Rule One: Hard work comes before reward.
Rule Two: Always mind your manners—no exceptions.
Rule Three: Protect those weaker than yourself, whatever the cost.
He’d learned these valuable lessons at the right-hand tutelage of his grandfather, Robert Chase Senior, to the degree that they weren’t just head knowledge but had penetrated his very being.
His earliest memory was from when he was three years old. He’d woken and dressed before the first rays of sun broke across the dark velvet of the night sky. His uniform had consisted of a flannel shirt, a pair of tattered jeans, a Sherpa-lined jacket, and a pair of well-oiled cowboy boots completing his ensemble.
His mother was up, too. Whether she had been about to leave for her shift at the diner or just getting home, Chase didn’t remember. What he remembered was the way she had looked at him, blue eyes rounding with surprise.
“God, Dad, look at him.”
So Chase Senior had looked, a rare smile curving his lined mouth. “Yeah? What of it?”
“Well, he should be in bed, for starters. Where did he get those clothes? He looks just like…” She had trailed off with a sigh, shaking her head.
“This is what Senior wears to work the ranch!” he’d insisted, his young voice loud with dignity, doing his best not to whine lest his mom send him back to bed or diminish the pride his grandpa had in him.
“That’s right, buddy. Sure do. Let me polish off this here coffee and we’ll be on our way. Say, Patti, get the boy a cup.”
His grandfather’s words filled him with importance and he straightened his small frame to stand as tall as possible, mimicking the thumbs in the pockets stance Senior favored.
Patti Whitfield’s blonde brows had shot up darn near to her hairline, but she didn’t argue. She had surely learned that it was futile in this house where Senior made the rules.
“Come on then.” Senior nodded at the chair next to him and Chase made his way over to it.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said when his mother placed a dark blue mug in front of him.
Senior lifted his cup and air-toasted him before taking another sip.
From the first sip, Chase knew he’d been given more milk than coffee, but he didn’t mind. The only thing that mattered to him was that when Senior finished his cup, he’d be allowed to tag along.
Mere minutes later, the older man set his cup down with a definitive plunk and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Well? You comin’?”
Chase had pushed his chair back already before his grandfather even finished speaking.
He heard an even rarer sound as his grandfather’s chuckle reached his ears, but neither of them spoke of it as they headed for the door.
“Say bye to your mama.”
“See you later, Chase.” Her words sounded like one long sigh but he didn’t fret over it. There was work to be done, and for once, he was going to help.
Now, nearly thirty years later, he had kept to his earliest teaching. He still wore comfortable jeans—so much so that his mother kept trying to trash them and force him to go on the hunt for new ones—a flannel shirt, and boots that easily cost more than the other two put together. He still rose before dawn, but now he saved his coffee to go alongside his breakfast, which he waited to eat until after all his morning chores had been done. Rule number one: Hard work comes before reward. Besides which, he had discovered that eggs with a side of bacon tasted especially good after you’d worked up an appetite.
He worked his way around the ranch, first feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs, then milking the cows. This morning, there seemed to be something in the air, because he could feel a hitch in his giddy-up, something that made him pause and take it all in. He saw the first rays spread across the sky, the charcoal black giving way to purple and pink hues. A breeze whispered across his face and it smelled like fall.
Chase wasn’t a touchy-feely guy—far from it—but there was a spring in his step as he headed for the barn. He was a lucky guy, and glad to know it.
The horses were standing in their stalls waiting on him when he walked in. They were as accustomed to his schedule as he was, so this was not unusual.
“Mornin’, Chance,” he called out. “Hey there, Sassy. Howdy, Shadow.”
Now normally the horses would let out a whinny or two of excitement when they saw him, but they seemed unmoved by the sight of him this morning.
“Huh.” He reached out and stroked Chance’s nose. “Tough crowd today, huh?”
