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Wyoming Brave by Diana Palmer (1)

CHAPTER ONE

REN COLTER WASNT WELCOMING. In fact, he was immediately hostile when Merrie Grayling walked in the door of his Wyoming ranch with his brother.

Merrie looked at him and felt as if someone had hit her in the stomach with a bat. He was glorious. Tall, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, with beautiful lean hands and a mouth that was chiseled and sensual-looking in a face topped by thick black hair and a straight nose. He was as handsome as his brother, but in a darker way. He scowled at her. But, she could hardly take her eyes off him. He was wearing work clothes; jeans and boots that had seen their share of action in the trenches, along with shotgun chaps and a sheepskin jacket. A black Stetson was set at a slant over one eye. Both glistening black eyes were on Merrie, making comments that he didn’t even have to put into words.

She moved closer to Randall, which seemed to set Ren off even more. Randall was tall and blond, with laughing blue eyes and the face of a movie star. He was very different from his brother.

“It’s only for a few weeks, Ren,” Randall said softly. “She’s...well, she’s been through a lot. Her father just died and she’s had some trouble with a...with that person I told you about.” He didn’t look at Merrie, because what he’d told Ren wasn’t quite the truth. “You have state-of-the-art surveillance and plenty of bodyguards around the place. I thought she’d be safe here.”

“Safe.” He had a deep, velvety voice. He studied Merrie with his sensuous lips pursed, but he seemed to find nothing enticing in the woman with the long, platinum hair in a braid down her back, her pale blue eyes trained on him like spotlights. She was pretty enough, but Ren had had enough of pretty women. Her figure wasn’t easily discernible in what she was wearing. She had on jeans and a sweatshirt, both loose on her slender body, and she wore no makeup. Odd, he thought, for one of Randall’s women not to show up in a tight and trashy outfit, batting her eyelashes at Ren and flirting with him. Randall’s women were experienced and aggressive. Ren hated having them around. Of course, Randall was usually around to entertain them. But here he was, bringing in an odd female and leaving her while he traveled around the world for Ren, lauding their ranch’s prize bulls. Randall was a born salesman. Ren was more introverted, withdrawn. He didn’t really like people much. He hated their mother and had no contact with her. But he loved his brother.

He avoided women like the plague since his fiancée, Angie, had been caught with not one, but two other men, only two weeks before they were supposed to be married. Ren called off the ceremony and left Angie to deal with the aftermath. She’d been Randall’s girl first, until she realized that he wasn’t about to marry anyone. She set her cap at Ren instead, and teased him out of his mind for the three months of their engagement. To Randall’s credit, he’d tried to warn his brother. Ren had been in love for the first time in his life, and wouldn’t listen.

Angie, meanwhile, had been looking forward to living a life of luxury. Ren chaired a mining company that was Fortune 500. That was in addition to the very profitable purebred Black Angus herd that graced the thousand acres of his ranch, and the champion seed bulls that commanded millions in sales of both young bulls and semen straws (which held bull semen) that were sold internationally. The bloodlines of his cattle were impeccable.

The worst part of their broken engagement was that Ren had read all about himself on Angie’s Facebook page. He’d had to buy a new laptop afterward, since he’d thrown the damned thing clear through a window out into the yard. One of the kindest things she’d said about him was that he was a clumsy, boring lover, and his hick ranch was a joke.

Attorneys had taken care of Angie’s lies online. He hadn’t heard from her again. He hoped he never did. He was never letting another woman get close to him. Once burned, twice shy.

Now he was being stuck with another one of Randall’s women. It didn’t put him in a sparkling mood. She wasn’t going to find much fun here. He’d make sure of that. He was tired of Randall’s parade of women.

“She won’t cause any trouble,” Randall was saying.

Merrie nodded. She didn’t say anything. The tall rancher didn’t like her. He didn’t even try to hide that.

“Delsey!” Ren called.

An older woman came out of the kitchen with a harassed look on her face. She was small and plump, with gray hair in a bun and dark, beautiful brown eyes. She looked at Merrie with faint surprise, then she smiled.

“This is Merrie Grayling,” Randall announced to her, putting a comforting arm around Merrie, who was almost trembling from Ren’s open hostility. “She’s from a small town in Texas.”

