In my historical Christmas story, Lone Star Angel, I wrote of a heroine, Carnelian Wendell, who just wanted to spend the holiday in a safe place. For five years, she’d been estranged from her large family of five siblings, parents and grandparents back in Houston. Her teenaged hasty decision to run off with an adventurous man turned to tragedy when he was gunned down during a stagecoach robbery. A visit to her sister who is a cook on a small west Texas ranch seems timely, as well as a great place to hide out. Carni is as full of life and activity as hero Luc Tarrant is quiet and set in his routine. Times are tough although Luc would say his ranch is getting by. Carni needs to shake off her bad experience and looks for ways to make a celebration. She turns the household upside down by changing the menu, creating holiday decorations, and bringing color into his life. Luc is helpless against her infectious spirit.
“Whoa, Star, just a little breeze. Nothing more.” Carni Wendell pulled the reins to the left, wondering if she should have paid the stable master to drive her out to the Bar-T Ranch. This time she promised herself she wouldn’t be a burden as a visiting relation, so she’d hired the horse and cart for the month.
In the distance, dark clouds chased the afternoon sun from the base of a craggy mountain. A chilly wind blew across the west Texas hard-packed prairie, twisting a dirt devil and tossing stray tumbleweeds across the path. Star stopped and nickered as an apparition appeared on the horizon.
A dark horse with a rider cantered in her direction and stopped not ten feet away, scraping up a dust cloud.
“Take a wrong turn, lady?”
The broad-shouldered man’s voice was deep and full of suspicion.
“Easy, Star.” With effort, she pulled the prancing horse back to an uneasy stand and turned her attention to the stranger. His hat shaded his eyes, but couldn’t hide a strong jaw covered with beard stubble and a tight mouth pulled down at the edges.
A loose tendril of hair tickled her forehead. With a gloved hand, she tucked it under the knitted scarf wrapped over her ears and neck to fight off the chilly air. “I’m looking for the Bar-T Ranch. Would you know if I’m on the right lane? Can’t really call this uneven, pot-holed path a road.” She paused, expecting the silent stranger to answer.
Leather creaked at his shift in position. He rested a forearm across the pommel and stared.
“The stable master in Wayside Gap told me to turn south at the double fencepost. Not that I’m too good with directions, but those were the only double posts I saw.”
“Thought I recognized Einhardt’s mare.”
What? The man commented on ownership of a horse, not about the boundaries for a cattle ranch? She waited for his confirmation she was headed in the right direction. “So, I did take the correct turn?”
“Could be.” The man stood in the stirrups to peer over her shoulder. “What’s your business here?”
Carni’s gaze was pulled to the muscles straining the thighs of his muddy denims. The man obviously worked hard for a living. How dare a ranch hand question her? Rudeness was not to be tolerated. Grasping the reins with one hand, she reached under the cart seat to collect the velvet reticule lying at her feet. “I’m tired and I’m cold. As wonderful as our conversation has been, I need to get to the Bar-T ranch. I’ll pay you four bits to direct me to the ranch house.”
She dug out the coins and held them suspended over the side of the cart, staring with a narrowed gaze at the man’s shadowed face. When he sat as still as a statute with only his eyes tracking her movements, her temper simmered. However, discussing her personal business with a ranch hand was unthinkable. She shook her hand and raised an eyebrow in his direction. “Okay, six bits.” Another coin was added to her hand.
The wind teased her skirts, flipping back the hem to reveal several inches of a red petticoat.
His gaze flicked to the exposed lingerie and the right side of his mouth quirked for just a second.
She saw his reaction and steamed even more. He’d taken advantage of the wind’s mischief instead of averting his gaze like a gentleman would. “A dollar for the directions. Take it now, I won’t be offering more.” Money well spent to remove herself from the belligerent company of this quiet man.
Several moments passed before he clucked out of the side of his mouth and urged the horse forward until abreast of the cart. “Whoa, Hades.” He held a cupped hand under her outstretched one, looked up from under the brim of his black hat and winked.
Heat flashed through her at his bold gesture. With a quick movement, she released her hand and let the clinking coins drop into his gloved hand. “Your boss will be hearing about your surly attitude.”
He shrugged and wheeled the horse, guiding it to the middle of the path. “Follow me.” Without a look over his shoulder, he trotted up the small rise and disappeared over the top.
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