Senior had plenty of tidbits he’d passed down to his grandson throughout the years. One of them was to always be aware of your surroundings. Thanks to it, he’d stopped short of stepping on a snake on more than one occasion. On this particular morning, those same sharp observation skills made him realize something wasn’t right from the moment he’d stepped foot inside the barn. Besides the horses’ rather lackluster greeting, his stable broom wasn’t where he’d left it. As he looked for it, his gaze was drawn to the hand truck. It was standing upright and in place, but something was amiss. Chase’s gray eyes narrowed as he scrutinized it. Wait… was that… yep, there were several pieces of hay around the left wheel. Hmm. Ordinarily, he was a stickler for cleaning up after himself.
Suddenly, the super fine hairs on the back of his neck stood to attention. That could only mean one thing. Either a rattler, or an intruder—neither of which was particularly good news. Both had the potential to be equally devastating, depending on how quickly he reacted.
“Got quite a day planned for us, Shadow,” he began conversationally, moving down to the next stall. “Senior says you’re takin’ more than your fair share of the feed, so he reckons you oughta earn it with a gallop this afternoon.” Though he kept his voice level, the minute he’d noticed something amiss he’d become hyper-aware, poised for anything to happen. “Yes, sir. It’s been awhile since you’ve had a coupla laps ‘round the property, bet it’ll feel good to stretch those legs out.” As he spoke, Chase kept his eyes peeled for any sign of movement. He didn’t see anything, but his ears perked up. Was that… whimpering?
He remembered begging his grandfather to take him hunting when he was a boy. Senior had kindly but adamantly refused until Chase could prove that he would be able to be quiet enough as not to scare off the game. He’d taught him how to crouch low and to tread softly without making a sound. Only when Chase could move without disturbing a single branch was he allowed to go on the next hunting trip.
It was those skills he used now, moving with stealth toward the sound, poised to attack or defend, whichever became necessary. There was a certain thrill in danger, he’d known that from an early age, but it was different when you were armed and prepared for it. He wasn’t a fan of surprise attacks.
As he neared the shed, he clearly heard sounds of fear. A less experienced person might think he could let down his guard, but Chase knew it was the opposite. Nothing was more dangerous than an animal that was afraid and felt caged. They would strike to kill at the slightest provocation.
Wait… was that a tennis shoe peeking out from the shed? Whoever—or whatever—was making those noises was clearly trying to muffle them.
Behind him, a horse whinnied.
“Don’t you worry none now, fellas. I’m gonna get your breakfast.” He paused, taking a deep breath and steeling himself for whatever he might find. Then he reached for the shed’s double doors and swung them open, taking a few long steps back, just in case.
He couldn’t believe what he saw. It wasn’t an animal, or even a burglar. Well, unless that burglar was five-foot-three and a hundred twenty pounds soaking wet. Not that he didn’t think women were just as capable of stealing; it was only that thieves didn’t typically take a nap before they got their wares and beat a hasty retreat. Which, judging by what he was seeing, was exactly what the vagrant inside the shed had been doing as her head was perched atop a burlap sack, a rough wool blanket draped over her shoulders.
She was currently staring at him with eyes wider than he’d ever thought possible.
“Have a nice nap?” he growled, every word tinged with warning.
She blanched, spots of embarrassment on her cheeks the only color in her otherwise ashen face. “I… uh…”
“Is that all you have to say for yourself?” he demanded loudly. He had relaxed, but only the smallest fraction. He still had no idea what the hell she was doing hiding inside his barn, and though she looked harmless at the moment, only time would tell.
She flinched at the sternness in his bellow. “I mean, I, uh, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry, I want an answer. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
She reached up and brushed dirty blonde hair out of her face. “I-I just n-needed a place to sleep.”
He scowled. If she thought she was going to soften him with that stammering, she had better think again.
She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, and when he didn’t, her porcelain face screwed up in a collage of quickly changing expressions as she went from startled, to embarrassed, to fearful.
Chase was pleased to let the silence between them draw out. It gave him time to assess whether or not she was a threat, whatever she might say. It also couldn’t hurt to let her realize what a needlessly ridiculous position she’d put herself in. “This is a barn, not a hotel,” he said at last.