Delsey shook Merrie’s hand. “You’ll be welcome here, dear,” she said with a wary glance at Ren. She smiled at Randall. “You off again?”

“Yes. To England, to talk to a baron,” he added with a grin. “He runs purebred Black Angus and we have some champion bulls we’d like to sell him. He’s interested, but the personal touch is what makes sales.”

“It does,” Ren agreed. His mouth pulled to one side. “I don’t have it.”

“His idea of the personal touch is a cattle prod,” Randall told Merrie with sparkling eyes.

“Only with people,” Ren replied, sticking his hands in his pockets. He stared at Merrie. “I don’t use cruelty as a tool. My cattle are used to gentle handling. I like cattle.”

“Me, too,” Merrie said softly, flushing when Ren stared at her. “But I like horses best.” She searched his hard face. “Do you have one...that I could ride, maybe?”

“We’ll talk about it later.” He glanced at his watch. “Vet’s coming over to inoculate some replacement heifers. I have to go.”

Randall started to hug him, but was met with ice-cold eyes, and put out a hand to shake instead. He gave a wry smile to his brother. “Don’t stand in the cold too long,” he advised. “Snow’s coming, they say.”

“It’s Wyoming,” Ren replied. “We always have snow.”

“That must be nice,” Merrie said hesitantly. “We hardly ever have even a flurry where I come from.”

Ren didn’t reply. He glanced at Delsey. “I’ll be in late. Just leave me some cold cuts in the fridge.”

“I’ll do that. You be careful with that horse,” she added with affectionate concern. “He bit Davey yesterday.”

“What horse?” Randall asked.

Ren’s face tensed. “We had a new cowboy, one I took on faith because Tubbs hired him and said he was a good hand. He was out at the line cabin, where we didn’t see him much. When I rode out there to ask him about some of the bred heifers, I found him passed out dead drunk, and the horse we’d given him as a saddle mount was bleeding from deep cuts he’d put in him, God knows with what. I beat the hell out of him before I called the authorities and they took him away. He’s being prosecuted for cruelty to animals. I told them I’d be happy to testify,” he added coldly.

Merrie wrapped her arms tightly around herself and shivered. That brought back painful memories of what she’d endured from her father. Lashings, beatings, all her young life. She was only twenty-two and she’d never been on a date, never been kissed, never had any friends...

Her father was so rich that everyone in the area was afraid of him, so the girls—Merrie and her older sister, Sari—had never told anyone what went on in the beautiful mansion in Comanche Wells, Texas.

“Cold?” Randall asked softly as she shivered.

She shook her head. “My father...hurt a horse like that once.”

“Did you turn him in?” Ren asked curtly.

She swallowed. Hard. “People were too scared of him. It wouldn’t have done any good. The trainer just made sure the horses were never out when he went to the stables.”

“You live on a ranch?” Ren asked.

She nodded. “Not nearly as big as this one. We just had...have...horses.”

“Well, you won’t go near this one. Hurricane is the most dangerous animal on the place. He took a hunk out of one cowboy’s arm and barely missed killing another who tried to get a bridle off him. He won’t let anybody touch him.”

“The bridle’s still on?” Randall asked worriedly.

“Yes.” Ren grimaced. “His head’s rubbed raw by it. The cowboy probably dragged him around with it. We’ll try again to get the vet to sedate him.” He shook his head. “Can’t hold him still long enough for the man to get a needle in him. He knows a guy at the forest service who has a tranquilizer gun. He’s trying to borrow one.”

“Poor thing,” Merrie said softly. “A man who’ll do that to a horse will do it to people,” she added, her eyes lowered as she remembered her father.

Ren studied her curiously. “In fact, the sheriff thinks he had a poster on the man Tubbs hired.” He looked at Randall. “Next time, I’ll do the hiring,” he said with a faint upturn of his mouth. “Tubbs has no judgment about people.”

“She does,” Randall said, hugging Merrie close to his side. “She paints.”

“A lot of people paint,” Ren said dismissively. He checked his watch again. “Have a safe flight,” he told his brother.

“Thanks,” Randall said. He smiled. “Stay out of trouble.”

Ren shrugged. “Not my fault,” he replied. “The man insulted my cattle.”

“The Billings police were very unhappy with you,” Randall persisted.

