Lauren moseyed through the snow on the mare Zev Covey selected for her. Sally wasn't as game or as mammoth as her beloved Adobe, but she was bright-eyed and sure-footed. Her heart ached whenever she thought of Adobe. She tried to save him when the Indians attacked Full Circle, but one woman against six hostiles had little chance.
She headed for the pond across a snow-covered field and recognized the familiar landmarks. A dense crop of birch with bare branches stood like naked sentries at the far end of the water. Course, there would be no water this time of year. Like the landscape, it would be frozen. A pair of cardinals circled overhead, landed on the trunk of an oak and searched for insects. To her right, a red-bellied woodpecker hammered away at an aspen hoping to find his morning meal. Small critters scampered to and fro; urged from their hiding places by Sally's heavy tread.
Everything on God's earth had a purpose this morning, except her. This insufferable triangle between her, Creed and Brand would be the death of her. Pulled in a hundred different directions, she didn't' know where to turn. Brand was presumed dead, but she had no proof. Creed wanted to take his rightful place as Finn's father and marry her, but how could she turn to him not knowing what happened to Brand? Polly believed her son was out there somewhere, her father said Brand would never return, and Estelle, she waffled somewhere in between. Lauren wanted to fall into a giant sinkhole so she wouldn't have to think anymore.
When the screech of an owl split the air, Sally sidestepped off the narrow path into the snow. Lauren patted her neck and urged her back onto the trail. "Zev said you were mild-mannered. Are you out to prove him a liar, or like me, are you edgy today?"
The mare blew a puff of steam and shook her head.
"That's my good girl," Lauren said. "I'll tell you a story about another horse. I named him Adobe and he could run faster than the wind." She put her face to the sun and willed the tears in her eyes away. "Bad men rode into Full Circle and shot arrows through his heart. The blood...so much blood. I couldn't save him."
Lowering her head, a flash in the foreground caught the corner of her eyes. Someone ducked behind a tree. An animal, a man? Her pulse raced and her heart thundered in her chest. Why had she insisted on going out alone this morning? Right now, the idea seemed capricious if not stupid. Renegades could still be on the run, heading into Dakota Territory and hiding out from the army. She should have listened to Daphne. The woman had a sixth sense, was never wrong.
A man stepped out from the tree. His doeskin leggings and breechcloth looked like something a rag-picker wore. Frayed, high-top moccasins hugged his calves, and his shirt had several large holes in the sleeves. His gaunt face and dark eyes stopped her heart. Their eyes locked for a timeless moment, and then she screamed.
Sally reared up, bellowing her terror. And then she arched her back and bucked, pitching Lauren head first into the hard-packed ground. Clouds spun overhead; white lights flashed behind her eyelids. She crawled through the snow seeking refuge, to where, she didn't know. She knew one thing: She'd rather die than be taken captive again. She groaned when she spied her mount gallop toward home, tail riding the wind, hooves throwing great plumes of white drifts through the air. Come back, Adobe, please come back!
Pain shot through her body. She lifted a glove to her head and cringed from the blood staining the fabric. A frigid wind enveloped her. If the savage didn't kill her, the ice-encrusted terrain would.
A cold, dark tunnel opened to greet her. She struggled against its welcoming arms. What will happen to my son now?
* * *
Creed cut across his father's land and headed south, the closest route to Full Circle. He hoped Lauren wouldn't be home when he arrived. Hell, who was he kidding? His entire day would be ruined if she wasn't. He longed to see her, and yet looking at her brought him torment. At times he loved her, and at times he hated her. He wondered how long he could last under this torment.
He shouldn't ride past the pond, too many painful memories of her in his arms and how little Finn came to be. If he bypassed the pond, he'd have to ride several miles out of his way, and he was already running late. Bracing himself mentally, he urged his horse forward and thought about his future. He'd mulled it over a thousand times and the same answer always surfaced. If he wanted to forget her, he'd have to leave. He didn't know where he'd go, but it didn't matter. He was a third wheel, a man looking from the outside in, and in love with his brother's wife. He laughed into the wind. Both him and Lauren were waiting on a ghost, unable to go forward and too bitter to look back.
The dapple gray beneath him flattened his ears and flared his nostrils, alerting Creed to danger. He reigned in his mount and cocked an ear to the countryside. Could be a wounded beast or a renegade on the run. Hell, it could be a whirling-dervish sent by Satan. Nothing would surprise him anymore.
