On His Ranch by Dinah McLeod
Chase Whitfield had been raised right. His grandfather had taught him the three rules of Cowboy Conduct, which he could recite before he was old enough to write his own name.
Rule One: Hard work comes before reward.
Rule Two: Always mind your manners—no exceptions.
Rule Three: Protect those weaker than yourself, whatever the cost.
He’d learned these valuable lessons at the right-hand tutelage of his grandfather, Robert Chase Senior, to the degree that they weren’t just head knowledge but had penetrated his very being.
His earliest memory was from when he was three years old. He’d woken and dressed before the first rays of sun broke across the dark velvet of the night sky. His uniform had consisted of a flannel shirt, a pair of tattered jeans, a Sherpa-lined jacket, and a pair of well-oiled cowboy boots completing his ensemble.
His mother was up, too. Whether she had been about to leave for her shift at the diner or just getting home, Chase didn’t remember. What he remembered was the way she had looked at him, blue eyes rounding with surprise.
“God, Dad, look at him.”
So Chase Senior had looked, a rare smile curving his lined mouth. “Yeah? What of it?”
“Well, he should be in bed, for starters. Where did he get those clothes? He looks just like…” She had trailed off with a sigh, shaking her head.
“This is what Senior wears to work the ranch!” he’d insisted, his young voice loud with dignity, doing his best not to whine lest his mom send him back to bed or diminish the pride his grandpa had in him.
“That’s right, buddy. Sure do. Let me polish off this here coffee and we’ll be on our way. Say, Patti, get the boy a cup.”
His grandfather’s words filled him with importance and he straightened his small frame to stand as tall as possible, mimicking the thumbs in the pockets stance Senior favored.
Patti Whitfield’s blonde brows had shot up darn near to her hairline, but she didn’t argue. She had surely learned that it was futile in this house where Senior made the rules.
“Come on then.” Senior nodded at the chair next to him and Chase made his way over to it.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said when his mother placed a dark blue mug in front of him.
Senior lifted his cup and air-toasted him before taking another sip.
From the first sip, Chase knew he’d been given more milk than coffee, but he didn’t mind. The only thing that mattered to him was that when Senior finished his cup, he’d be allowed to tag along.
Mere minutes later, the older man set his cup down with a definitive plunk and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Well? You comin’?”
Chase had pushed his chair back already before his grandfather even finished speaking.
He heard an even rarer sound as his grandfather’s chuckle reached his ears, but neither of them spoke of it as they headed for the door.
“Say bye to your mama.”
“See you later, Chase.” Her words sounded like one long sigh but he didn’t fret over it. There was work to be done, and for once, he was going to help.
Now, nearly thirty years later, he had kept to his earliest teaching. He still wore comfortable jeans—so much so that his mother kept trying to trash them and force him to go on the hunt for new ones—a flannel shirt, and boots that easily cost more than the other two put together. He still rose before dawn, but now he saved his coffee to go alongside his breakfast, which he waited to eat until after all his morning chores had been done. Rule number one: Hard work comes before reward. Besides which, he had discovered that eggs with a side of bacon tasted especially good after you’d worked up an appetite.
He worked his way around the ranch, first feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs, then milking the cows. This morning, there seemed to be something in the air, because he could feel a hitch in his giddy-up, something that made him pause and take it all in. He saw the first rays spread across the sky, the charcoal black giving way to purple and pink hues. A breeze whispered across his face and it smelled like fall.
Chase wasn’t a touchy-feely guy—far from it—but there was a spring in his step as he headed for the barn. He was a lucky guy, and glad to know it.
The horses were standing in their stalls waiting on him when he walked in. They were as accustomed to his schedule as he was, so this was not unusual.
“Mornin’, Chance,” he called out. “Hey there, Sassy. Howdy, Shadow.”
Now normally the horses would let out a whinny or two of excitement when they saw him, but they seemed unmoved by the sight of him this morning.
“Huh.” He reached out and stroked Chance’s nose. “Tough crowd today, huh?”
