he had taken the first opportunity to do so—provided by his encounter
with her on the roadway a short time earlier.

She had believed he was Matt.

Tucker’s expression grew dark. He had intended to take advantage of her in order to make Matt angry, but the trouble was that Jenny hadn’t been what he expected. Oh, she was as plain as people said she was, if a person chose to think of her that way. She was self-demeaning because of it, and that hurt him somehow, but she had proved she had more to offer than physical beauty. The truth was that he had never met a woman like her before, a woman who looked him straight in the eye even though her question was difficult. Yet she had proven understanding beyond belief, especially when he confirmed her suspicions about an affair with Samantha Rigg in Matt’s stead. His response had been vague and inadequate, but she had forgiven him because he said he was sorry, and she believed he was.

BOOK: Renegade
11.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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