Winning Over the Wrangler

By: Linda Ford
Chapter One

Eden Valley Ranch, September 1882

Stampede!

Brand knew what was happening before it took place. He saw the horses press against the corral gate, frightened by something beyond his vision. It could have been anything from a stalking cougar to a tumbling tumbleweed. Wouldn’t take much to alarm a bunch of wild mustangs. Wood creaked. The gate wouldn’t hold under the pressure of frightened horses.

Brand’s fists tightened so hard on the reins his knuckles cracked. His heart squeezed his blood out in a flash flood.

He would shout a warning to those along the fence, tell them to stand back. But he barely had control of the horse under him, which until a few minutes ago had never been ridden.

The gate snapped. The horses reared and screamed and pushed at each other, as frightened by the noise of the breaking fence as they had been by being confined. Brand held his mount with a firm hand. The horse was not ready to ride in tight quarters, but from the first, he’d sensed a willingness in it that was absent in many of the others he’d worked with. With no choice but to trust himself and the others to the green horse, he rode in the direction of the escaped animals. He had to turn them away from the people, get them back into the pen before anyone got hurt.

He saw a little boy and one of the women who had been watching. They stood only a few feet from the kicking, screaming, twisting animals surging in their direction. Choking dust clouded the scene.

He kicked his mount, raced for a gate, slipped it open with lightning speed and galloped toward them.

The stampeding horses were ahead of him. Before them, the boy scampered toward a fence and rolled under it. But the woman stood frozen, her mouth hanging open. Brand couldn’t tell if she screamed, couldn’t have heard it in the uproar if she did.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the movement of other cowboys racing for their own horses. No one else was close enough to rescue her. Brand leaned over the horse’s neck and urged him onward, closing the distance between them and the woman.

Ten more feet. He dared not look to the right or the left. All that mattered was that frightened woman.

Five feet.

One more leap of his horse and Brand reached her side. He leaned down and swept her into his arms, clutching her to his chest as they raced onward, out of the way of danger as pounding hooves thundered past and dust-laden air swirled.

He slowed, grateful the horse cooperated. “You’re okay now. You’re safe.” He pressed her trembling body closer.

He’d noticed her earlier as she stood by another woman, watching him at work. How could he not keep stealing glances at her? She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, with her golden curls flashing in the sunshine. He could describe everything about her in detail...the autumn-gold top she wore, the brown skirt that swung about her legs as she moved. The way she walked, as if life held nothing but promise for her. The way she smiled so sweetly at others.

It had taken all his concentration not to be distracted by her presence. It was his single-minded attentiveness that gave him his reputation as the best bronc buster in the West, and he wasn’t about to lose it.

And now she rested in his arms, holding his shirtfront as if it was a lifeline, and lifted her gaze to him. His world tipped at the way her cobalt-blue eyes caught his in a pleading look. How was he supposed to keep his mind off her in this situation?

Cowboys turned the herd of wild horses back to the corral amid more dust and more shouting.

“You’re safe,” he murmured again, as fierce protectiveness filled his insides. He wanted to promise both himself and her that he’d make sure she was always safe.

Then his world righted and reason returned. He could never make such a promise. In fact, he carried more risk than any woman deserved, and certainly more than he meant to give one. He warned himself to stay away from her before he brought danger into her life.

A mahogany-haired woman rushed toward them—the woman he’d seen earlier with his golden beauty. And then Eddie Gardiner, the ranch owner who had hired him, raced up on his horse. Already the dust had begun to settle.

“Are you hurt?” Eddie asked.

“No. I’m fine.” The woman had a gentle, soft voice with a sweet English accent. A voice full of music and peace, despite the danger she’d just been in. Was her life really as peaceful and perfect as her voice caused Brand to think? From what he’d seen of her, he knew her to be a high-class lady. Likely she had never had reason in her privileged life to deal with the harsh realities of a place like his.

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