She cringed at his fierce pronouncement. “I know that. I—”
“Evidently you don’t, ma’am.” Rule number two: remember your manners, no matter what. “Now, why don’t you get out of there and we’ll have ourselves a talk?” He offered her a hand.
Straight white teeth bit down on her full bottom lip as she regarded him with fearful, wide eyes. After a few moments, she took his hand.
Chase easily hoisted her out the shed. When she was standing up straight, he was pleased to see he stood a head and shoulders taller. He’d guessed her height right down to the inch. He watched as she busied herself with dusting off her pants. He reckoned a woman who slept in a horse shed didn’t care much about the state of her clothing, so she must be looking for a reason to avoid his gaze.
Well, he wasn’t having it. “Now don’t you think you oughta explain yourself? Figured I’d be nice and give you a chance before I call the cops.”
That did it. Her eyes shot back to him, even rounder, if that was possible. “You can’t!” As soon as the words left her lips, she clapped her hands over her mouth.
Wise move, he thought, squelching a smile. Clearly this little girl already knew who was in charge here. “I can’t?” he echoed, looming over her, daring her to repeat it.
Her hands still clasped tightly over her mouth, her wide eyes appearing even larger in her peaked face, she shook her head.
Chase allowed himself a chuckle. “That’s where you’re dead wrong, darlin’. This here is my property you’re trespassin’ on, so I reckon I can call the cops anytime I want. Unless you can give me a damn good reason that I shouldn’t.”
For a moment, she just looked at him, fear written plain on her face. Then, inch by inch, she slowly lowered her hands.
“Well?” he prompted, folding his large, strong arms over his chest and tapping his toe, the sound echoing menacingly throughout the barn.
“I… I was tired,” she said in a tiny voice, ducking her head, abashed. “That isn’t a crime, last time I checked.” At her sides, her hands balled into fists.
So she had some spunk to her. He liked that. “Uh-uh.” He reached over, hooked a finger under her chin and tilted it forward so that she looked him square in the eye. “When you’re talkin’ to someone, pay them the respect of lookin’ at them.”
“Yes, sir,” she near whispered. He could see that she was beginning to tremble, but she didn’t look away again.
So she could follow rules. He liked that, too. But something niggled at the back of his brain, reminding him that if she was a wolf in sheep’s clothing as he suspected she might be, he couldn’t afford to stand here liking her at all. “You were tired, and so you thought to yourself, ‘I know what makes a good bed. I think I’ll go sleep in that horse shed over yonder’?”
To his surprise, a smile curved her full lips. “No. Well, not exactly.”
“Well, why don’t you explain it to me, exactly.”
“I don’t have anywhere to live!”
He arched an eyebrow at her outburst. “Is that so?”
She nodded fervently. “It’s kinda a long story, but the long-and-short of it is that I don’t have any money so my landlord kicked me out. Well,” she let out an embarrassed giggle, “I guess that’s not so long after all.”
“And you had nowhere else to go?”
“Well, I was actually going to live with my aunt—or ask her if I could, anyway—when I got so tired that I just couldn’t walk another step. That’s when I saw your barn, and I just thought…”
He looked her up and down, trying to decide if she was a woman used to charming men to get out of trouble. Or was it possible she was telling the truth? Was she really as innocent as she appeared? “I have to tell you, darlin’, I’m startin’ to lose my patience. I have chores to finish up so I can go have my breakfast.”
At the mention of food, the girl’s stomach rumbled and she looked adorably embarrassed. “That sounds wonderful,” she said, her longing evident.
Chase chuckled without humor. “So you’re thinkin’ you should get to sleep on my property and have me feed you too? I have to admit, I don’t normally see such a large pair of cahoonas on someone so young.”
She at least had the decency to blush.
He thought the color in her porcelain cheeks suited her. “So, mind explaining to me how you found yourself homeless and subsequently in a life of crime?”
“Look, are you going to call the cops or not? Because if not—”
Chase’s brows shot up. It was an interesting combination, these alternate displays of embarrassment and fire. His cock was starting to stir, but he did his best to ignore it. “Oh, all of a sudden you have somewhere to go?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but before she could get a word out, the hairs on the back of his neck and the ones on his arms stood.