Ren chuckled. “Yes, they were. They made me take a brief anger management course. Then I went to a conference in Montana and another guy insulted my cattle.” He sighed. “Guess I’ll stay out of Billings until the police forget what I look like.”

Randall shook his head. Ren winked at him and walked out the door without a word to Merrie. His spurs jingled as he walked. They sounded like bells to Merrie, who smiled at Randall.

“He’ll be all right,” he assured her. “He’s just uneasy around people he doesn’t know. Right?” he asked Delsey.

She drew in a breath. “He’s awful around people he doesn’t know. I hope you’ve got grit, young lady,” she added with a smile. “He’ll test you.”

“I’ve lived through hard times,” Merrie said with a warm smile. “I’ll just keep out of his way.”

“Not a bad idea,” Delsey said with a laugh. “Especially with winter coming on and snow forecasted. It’s hard on cattle and cowboys when it gets deep.”

“I love snow,” Merrie said wistfully.

“You wouldn’t if you’d ever lived through a Wyoming winter,” Delsey assured her.

She just grinned.

“Well, I’ve got to go, too,” Randall said. He kissed Merrie on the cheek. “You be careful. Stay away from the stables, and don’t let Ren bother you.” He hesitated. “If he gets too bad, just text me and I’ll take you home. Okay?”

She felt a chill of premonition when he said that, but she managed a smile. “Okay.” She hugged him. “Thanks, Randall.”

“You’re my friend,” he teased. “No worries. You’ll be fine here. Take care.”

“You, too,” she said.

“Drive slowly,” Delsey said, shaking a finger at him. “No more speeding tickets!”

“Dreamer,” he chided. He winked at her as he left.

* * *

DELSEY SHOWED MERRIE to her room. “I’ll have one of the boys bring your luggage up. It’s still sitting in the hall where Randall left it.” She paused. “Don’t let Ren upset you,” she added gently. “He’s hard on people he doesn’t know. Especially women. He had a bad experience. It’s made him cold.”

“I won’t bother him,” Merrie promised. “I brought my sketchbooks and my knitting. I’ll keep busy.”

“Good. If you need anything, I’m usually in the kitchen or somewhere in the house. There are helpers who come on certain days to help me with the heavy stuff. I’m feeling my age a little, but Ren likes the way I cook,” she said with a laugh.

Merrie drew in a long breath. “Our housekeeper, Mandy, taught me to cook. She even taught me how to cut up a chicken and field dress game.” She laughed softly. “I love being in the kitchen, too.”

“I’ll let you help, after you’ve been here a bit.” Her wise dark eyes searched Merrie’s. “It’s a stalker, isn’t it? Randall told me.”

Merrie hesitated. “I don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way...”

“Ren has this place protected like it was Fort Knox,” Delsey told her. “Nobody gets in here without security clearance. Did you notice the cameras at the front gate when you came in?” Merrie nodded. She continued. “We even have facial recognition software. It tracks people.”

“Wow,” Merrie said softly.

“Sadly, it didn’t work on the cowboy who beat that poor horse.” She winced. “Hurricane was the sweetest gelding on the place. It breaks my heart to see what that man did to him.” She drew in a breath. “If he keeps this up, they’ll have to put him down.” She bit her lip, then forced a smile. “Well, I’ll leave you to unpack.” She looked out the door and peered over the banister. “Brady!” she called. “Can you bring those bags up here?”

“Sure thing, Miss Delsey,” the cowboy said with a long drawl.

He brought the bags up the staircase to Merrie’s room.

“Thanks,” she said softly, with a smile.

Brady tipped his hat. He was Delsey’s age, but was wiry and tough and apparently very strong. He grinned at Merrie. “You Mr. Randall’s friend that come to stay awhile?” he asked.

“Yes, I am. I’m Merrie. Nice to meet you, Brady.”

“Nice to meet you, too, miss.” He turned to Delsey. “Willis wants to know if you’ll make the men a cake.”

“I will,” Delsey replied. “What kind do they want?”

“Chocolate, with that white frosting you make.”

“I’ll start on it right now.” She turned to Merrie. “Have you had lunch?”

“Yes, thanks,” Merrie told her. “Randall got me a cheeseburger and fries on the way here.”