The horse tossed his mammoth head to the right and fixed his big brown eyes on something in the distance. Creed followed his cue and spied something dark against the pearl-white snow. Pulling his rifle from the scabbard, he cocked it and urged the gray forward. He smelled the blood before he saw it. Once a man smells blood, tastes it and inhales it, the coppery scent is emblazoned on his senses forever. He had the United States government to thank for that.
Creed dismounted near the body, scanned the woods and wondered if he'd walked into an ambush. He'd heard of hostiles propping a body on the ground and lying in wait for a man to take a closer look. The noisy chatter of the forest told him everything seemed normal. He kept the rifle ready and walked forward.
His heartbeat picked up speed. A familiar wave of knowing washed over him. The hair, the slender body and graceful curves could only be... "Lauren!" He dropped to a knee beside her and placed his fingers against her neck. Thank God, a faint pulse. A ribbon of crimson streaked her forehead and ran down her cheek. The blood, thickened by the cold, had ceased running long ago. Creed pulled her to his chest and rubbed her arms, hoping to bring warmth to her cold body.
Her eyes fluttered open and nonsensical words fell from her blue lips. "Come back, Adobe, don't leave me."
"Lauren, hush. It's all right. I'm here."
Her eyes tried to focus on his face. "I knew you'd come. Forgive me, please. I never meant to hurt you."
Good God, who does she think she's talking to? Brand? Me? "I have to get you home or you'll freeze to death."
"It's all right. I deserve to die. He hates me, hates everything I stand for."
"You're not making any sense so stop talking, using up valuable strength."
Creed slung Lauren over his shoulder and walked to the mount. Grabbing hold of the horn, he flung himself into the saddle, dragging her lightweight body with him.
Facing him, her teeth rattling, she snuggled into his chest. "Don't let anyone take my son. Promise me you'll take care of him."
"You stupid little fool, what are you doing out here alone...no horse, no one around?"
"The Indians tried to-to get me again." She stammered through the words. "Came-came out from a tree and spooked the horse."
"What horse, where's the horse now?"
"Ran away." She burrowed deep against him. "Like Brand and Uncle Mason. Poof, gone!"
Jesus, he hurt, all the way down to his toes. She'd lost so much and yet she continued to worry about everyone else—two dead men and their son.
A limp arm slid up his chest and clung to his neck. His body warmth poured into her. And blood poured into his cock. Pressed into the crotch of her riding skirt, his hard shaft had its own way of responding to the blasted woman. God, he wanted her, wanted her so bad he'd die from it one day. What kind of a sick son of a bitch would think about fucking a woman when she was almost frozen to death?
Another arm snaked up his torso and wrapped around his neck. "I knew you'd come, Creed; knew you'd save me again. Don't leave me, don't ever leave me."
So she did know it was him? "I won't," he lied. "Hang on, Lauren, we'll be home soon.”
Riders stormed the land in front of him. As they drew close, he recognized Estelle's long gray hair and Zev's rangy Appaloosa.
Arms waved in the air and Estelle's words rang in the wind. "Oh, thank the Good Lord, you found her! Sally galloped into the ranch without Lauren and I feared the worst."
Within feet of them now, Creed looked down at Lauren. "She's got a large bump, but a minor head wound. Found her a mile back lying in the snow. What the hell, Estelle, what is she doing out here alone?"
"You have a right to be angry, Creed, but once that girl makes up her mind a team of mules can't pull her from it. Daphne warned her and her father sanctioned the ride without my knowledge. Course, I couldn't have stopped her."
"What do I have to do, tie the confounded woman up to keep her alive?"
Tears found Estelle, and not from the cold. "That's twice you saved my niece's life. I'm beholding to you, Creed Gatlin."
"Send for Doc to come over and check on her when we get home. And keep her quiet for a day or two."
Estelle rose in the stirrups and leaned forward for a better view of her niece. "She's-she's not unconscious?"
"No," he said and remembered the last words she said to him before falling asleep, 'Don't leave me, Creed; don't ever leave me.' " At first, she didn't know who'd found her, only that someone friendly had happened upon her. She talked about coming across renegade hostiles in the woods."
Estelle and Zev craned their necks and scanned the trees. "Oh, dear me," Estelle said.
"Look, Estelle, I'll tell you straight up. If something happens to Lauren, Finn is without a mother. And his father is already gone from his life. That's all I care about."
"I understand. It won't happen again." She turned her horse around, but not before Creed heard her whisper, "Yeah, right. I'll bet my mother's best cameo that's all you care about."
Creed shook his head, kicked the gray into a fast clip and led them home.