Danger. The air seemed to crackle around them.
Chase shoved her to the ground, covering her slight form with his body, and not a moment too soon. As soon as his fingers splayed against the barn floor, he heard a whizzing sound before a bullet lodged into the wall, perhaps half an inch from where her head had been.
“Why… why did you do that?” she gasped.
His expression was solemn bordering on fierce as he answered, “Rule number three: protect those weaker than yourself, whatever the cost.”
Piper Larson winced as her hands burned from the sudden impact with the concrete. One minute, she was being lectured and made to feel like a naughty girl in serious trouble, then, without warning, she found herself being thrust to the ground. That alone was enough to make the average person’s head spin, but to top it off, Piper was pretty sure she’d had a close call with a bullet.
Which probably should have been her main concern, but she found that she could barely think about it at all with the sexy cowboy’s face mere inches from her own. In fact, she was struggling to hold onto a single thought that didn’t focus on his hard jaw. She was close enough to see that it was rough with stubble, and all she could think about was stroking her finger along his jawline, or better yet, licking it.
The thought made a little shiver run through her as her eyes flitted over his tanned face, taking in the cleft in his square chin, the fullness of his lips, the long, Roman nose.
He’s the hottest man I’ve ever seen. Piper felt her mouth go dry as she gazed up at him, his body hovering over hers as she lay flattened on the barn floor. He might be the rudest I’ve ever met, too. Anyone having gone through such a brush with danger would have shaky nerves, but her tummy was doing somersaults that had nothing to do with her near brush with a bullet.
When Piper saw his eyes, she was taken aback. They were dark and something of an anomaly because even this close she couldn’t quite discern their color. Gray? Brown? Deep blue? She couldn’t tell for certain, and the thought crossed her mind that they only added to his mystery. While she thought about this, her thighs began to quiver. She was tired not having slept much the night before, and adrenaline was pumping through her body. Add to that the fact she hadn’t gotten laid in exactly sixteen months and three days and the desire that showed first in her thighs became a wave of longing that moved across her entire body.
Think about something else, damn it!
But she couldn’t. His face loomed mere centimeters from her own. She could feel every breath he took, could see his heaving chest, the tendrils of dark hair peeking out beneath the brim of his cowboy hat.
Then, without warning, his gaze shifted and locked onto hers.
Shit. She’d been caught staring and her cheeks blazed instantly.
He grinned at her.
It was an arrogant smile of a man who knew she wanted him. Under normal circumstances, that would have killed any attraction she’d felt, but this was far from normal.
Still holding himself in perfect plank, he lifted a hand and put a finger to his lips.
Wordlessly, she nodded.
In one quick movement he rolled into a crouching position beside her.
Maybe I’m still asleep. Did I dream myself into ‘The Matrix’? Piper used his shifting movement to take a better look. If she’d been turned on by the masculine beauty of his face, it was nothing in comparison to the tightening in her belly when she got a better look at his broad shoulders, strong chest, and a six-pack so well defined she could see it through his flannel shirt.
“You alright?” he asked, his voice gruff.
“I… I think so…” Her heart was pounding against the wall of her chest so hard she wondered if it might break through. It wasn’t every day she had such a commanding, stern man astride her in a way that, albeit completely nonsexual, still made her panties damp. Oh, and then there was the fact that there was a bullet embedded in the wall barely an inch from where she’d been standing.
The cowboy moved and crouched beside her, his mouth hot on her ear. “Stay down, y’hear me?”
His authoritative tone and hard expression said or else.
Piper had no idea what or else even meant, but she felt his unspoken warning in every inch of her body. Wordlessly, she nodded.
He pressed a finger to his lips again, his dark eyes burrowing into hers until she couldn’t take the intensity for another second and was forced to look away. He must have felt that his message had been delivered, because he nodded before turning away and slinking out of the barn without so much as a sound.
