- 11 . The Widow’s Rancher – 10
- 12 . The Widow’s Rancher – 11
- 13 . The Widow’s Rancher – 12
- 14 . The Widow’s Rancher – 13
- 15 . The Widow’s Rancher – 14
- 16 . The Widow’s Rancher – 15
- 17 . The Widow’s Rancher – 16
WHERE did you grow up, Diggory?”
“Here,” he said, nodding towards the view. “My grandparents bought the ranch and we all moved here to help with it. The ranch house sits where the original soddy house sat. Not a day of my life I haven’t run or ridden these pastures − or woken to watch the sun rise in the same old sky.”
“Is your ranch big?” She’d never visited his home, even though she received a yearly invite to the Thanksgiving barn dance he and his family always held. “People say so.”
“Yeah, it is.” He nodded. “I work hard to keep it so. Were you happy your father gave you to Henry?”
“I wanted to get married and have a family. I got half my wish, I suppose. Of course I didn’t really know Henry. I married him a week after meeting him and we left for the west a few days later.”
He tilted his head back to look at her.
“Are you going to keep the homestead?”
“I have nowhere else to go. And it provides enough for my needs and I’ve made it my home.”
“Don’t you get lonely?”
She reached down and played with a blade of grass.
“I was married and lonely, Mr Rorke. At least on my own I don’t have to live with disappointment, too. What about you? You have that big house and a successful ranch. Seven strapping sons. Why is there no woman on your arm?”
He sighed softly.
“I admit it would be nice to have someone to talk to at night, at those times when the house is quiet and the dark hours drag by. When all you want is to unwind and talk over your day with someone you’re not paying wages to.”
His comment astounded her. Why, he sounded more than lonely. Almost regretful.
“You must miss your wife.” Everyone in the area knew he had lost his wife years ago.
“Sometimes,” he admitted. “Flora was a good, sweet-natured woman, but she died a long time ago. Ed, my youngest, was barely a year old when she died.”
“Why don’t you get married again? You’re rich enough and passably attractive for most women’s taste. There’s plenty around here who’d snatch you up and waltz you to the preacher.”
“There’s an idea,” he said with a mischievous grin. “How about it? You keen?”
Confused, she asked, “Me?”
“We’d make a fine couple, I think.” She stiffened and fidgeted on the rug. “I told you the other day I don’t want another husband.”
“Then why did you just propose?” She frowned at him.
“I did not!”
“Yes, you did,” he argued.
“I did not!” she insisted, shocked by his audacity. One minute they were talking about loneliness, the next he had moved on to marriage.
“I’m teasing you, Nadia. But it does makes sense. You need protection and a husband who isn’t after your land.”
She raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“And that’s you, is it? I’ve only your word you don’t want my land.”
“My word’s good. You can trust it.”
“How can it be when you talk nonsense about marriage? Have you bumped your head recently? Is that the reason why you’re acting so strange?”
“I’m fine. And I’m right, but you don’t want to admit it.” She sighed.
“Diggory Rorke, you could not choose a worse woman for a wife than me.”
“Plenty of reasons. I’m hardly in my youth.”
“Neither am I. Besides, you’re not that old.”
Nadia stared at him. Why wasn’t she running for her horse and riding off instead of arguing with him? The man obviously wasn’t right in the head.
Perhaps he’d taken too much sun during the cattle drive he’d mentioned the other day. Marry him, indeed. The idea was preposterous. Before today, they had barely spoken more than passing greetings to each other.
“What are you?” he asked. “Late twenties?”
“I find behaviour of that kind insulting.”
He reached out and touched her hip with the tips of his fingers.
She shifted sideways on the rug, putting more space between them.
“Smarmy like melted butter.”
“So how old are you?”
“I’ll be thirty-nine in the fall.”
“You’re nothing but a baby. I’m forty-six.”
“Really?” she asked, stunned. “I thought you were older.”
“Yeah, well, the weather and life stole my good looks.”
“Didn’t carry off your smooth tongue, though,” she remarked dryly.
His smile caused his eyes to twinkle.
She shuffled on the rug once more and glanced away from his gaze, her heartbeat still misbehaving.
“So now we’ve discussed our ages,” he said, “what other reasons do you have for refusing to marry me?”
“Will you please stop?”
“No. I’m interested in what makes you determined to turn me down.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t produced a child in over five years of marriage. I’m probably barren. So if you dream of more children, then you’d better climb on your horse and head to town where all the young, available females will be crowding Martha Jenkins’s parlour about now for the weekly sewing bee.”
“How come you’re not there?” he asked.
She shot up off the rug and started to pace.
“Well, that’s another reason you should look elsewhere for a wife. Haven’t you heard I’m not real popular with the women around here?”
“Yes, I heard.”
She spun round and narrowed her eyes. Her discomfort with the whole situation tripped her temper.
“It’s not funny.”
“No, I’m sure it was embarrassing finding out your husband was with the vicar’s wife the day he died.”
“It’s the reason I don’t get asked to join the local ladies’ weekly gatherings any more. Too upsetting for the preacher’s daughters if I’m around to remind them of their mother’s shame.”
“None of it your fault. No reason for you to be blamed,” he said.