“Okay, then. Supper’s at seven. Ren keeps late hours. Sometimes he doesn’t even show up for supper. Like tonight. He told me to leave cold cuts in the fridge, which means he probably won’t get home until bedtime.”

“Ranching is hard on schedules,” Brady said with a chuckle. “Especially for boss man. He has to be everywhere before the bad weather coming.”

“I called that contractor,” Delsey added to Brady. “If you see Ren, tell him the man’s coming tomorrow morning to see what work needs doing.”

“I’ll tell him.” He tipped his hat again. “See you girls later.”

Merrie grinned. Delsey just laughed.

“He’s nice,” Merrie said.

“They mostly are. But we have a few who work security here,” she added solemnly. “One of them is dangerous. He came to us from Iraq, where he’d been training policemen. We don’t know much about him. He keeps to himself most of the time when he’s not watching the livestock.”

“Who is he?” Merrie asked curiously.

“They call him J.C. Nobody knows what the initials stand for.”

“I’ll stay out of his way,” Merrie promised. She stretched. The gold chain around her neck chafed a little. She pulled out the pretty filigree gold cross she wore and dangled it on her sweatshirt.

Delsey grimaced. She wanted to warn the girl, but she didn’t want to make her more nervous than she already was. Ren wouldn’t like that cross. It would prod him, like waving a flag at a bull. But maybe he wouldn’t see it.

She smiled at Merrie and left her alone to unpack.

* * *

MERRIE CAME DOWN for supper, silently hoping Ren wouldn’t be at the table. She really didn’t want to antagonize him any more than she had by just walking into his house.

“It’s a big place,” Merrie commented as she ate the delicious beef stew and homemade rolls Delsey had made.

“Very big. It’s too much for me to keep by myself, which is why we have others come in to help out,” she said with a laugh. “Most of them are wives of the men who already work for us. It’s a way for them to make a little more money to supplement their husbands’ incomes. Some of them keep chickens and sell eggs. Others raise garden crops and sell the excess in summer. We have a good life here.”

“The house is so beautiful,” Merrie said softly.

Delsey frowned slightly. “You’re the first woman Randall brought here who ever said that.”

“But, why?”

Delsey shrugged. “Well, it’s rustic, isn’t it?” She looked toward the living room with its big chairs and long sofa, all done in burgundy leather with cushions that had a Native American look. The rugs on the floor were the same. There were crossed swords above the mantel and an antique rifle perched on a stand.

“It looks like him,” Merrie said absently. “It’s sturdy and quiet and comforting.”

Delsey was lost for words. She knew that the girl was talking about Ren, but she was surprised that she was so astute. Sturdy and quiet and comforting. She just hoped Merrie wasn’t in for too big a surprise when Ren disapproved of something she said or did.

* * *

REN CAME IN very late. Merrie had gone downstairs, still in her jeans and sweatshirt, to ask Delsey about an extra blanket. It was kept cold in the house and she was used to warmer temperatures in Texas.

She stopped on the staircase when Ren spotted her, and his hard face grew even harder. He was looking pointedly at the front of her sweatshirt. For a minute she wondered if she was wearing something with writing on it. Then she remembered, it was just gray and plain. She swallowed hard. Surely he wasn’t looking at her chest!

“Why the hell do you wear that?” he asked shortly.

She was taken aback by the venom in the question. “I... I like sweatshirts,” she began.

“Not the sweatshirt. That thing!” He pointed to her cross.

She recalled Randall saying something about Ren’s feelings on religion. It hadn’t registered at the time, but it did now. She put her hand protectively over the cross.

“I’m a person of faith,” she said in a faint tone.

“Faith.” His eyes glittered at her. “Crutches for a sick, uneducated world,” he scoffed. “Superstition. Useless!”

She drew in a sharp breath. “Mr. Colter,” she began.

“Take that damned thing off, or hide it. I don’t want to see it in my house again. Do you understand?”

He was like her father. He spoke and it was like thunder. He frightened her. She tucked the cross under the sweatshirt with shaking hands.

“And if you’re looking for something to eat, we don’t have à la carte food after supper time. You eat at the table with us, or you don’t eat. Am I clear?”

She swallowed down the fear. “Yes, sir,” she said, her voice as shaky as her legs.

“What are you doing down here in the dark?”

“I... I wanted to get a blanket,” she stammered. “It’s cold in my room.”