As soon as she dared—which wasn’t until he was out of sight—Piper sat up and rocked back on her heels, trying to process what had just happened. Her mind was spinning. She turned her palms up to examine them, grimacing when she saw the scrapes in the center of her palms. They stung like hell, but somehow only fueled the fire that was coursing through her. Was it pure sexual attraction to the stern man who had rousted her from her hiding place, or adrenaline from nearly getting shot? Or a strange combination?
A plaintive whinny followed by a sharp stamp to the ground captured her attention.
She glanced toward the open barn door and seeing no one there, decided to risk going to the horse. After all, wouldn’t noise attract whoever had been shooting? She would be doing her currently nameless cowboy a favor by keeping things quiet. Piper crawled toward the animal, marveling at how much her life had changed in twenty-four hours. Yesterday morning she had woken up in the bedroom of her studio apartment not imagining in the next twenty-four hours she would be startled awake by a severe, scowling man.
Piper wondered what he must have thought seeing her without a bit of makeup, rumpled hair with bits of hay in her honey-blonde hair. She cringed at the mental image. Not her best look, that was for sure.
And now, to make matters worse, she had been shot at and was crawling on the floor. Awesome. Could it get much worse? She didn’t think so.
“Hey, girl,” she whispered, reaching up to pat the horse’s flank. “Well, at least I think you’re a girl. Are you?”
The horse in question snorted and stamped her foot again.
Whether in agreement or denial, Piper couldn’t be sure. She glanced around the barn, suddenly self-conscious. Well she felt assured she was quite alone, she turned back to the horse, but kept her voice in a whisper, just in case. “Shh, it’s okay, girl. You can’t be having a worse day than I am, I promise.”
The horse let out a soft whinny.
“Don’t believe me? Well, for one thing, you have this nice stall of hay, which, you know, I don’t think is very comfortable, but horses seem to like it, right? Whereas I’m homeless at the moment, so…” She continued to stroke the horse’s flank, finding it strangely comforting. As she did, she allowed her mind to drift back to the day before.
She’d been jolted awake yesterday morning, too…
Piper bolted upright in her bed, rubbing her eyes as she tried to figure out where the pounding was coming from. Annoyed at being roused from the first good night’s sleep she’d had in forever, when she realized it was someone at the door she was less than gracious as she bellowed, “Coming! I hear you, knock it off already!” She threw back the covers and stomped to the door, not caring that she was in nothing but an oversize T-shirt.
Whoever was standing on the other end of the door must have heard her because the knocking stopped. But it did nothing to quell her irritation, which was why when she threw it open she snarled, “What?”
“Listen, I’m really sorry to bother you, Piper…”
Her mouth dropped open and a second later heat suffused her cheeks. She couldn’t believe she’d been yelling at Mr. Laskey, who was the sweetest man alive in addition to being her landlord. “M-Mr. Laskey… I… I’m so sorry, I didn’t know it was you. Not that I should, um, ever talk to anyone like that, I just didn’t… I didn’t know,” she finished lamely, her face getting hotter by the second.
“That’s okay, I understand, it’s early.”
Which was a nice thing to say and all, except it only made her feel more like crap. She cleared her throat, pulling down on the hem of her T-shirt self-consciously. “Uh, thanks. So, um, what can I do for you, Mr. Laskey?”
The older man scratched his balding head and avoided her eyes. “Listen, I really hate to do this…”
Piper’s hand tightened on the doorknob as her stomach sank.
“The thing is… ah, you’re really far behind. I was stopping by to see if you have any idea when you’ll be able to catch up the rent.”
She took a deep breath, hoping that her voice wouldn’t shake when she spoke. “I’m really sorry, Mr. Laskey. I know I owe you for the last two months, but I’ve been paying on it whenever I can.”
Now he was the one with pink cheeks. It was clear he didn’t enjoy this part of his job. “I know, and I get that things have been rough for you, but you already owe eight-seventy from the last two months, and now this month’s is due, too.”
Her grip on the doorknob was so tight the metal was hot in her hand. “Is it the fifth already?” She laughed weakly, but he didn’t join in. In fact, her words only seemed to make him more embarrassed.