Senior had plenty of tidbits he’d passed down to his grandson throughout the years. One of them was to always be aware of your surroundings. Thanks to it, he’d stopped short of stepping on a snake on more than one occasion. On this particular morning, those same sharp observation skills made him realize something wasn’t right from the moment he’d stepped foot inside the barn. Besides the horses’ rather lackluster greeting, his stable broom wasn’t where he’d left it. As he looked for it, his gaze was drawn to the hand truck. It was standing upright and in place, but something was amiss. Chase’s gray eyes narrowed as he scrutinized it. Wait… was that… yep, there were several pieces of hay around the left wheel. Hmm. Ordinarily, he was a stickler for cleaning up after himself.
Suddenly, the super fine hairs on the back of his neck stood to attention. That could only mean one thing. Either a rattler, or an intruder—neither of which was particularly good news. Both had the potential to be equally devastating, depending on how quickly he reacted.
“Got quite a day planned for us, Shadow,” he began conversationally, moving down to the next stall. “Senior says you’re takin’ more than your fair share of the feed, so he reckons you oughta earn it with a gallop this afternoon.” Though he kept his voice level, the minute he’d noticed something amiss he’d become hyper-aware, poised for anything to happen. “Yes, sir. It’s been awhile since you’ve had a coupla laps ‘round the property, bet it’ll feel good to stretch those legs out.” As he spoke, Chase kept his eyes peeled for any sign of movement. He didn’t see anything, but his ears perked up. Was that… whimpering?
He remembered begging his grandfather to take him hunting when he was a boy. Senior had kindly but adamantly refused until Chase could prove that he would be able to be quiet enough as not to scare off the game. He’d taught him how to crouch low and to tread softly without making a sound. Only when Chase could move without disturbing a single branch was he allowed to go on the next hunting trip.
It was those skills he used now, moving with stealth toward the sound, poised to attack or defend, whichever became necessary. There was a certain thrill in danger, he’d known that from an early age, but it was different when you were armed and prepared for it. He wasn’t a fan of surprise attacks.
As he neared the shed, he clearly heard sounds of fear. A less experienced person might think he could let down his guard, but Chase knew it was the opposite. Nothing was more dangerous than an animal that was afraid and felt caged. They would strike to kill at the slightest provocation.
Wait… was that a tennis shoe peeking out from the shed? Whoever—or whatever—was making those noises was clearly trying to muffle them.
Behind him, a horse whinnied.
“Don’t you worry none now, fellas. I’m gonna get your breakfast.” He paused, taking a deep breath and steeling himself for whatever he might find. Then he reached for the shed’s double doors and swung them open, taking a few long steps back, just in case.
He couldn’t believe what he saw. It wasn’t an animal, or even a burglar. Well, unless that burglar was five-foot-three and a hundred twenty pounds soaking wet. Not that he didn’t think women were just as capable of stealing; it was only that thieves didn’t typically take a nap before they got their wares and beat a hasty retreat. Which, judging by what he was seeing, was exactly what the vagrant inside the shed had been doing as her head was perched atop a burlap sack, a rough wool blanket draped over her shoulders.
She was currently staring at him with eyes wider than he’d ever thought possible.
“Have a nice nap?” he growled, every word tinged with warning.
She blanched, spots of embarrassment on her cheeks the only color in her otherwise ashen face. “I… uh…”
“Is that all you have to say for yourself?” he demanded loudly. He had relaxed, but only the smallest fraction. He still had no idea what the hell she was doing hiding inside his barn, and though she looked harmless at the moment, only time would tell.
She flinched at the sternness in his bellow. “I mean, I, uh, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry, I want an answer. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
She reached up and brushed dirty blonde hair out of her face. “I-I just n-needed a place to sleep.”
He scowled. If she thought she was going to soften him with that stammering, she had better think again.
She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, and when he didn’t, her porcelain face screwed up in a collage of quickly changing expressions as she went from startled, to embarrassed, to fearful.
Chase was pleased to let the silence between them draw out. It gave him time to assess whether or not she was a threat, whatever she might say. It also couldn’t hurt to let her realize what a needlessly ridiculous position she’d put herself in. “This is a barn, not a hotel,” he said at last.
She cringed at his fierce pronouncement. “I know that. I—”
“Evidently you don’t, ma’am.” Rule number two: remember your manners, no matter what. “Now, why don’t you get out of there and we’ll have ourselves a talk?” He offered her a hand.
Straight white teeth bit down on her full bottom lip as she regarded him with fearful, wide eyes. After a few moments, she took his hand.