“We don’t run a sauna here,” he said icily. “Even on a ranch this size, we conserve heat. There are blankets in your damned closet. Why don’t you look before you start bothering other people about trifles?”

She backed away from him. He was much scarier than she’d first thought. That posture, that icy look on his face, the fury in his eyes made her want to run. She’d rarely been around men. Mostly at art classes, and the men who took art were gentle and kind. This man was a lone wolf, not even housebroken. He made her shake when he spoke. Her first impression of him, of a handsome, kind man, took a nosedive. He was the devil in a pair of faded blue jeans.

“That’s it,” he chided. “Run away, little girl.”

She shot back up the staircase. She never even looked back when she got into her room. As an afterthought, she locked the door.

* * *

SARI HAD SAID that Merrie could call her, but she was afraid to. Even though she had six throwaway phones, she was afraid that one of them could be traced if she used it. The man who was after her would be wily. Paul Fiore, Sari’s husband, worked for the FBI. They were trying to find the man who’d been paid by the son of their father’s former lover to kill Merrie. The man he’d hired to kill Sari had been caught, and turned out to be their chauffeur. The man he’d hired for Merrie was far more dangerous.

Timothy Leeds had planned to kill both of Darwin Grayling’s daughters, to hurt the man who’d killed his mother in cold blood. But Darwin had died suddenly, and Timmy had been too drunk to know who he’d hired to do the job. He was horrified at his own actions. He’d been grieving for his mother, furious at Darwin and wanting to get even, to hurt him. But Darwin had died just after Timmy made his deals. He’d taken cash, the money his mother had left him, and paid men to do murder. He was sitting in jail, waiting to be arraigned. He’d turned state’s evidence, but there was no way to get around the fact that his intent had been to kill two innocent women. Intent was the thing in law. Merrie should know. Her older sister, Sari, was an assistant district attorney in Jacobsville, Texas.

She wondered what Sari would think of this taciturn, antagonistic rancher who was offended by a simple cross, a symbol of Merrie’s faith. That faith had carried her and her sister through some incredible sorrows. Their father had beaten them both, kept them like prisoners in the mansion where they lived, made them afraid of men. He was a killer, and he’d been involved in laundering money for organized crime. If he’d lived, he’d have gone to prison for life, despite his wealth.

That wealth had almost cost Sari a husband. Paul Fiore was the only member of his entire family who hadn’t gone into crime for a living. Paul had been with the FBI for a long time, with a brief few years as head of security for the Grayling properties. Now he was assigned to the FBI office in San Antonio. Sari had concocted a story whereby Darwin Grayling had left a hundred million dollars to Paul—half the amount Sari had received from their mother’s two secret bank accounts that she’d left to the girls in her will. Each was given two hundred million, and it had almost sent Paul running. He didn’t want people to think he’d married Sari for her money. But now he and Sari were very happily married, and Merrie was happy for them. She and her sister had some terrible scars, mental and physical, at their father’s hand.

She sat on her bed, still shivering a little from the rancher’s anger. She wondered if she was going to be able to stand it here. Ren Colter scared her.

* * *

SHE DID SLEEP, FINALLY. She went downstairs a little late for breakfast, hoping Ren would already be gone. But he was just getting up from the table.

He glared at her. “We keep regular hours here for meals,” he told her curtly. “If you come sashaying down late, you don’t eat.”

“But, Mr. Ren...” Delsey protested.

“Rules aren’t broken here,” Ren returned. He looked at Merrie, who was stiff as a board. “You heard me. Delsey will tell you what hours mealtimes are. Don’t be late again.”

He shoved his hat down over his eyes, shouldered into his heavy coat and went out without another single word.

Merrie was fighting back tears.

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” Delsey said. She drew the girl close and rocked her while she cried. “He’s just getting over a broken engagement, and he’s bitter. He wasn’t like this before. He’s basically a kind man...”

“He said my cross was stupid and I wasn’t to let it show again,” she sobbed. “What kind of man is he?”

Delsey rocked her some more and sighed. “It’s a long story. He went to a famous college up north on a scholarship and a professor there changed his mind about religion. He was an excellent student, but when he came home, he was suddenly antireligion. He sounded off to his mother about her Christmas tree and her faith, and had her running away in tears. Then he overheard her telling Randall that Ren was as cold and heartless as his father, whom she’d divorced. She was proud of Randall, because he was a better son. Ren just left. He’s never spoken to his mother again.”