“Yes. Now while I’ve waived any late fees—”
“Thank you, I really appreciate that.”
He still avoided her gaze as he said, “Your balance at this point is pretty significant. I know you haven’t been able to find work…”
“I’ve been looking for a part-time job while I work on my business,” she offered.
“Ah, yeah, I know you’ve told me that, but—”
“Give me just a sec, I’ll be right back.” Piper left him standing in the doorway as she walked to the end table and grabbed a brochure off the top. She also snatched up her robe and was tying it around her waist as she made her way back to him. “Here.”
Mr. Laskey hesitated for a moment, but he was too nice of a man to refuse her. “It’s… nice.”
She beamed at him. She was very proud of the pamphlets she’d designed and ordered. The top said ‘Piper’s Playthings’ in large teal cursive letters and beneath it were four pictures. The first was of a large stuffed gray bunny with a pink flowered ponytail holder over each ear wearing a blue gingham dress. There was a dapper elephant in a top hat and tuxedo, a monkey dressed in pajamas, and the last one was a black and white photograph that showed a well-worn though dapper bear. It was her own bear she’d had since she was five years old.
“This is my business. Or, I mean, it will be. One day.”
“Forgive me for asking, Piper… I’m an old man and I don’t always know these things…”
“You’re not old.” She reached out and gave his arm a squeeze.
His normally ruddy complexion deepened. “So, what is it? A store that sells stuffed animals?”
“Yes, but…” She trailed off, unsure of how to explain what her vision really was. Or if she even should. “I want it to be a place where people can go to be themselves. Not necessarily the person people see when they look at them, but their truest selves, the person they really are, deep down. And maybe other people will come in looking for a birthday gift, and find something that speaks to them, and discover a part of themselves they never knew existed.” Piper flushed, but it was a mixture of embarrassment for babbling and pride in her dream. “I don’t know if that makes sense.”
Mr. Laskey gave her a long, assessing look before he slowly began to nod. “Yes. Yes, Piper, I think it does.”
“Really?” A grateful smile spread across her lips.
“I do. And it’s clear you’re passionate about what you’re saying, which is more than some folks have. But Piper…”
“I know,” she cut in. “I know you can’t keep cutting me breaks. See, I took out a loan for my business, and I thought I should be able to get it off the ground, but it’s taking longer than I thought, and…” She trailed off helplessly because that was only half the story. The other half was that she was out of money and still needed more. Worse still, she had plenty of other bills to catch up on top of worrying about where the additional money to fund her business would come from.
“I really need you to pay up, or, ah, find somewhere else to stay. I’m sorry, I really am, Piper, but…”
The pride she’d felt only moments ago vanished, replaced by shame that felt like a physical weight in her soul. “I know.” She blinked her big green eyes rapidly to keep the tears that threatened at bay.
Her landlord’s neck was turning bright red as he watched her. He looked down at the pamphlet in his hand and let out a big, regretful sigh. “Maybe I could give you one more month, but then I really do need you to pay the balance in full.”
She gave him a tiny smile. “Thanks, Mr. Laskey. I appreciate it, truly, but you’ve already done so much. I don’t want to keep asking you to do me favors when I have no idea when I can pay you back.”
“Are you sure?” He looked torn between feeling relieved and being miserable.
She knew how he felt. She put a hand on his and forced a smile. “Yeah, I’m sure. It’s time. And I really do appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I promise I’ll get the money to you as soon as I can.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that. You’re a good girl.”
Her smile widened, and felt genuine this time. “Thanks.”
“Where will you go?”
She pulled a face. “My aunt’s, I guess. I hate to ask you for one more favor, Mr. Laskey…”
“Go on and ask.”
“Is there any way I could leave some stuff with you? My aunt isn’t a fan of my stuffed animals.”
“Sure. Of course you can. I’ll keep ‘em safe downstairs for you.”
Piper felt a pang of sadness as she thought of all her pretty things—the stuffies, so soft you’d swear you were stroking a brand-new puppy, the beautiful clothes she’d labored over, careful to make sure each stitch was perfect, that each accessory matched and gave the stuffie added personality—that was slightly soothed knowing that Mr. Laskey was keeping them safe.