Chase easily hoisted her out the shed. When she was standing up straight, he was pleased to see he stood a head and shoulders taller. He’d guessed her height right down to the inch. He watched as she busied herself with dusting off her pants. He reckoned a woman who slept in a horse shed didn’t care much about the state of her clothing, so she must be looking for a reason to avoid his gaze.
Well, he wasn’t having it. “Now don’t you think you oughta explain yourself? Figured I’d be nice and give you a chance before I call the cops.”
That did it. Her eyes shot back to him, even rounder, if that was possible. “You can’t!” As soon as the words left her lips, she clapped her hands over her mouth.
Wise move, he thought, squelching a smile. Clearly this little girl already knew who was in charge here. “I can’t?” he echoed, looming over her, daring her to repeat it.
Her hands still clasped tightly over her mouth, her wide eyes appearing even larger in her peaked face, she shook her head.
Chase allowed himself a chuckle. “That’s where you’re dead wrong, darlin’. This here is my property you’re trespassin’ on, so I reckon I can call the cops anytime I want. Unless you can give me a damn good reason that I shouldn’t.”
For a moment, she just looked at him, fear written plain on her face. Then, inch by inch, she slowly lowered her hands.
“Well?” he prompted, folding his large, strong arms over his chest and tapping his toe, the sound echoing menacingly throughout the barn.
“I… I was tired,” she said in a tiny voice, ducking her head, abashed. “That isn’t a crime, last time I checked.” At her sides, her hands balled into fists.
So she had some spunk to her. He liked that. “Uh-uh.” He reached over, hooked a finger under her chin and tilted it forward so that she looked him square in the eye. “When you’re talkin’ to someone, pay them the respect of lookin’ at them.”
“Yes, sir,” she near whispered. He could see that she was beginning to tremble, but she didn’t look away again.
So she could follow rules. He liked that, too. But something niggled at the back of his brain, reminding him that if she was a wolf in sheep’s clothing as he suspected she might be, he couldn’t afford to stand here liking her at all. “You were tired, and so you thought to yourself, ‘I know what makes a good bed. I think I’ll go sleep in that horse shed over yonder’?”
To his surprise, a smile curved her full lips. “No. Well, not exactly.”
“Well, why don’t you explain it to me, exactly.”
“I don’t have anywhere to live!”
He arched an eyebrow at her outburst. “Is that so?”
She nodded fervently. “It’s kinda a long story, but the long-and-short of it is that I don’t have any money so my landlord kicked me out. Well,” she let out an embarrassed giggle, “I guess that’s not so long after all.”
“And you had nowhere else to go?”
“Well, I was actually going to live with my aunt—or ask her if I could, anyway—when I got so tired that I just couldn’t walk another step. That’s when I saw your barn, and I just thought…”
He looked her up and down, trying to decide if she was a woman used to charming men to get out of trouble. Or was it possible she was telling the truth? Was she really as innocent as she appeared? “I have to tell you, darlin’, I’m startin’ to lose my patience. I have chores to finish up so I can go have my breakfast.”
At the mention of food, the girl’s stomach rumbled and she looked adorably embarrassed. “That sounds wonderful,” she said, her longing evident.
Chase chuckled without humor. “So you’re thinkin’ you should get to sleep on my property and have me feed you too? I have to admit, I don’t normally see such a large pair of cahoonas on someone so young.”
She at least had the decency to blush.
He thought the color in her porcelain cheeks suited her. “So, mind explaining to me how you found yourself homeless and subsequently in a life of crime?”
“Look, are you going to call the cops or not? Because if not—”
Chase’s brows shot up. It was an interesting combination, these alternate displays of embarrassment and fire. His cock was starting to stir, but he did his best to ignore it. “Oh, all of a sudden you have somewhere to go?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but before she could get a word out, the hairs on the back of his neck and the ones on his arms stood.
Danger.The air seemed to crackle around them.
Chase shoved her to the ground, covering her slight form with his body, and not a moment too soon. As soon as his fingers splayed against the barn floor, he heard a whizzing sound before a bullet lodged into the wall, perhaps half an inch from where her head had been.
“Why… why did you do that?” she gasped.
His expression was solemn bordering on fierce as he answered, “Rule number three: protect those weaker than yourself, whatever the cost.”