Merrie pulled back and looked at the older woman through red eyes. “She divorced his father?”

She nodded. She handed Merrie tissues to dry her eyes with. “His father owned this ranch, but it was a hard life. His mother had very expensive tastes, so the story goes, and Randall’s father wanted her. So she ran away with him.”

Merrie grimaced. “It’s a huge ranch now.”

“Yes, it is. But it was small and in debt when Ren showed up at the door just after that Christmas. He and his father began to work together to build up a breeding herd. Ren knew business, with his Harvard business degree, and his father knew cattle.” She smiled. “It took fifteen years, but they diversified into oil and mining, as well as cattle, and they built a small empire here. Ren’s very proud of it. His father was, too. He died two years ago.” She sighed. “Ren wouldn’t even let his mother come to the funeral. He’s still bitter about what he heard her say. He won’t speak to her at all.”

“It isn’t human, to hold a grudge like that,” Merrie said quietly. “He seems such a cold man,” she added softly.

“There’s a kind man under all that ice. It’s just that he’s been frozen for a long time.”

“He scares me to death,” Merrie confessed.

“He won’t hurt you,” Delsey said quietly. “You have to stand up to him, honey. A man like that will walk all over you if you let him.”

“I’ve lived almost twenty-three years with a man like that,” Merrie told her. “He...” She swallowed and her arms folded over her chest. “He was brutal to us, especially after our mother died. He wanted sons. He got us. So he made us pay for it. We couldn’t even date. He wouldn’t let us have friends. We still can’t drive a car. I’ve never even been kissed. How’s that for a stifled environment?” she asked with a hollow laugh. “The only concession he made was that we were allowed to go to church. You have no idea how important faith was to us when we were growing up. It was all that kept us going.” She fingered the cross under her sweatshirt. “My mother gave me this cross. And I’m not taking it off.”

Delsey smiled. “That’s the spirit. You tell him.”

“Sorry. I’m not a lemming,” Merrie teased.

Delsey laughed. “You’re a tonic, you know.”

Merrie looked wistfully at biscuits and sausage and eggs. “I guess I’ll be on time at lunch,” she said.

“He’s gone. Sit down and eat.”

Merrie sat at the table, her eyes worriedly glancing at the door.

“Stay there,” Delsey said. She went and looked out the front door. Ren was going down the hill toward the barn in his big red SUV. Snow had started to fall lightly.

She went back to the kitchen. “He’s gone to the barn. After that, he’ll ride out to the line cabins and check on the livestock. Snow’s starting to fall.”

“It is?” Merrie was excited.

“Eat first,” Delsey said with a laugh. “Then you can go play in the snow.”

She hesitated with her fork over the eggs. “Thanks, Delsey.”

“It’s no problem. Really.”

Merrie sighed with pleasure and dug into breakfast. Afterward, she slipped on a light jacket and her boots. She was sorry she hadn’t packed a coat. They never had snow in Comanche Wells in autumn. They rarely even had it in winter.

“Child, you need something heavier than that!” Delsey fussed.

“I’ll be fine. I don’t mind the cold so much if there’s snow.” She laughed. “If I get too cold, I’ll just come back inside.”

“All right, but be careful where you go, okay?”

“I will.”

* * *

SHE STARTED WALKING around the house and down the path that led to some huge outbuildings with adjacent corrals. There was even a pole barn with bench seats. Inside it, a man was working a horse with a length of rope, tossing it lightly at the prancing animal. It was black and beautiful, like silk all over. It reminded her of home and her family’s stable of horses.

She played in the thick flakes of falling snow, laughing as she danced. It was so incredibly beautiful. She caught her breath, watching it freeze as it left her mouth, enjoying the cold, white landscape and the mountains beyond. She wanted to paint it. She loved her home in Texas, but this view was exquisite. She committed it to memory to sketch later.

She was curious about the poor horse that had been beaten. She could empathize with it, because she knew how that felt. She had deep scars on her back from her father’s belt, when she’d tried to save her poor sister from a worse beating. Her father had turned his wrath on her instead.