Though she had bigger things to worry about—like a place to live, for one—she couldn’t help but worry. She had never worked so hard on anything in her life. If she didn’t have the dream of her business, she didn’t have anything.
“Who the hell are you?”
A gasp lodged in her throat as Piper whirled around, half expecting to see a gun-toting felon behind her. Instead, the man watching her was wearing a cowboy hat atop his head, gray hair spilling into curls nearly down to his shoulders. His hands were empty, but the way they were propped on his hips was only slightly less threatening. The scowl he wore very much reminded her of the other cowboy who’d told her to stay put.
“Who are you?” he barked again.
Clearly the men in this family had a thing for being answered immediately. She opened her mouth to answer, but her vocal cords seemed paralyzed by the increasing drama and Piper couldn’t manage to squeak out a reply.
The furrows on his brow deepened. “Never mind. I heard shots. Where is my grandson?”
Swallowing hard, she raised her hand and pointed in the last direction she’d seen him go.
“I’ll be back. And when I am, I expect an answer.” Giving her a hard glance that left her frozen, he ran off, moving just as swiftly and stealthily as the other man—his grandson, apparently—had.
This is just not my day. Piper felt tauter than a ball of rubber bands and didn’t dare exhale until several minutes had passed. I’ve got to get out of here.
“The next surprise is likely to give me a stroke,” she murmured.
The horse whinnied, and she swore she could hear the sympathy.
But the question was did she dare? Now that she had been confronted by not one but two stone-faced cowboys, both who expected to find her whenever they deigned to return, it would take a lot of courage to try to escape. Did she have enough?
This is ridiculous. Why should I sit here, waiting to be yelled at some more? I don’t owe them anything. Of course, I did borrow their barn for an evening… not even an evening, really, just a few hours…
Now she wished she could turn back time. If she could do last night over again, she would have kept her head down and her feet moving. She had been on the way to her aunt’s—knowing she’d have to eat humble pie when she got there made her steps more leaden than usual. She had sold her car two months ago to try to stay afloat and a normally ten-minute drive dragged out even further since she was on foot.
She had broken down and cried when Mr. Laskey had left, and again when she’d packed up. She had to leave behind anything that wouldn’t fit in her backpack, and as she weighed her options and made the heart-wrenching decision of what to bring and what had to stay, she couldn’t help but wonder if she would even be welcome at her aunt’s. Even if she allowed Piper to stay, would she let her come back for any more of her stuff? Those questions and the awful not-knowing made every decision feel crucial. By the time she’d finally gotten walking, she was drained from all the tears, and feeling defeated in a way she’d never experienced.
Which was why eventually she just couldn’t take another step. That was when she’d spotted the barn. Sure, she’d seen the house a few yards off, but she’d been sure that she could grab a few minutes’ sleep, just enough to recharge her energy so she’d be able to make it the rest of the way to her aunt’s.
But that plan had been foiled by a cowboy that apparently rose long before the sun and didn’t have an ounce of compassion in his lean, hard body.
“How was I supposed to know he gets up at five in the morning?” she muttered.
The horse stamped its foot, which set the other two to stamping in their stalls.
“You knew?” Piper stood up, brushing the hay from her pants. “Well, you could’ve warned me.” She ran her hand along the creature’s soft, long nose.
The horse turned her head side to side, making Piper laugh.
“Oh, you wanted me to stay, huh? Well, thanks for getting me in trouble!” She cast a longing glance at the open doorway. It was now or never. It should be a no-brainer—the last thing she wanted to do was face either of those stone-faced men. “What do you think, girl? Should I stay? Or…”
The horse whinnied and shook her head.
“You think it’s dangerous out there? Sure, the way this day is going, I take one step outside and bam!” She shuddered at the thought. “But he’s dangerous, too.” Piper bit down on her bottom lip and worried it between her teeth, thinking. She was between a rock and a hard place. No matter which way she turned, danger threatened.
