The Widow’s Rancher – 01

Wishbone Creek, America 1895

GOD had to be a man, Nadia Bennett decided. No woman would have created the three cowboys standing in front of her. Not even if she hated the male species with a rage stronger than fire.

She stared at the men blocking the path and forced herself to stay calm. Normally she came into town early to avoid confrontations like this, but today she’d risen late, putting everything in her day back a step or two.

Refusing to show the fear grinding in the pit of her stomach, she lifted her head and met the eyes of one of the men.

“Let me pass, please.”

Men had bothered her before, but never three at the same time, so instead of shoving past them the way instinct urged her to, she decided polite coolness might be a better tactic − less chance of the men turning ugly and her ending up with a bruise or two.

“That ain’t very friendly,” the man closest to her drawled, spitting out a mouthful of tobacco.

Short in height, with stooped shoulders that spoke of advancing years, his clothes were dirty, and by the look of his face, it had been a while since the edge of a shaving blade or a washcloth had touched his skin.

Nadia fought the urge to step back, knowing a show of fear or weakness would only encourage the men to keep pestering. She’d learned a long time ago that a man liked nothing more than to see a crack in a woman’s composure, especially when it gave him the chance to use it to hurt her. She flicked a gaze of indifference over each of them.

“Come on, lady.” A second cowboy shuffled forward. “We just want to talk.”

Conversation was not what these men wanted. They were more interested in intimidating and propositioning her.

It had happened many times in the six months since Henry died. She was starting to believe the only decent man around these parts was the preacher.

“I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

The first cowboy shifted nearer. The smell of horses and stale body odour wafted from him.

“But we’ve barely got to know each other.”

Nadia took another step away, pulling the wicker basket she carried on one arm in front of her body. If the man tried to touch her, she’d use it to protect herself. A swift knock in the stomach should cool his unwanted ardour.

She took another half step back, but found she couldn’t move any further.

Something solid barred her way.

“What’s going on here?” a deep, gravelly male voice demanded, its tone full of command, confidence and a good sprinkling of impatience.

Nadia stiffened at the familiar rich drawl. Her already disrupted morning turned into more of a trial now this man had stuck his nose in where it didn’t belong.

“We’re just talking to the lady, boss.” The third cowboy spoke up, sounding sheepish and guilty as he met the gaze of the man behind her. A lot younger than the other two, his appearance was surprisingly clean, his expression a mix of awkwardness, guilt and embarrassment.

“Don’t seem like she’s enjoying what you have to say, boy,” the man replied. “Why don’t you all get on back to the ranch? Alfred will have cooked up a breakfast to welcome us home.”

“We were only saying good morning, boss.” The offensive manner of the man with the stooped shoulders disappeared quicker than sugar icing on a child’s cake.

“You can do all your talking tonight when you return to town and spend your wages,” the man said. “Get on back to the ranch. Eat, clean up and get some sleep.”

The men nodded and did what their boss suggested, moving past in single file, all their earlier arrogance gone.

“Ma’am.” The youngster raised his hat, a red blush rising beneath his skin. “I’m really sorry about. . . We didn’t mean no harm.”

“You may not have,” she replied curtly, “but your friends did.”

Nadia waited until he left before taking a step forward. She wanted to take a large leap away, but forced herself not to, determined not to show any reaction that would cause even more gossip in this town. The locals had already enjoyed plenty at her expense during the few years she had lived here.

Long, thick fingers wrapped around her arm to stop her from leaving. The thumb dipped into the inside crease of her elbow and snuggled there in a too familiar way.

“I apologise for my men, Mrs Bennett. We’ve just returned from a long cattle drive north and the sight of pretty females have been few and far between.”

She glared down at the hand and then over her shoulder at the man speaking. Diggory Rorke, the Mr Big in these parts, stared down at her. She knew he was a man with enough land and wealth to make most of the bankers in the east look like paupers.


Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!