She shivered, remembering the terror she and Sari had felt when he came at them. He wouldn’t even let a local physician treat them, for fear he’d be arrested. He got an unlicensed doctor on his payroll to stitch the girls up and treat them. There was no question of plastic surgery. They had to live with the scars.

Not now, of course. Sari and Merrie were both worth two hundred million each. They’d gone shopping just before poor Sari ran away to the Bahamas to get over Paul’s rejection. But Merrie had bought sweats and pajamas and very plain clothing. She still couldn’t force herself to buy modern things, like crop tops and low-cut pants. She didn’t want to look as if she was hungry for male attention.

Her eyes were drawn to a huge building with two big doors at its front and a corral adjoining it, with doors that opened into the building. The area was cross-fenced, so that each animal had a slice of pasture. That had to be the stables. She wandered closer, hoping not to run into any of Ren’s men. She wanted to see the poor horse. She knew they’d stop her. Ren would have left orders about it, she was sure.

She waited in the shadows until two men came out.

“We can grab a cup of coffee and come back in thirty minutes,” one told the other. “The mare isn’t going to foal tonight, would be my bet, but we have to stay with her.”

“Let’s don’t be gone long,” the other one said on a sigh. “Boss has been in a terrible temper lately.”

“He should have known that woman was nothing but trouble,” the first one scoffed. “She wrapped him up like a late Christmas present and kept him off balance until he bought her that ring.”

“Don’t mention Christmas around him,” the other man muttered. “Almost got slugged for it myself last December.”

“He doesn’t believe in that stuff,” the first man sighed. “Well, to each his own, but I love Christmas and I’m putting up a tree month after next. He can just close his eyes when he drives by my cabin, because the damned thing is going in the window.”

The other man laughed. “Living dangerously.”

“Why not? He pays good wages, but I’m getting tired of walking on eggshells around him. The man’s temper gets worse by the day, you know?”

“Think of all those benefits. Even retirement. You really want to give that up because the boss is in a snit? He’ll get over it.”

“Hasn’t got over it in six months, has he?”

“It takes time. Let’s get that coffee.”

“Vet’s coming tomorrow to check on the mare. Maybe he got that tranquilizer gun for Hurricane. Damned shame, what happened to him.”

“Not as bad as what happened to the man who did it,” the other man said, wincing. “Boss turned him every way but loose. I never saw so many bruises, and he was a big man. Bigger than the boss, even.”

“The boss was in the army reserves. His unit was called up and he went overseas. He was captain of some company, not sure which, but they were in the thick of the fighting. He changed afterward, I hear.”

“He’s been through a lot. Guess he’s entitled to a bad temper occasionally.”

“I didn’t mind seeing him lose it with that damned cowboy who beat Hurricane. Damn, it was sweet to watch! The man never landed a single punch on the boss.”

“Sheriff noticed all the bruises. He said he guessed the man was so drunk he fell down the stairs headfirst.”

His companion burst out laughing. “Yeah. Good thing he likes the boss, ain’t it?”

“Good thing.”

They walked on. Merrie, who’d been listening, grimaced. Ren had been through hard times, too. She was sad for him. But that didn’t make her less afraid of him.

She opened the stable door and stepped inside. It was cool, but comfortable. She walked down the bricked aisle carefully. There were several horses inside. But she knew immediately which one was Hurricane.

He was coal black with a beautiful, tangled mane. He pitched his head when he saw Merrie and stamped his feet. Then he neighed. She saw the bridle. It was far too tight. She could see blood under it. She winced. There were visible lashes down his sides, near his tail. Deep cuts.

“Poor baby,” she said softly. “Oh, poor, poor baby!”

He pricked his ears up and listened.

She went a step closer. “What did he do to you?” she whispered. She moved another step closer. “Poor boy. Poor thing.”

He shook his mane. He looked at her closely and moved, just a step.

She spotted some horse treats in a nearby bag. She picked up two of them, putting one in her pocket. She held one in her palm, so that the horse couldn’t nip her fingers, and slowly moved it toward him. If he was that dangerous, it would be difficult even for a cowboy to feed or water him. She saw a trough in the back of the stall. It seemed to contain water. But the feed tray was inside the stall, and it was empty. He must be starved. She moved all the way to the gate, one step at a time.

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