When she thought of the younger cowboy, the one who had found her, her stomach did a weird flip-flop that didn’t feel entirely uncomfortable. It was a strange feeling, knowing that if she stayed, she’d have to face him, and there had been consequences implied in his dark, hot gaze. And yet… her stomach churned, letting her know that she was excited as well as scared.
The horse stamped again, pulling her out of her thoughts and making her jump. As soon as she’d done it, she laughed at how silly she was being. “I guess I’m a little jumpy,” she admitted, giving the horse more attention by patting it again. “Hey, you would be too if you’d been woken up by… well, I don’t know his name. I wish you could tell me.” What name suited that fierce scowl, those dark, glaring eyes? There was something about his gaze that made goosebumps rise on her arms and her tummy do flips again in that uncomfortable yet strangely delicious way. He’d told her to stay put, and she had no doubt he’d meant it. So who was she more afraid of? The unknown possibly of a bad guy with a gun, or a man that was already angry with her?
She rolled her eyes skyward. Easy choice.
“Sorry, girl.” She leaned forward and kissed the wide bridge of the horse’s nose. “I’ve gotta get out of here.” Piper began to move toward the open barn door.
The cowboy had made a quick, silent getaway. Before she’d taken five steps, she had to concede that it wasn’t a talent she possessed. Every step she took, her foot crunched down on the hay. It might have been gravel for all the noise it made. “I guess I’m not cut out for a life of crime,” she muttered sheepishly. Still, she was determined to get the heck out of here, and she moved forward, noise be damned.
“You catch ‘em?”
Chase, unsurprised by his grandfather’s sudden appearance at his side, shook his head. “Nope. Far as I can tell, they’re long gone.”
Senior arched his gray, bushy brows. “What makes you think there was more’n one?”
He nodded his head toward the tracks he’d followed until he’d lost the trail.
His grandfather whistled, low and long. “What d’ya reckon they want?”
“Who knows?” He shrugged a shoulder, staring moodily out toward the trees.
“You see anyone?”
“Nope. Not so much as a twig out of place. I was a tad preoccupied, but that gunshot sure as hell got my attention.”
“I’ll bet.” He clapped Chase on the shoulder. “Don’t fret over it none. Can’t catch ‘em all, and if I had a beautiful blonde in the barn I imagine I would be a bit preoccupied, too.”
He laughed at Senior’s knowing look. “Yeah, maybe if that was the case, but as it turns out, she’s a stowaway.”
“You don’t say.”
“Found her a bit earlier hiding in the shed.”
“Hmm, how d’ya reckon she ended up there?”
“She says she needed a place to sleep.”
“Yeah? You think there’s more to it?”
Chase’s mood turned grimmer. “I sure as hell intend to find out.”
“You smell trouble?”
“Can’t say for positive. Could be.”
“You think it’s…” He let his sentence trail off meaningfully.
“Could be,” he said again.
Senior mulled this over a bit before giving two definitive shakes of his head and spitting on the ground. “Nah. Not a young thing like that.”
“Who knows? Maybe they think they can catch us off guard. Maybe that’s the plan.”
“It’s not just that she’s young. There’s somethin’ about her…”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
“Doesn’t seem like the hardened criminal type, you know?”
“Do they ever?” His words came out hard, bitter. But he did indeed know what his grandfather meant. There was something about the pretty blonde that screamed of innocence, but he didn’t want to let that cloud his judgment. Maybe the people who sent her expected he would let his guard down, and that possibility made it impossible for him to do so. “I best get back. I need to make sure we’re not missin’ anything.”
“Well, you might wanna hurry. She looked to be on her way out when I saw her.”
Chase’s brow furrowed as he scowled. “I told her to stay put.”
His grandfather shrugged. “Jus’ what it looked like to me.”
“In that case, I better be goin’.” But something held him back another moment. “I know you don’t like hunches…”
Chase considered his next words carefully before saying, “I can’t swear by it, ‘course, but I think that we haven’t seen the last of those guys, whoever they were. I feel it in my gut.”
His grandfather didn’t answer, but merely followed his gaze out toward the trees.