Ribbons of sunlight danced across Lauren's room, rousing her from bed. The day of the barbeque had arrived.
She wandered into the kitchen, greeted by smiles from the ranch hands, Hank and Justus. Uncle Mason and Ol' Biddle greeted her with a cheery 'Good morning' as she slumped into a chair, and moments, later Nelly and Aunt Estelle set down platters of flapjacks smothered in syrup, grilled ham, and cornbread.
Twisting her hands in a sudden fit of nervous apprehension, Estelle slid into a chair with the grace of a dancer. "Mace, there is so much to do yet and no telling how many will arrive."
Her uncle put the newspaper down and shook his head. "I have it under control, Stella. It's unlike you to be in the throes of panic at this late hour."
"What about the lawn tables and benches?"
"Biddle hauled them from the shed and they're leaning against the house."
"Yas'm, I is 'bout to set 'em up after we eat."
Estelle placed her fingers to her temples. "I wonder if we'll have enough food. Oh, and what about the long tables for the porch?"
Mason offered her an indulgent smile. "Hank and Justus have the task on their list, dear."
"Very well. Has the barn been swept and sprinkled with a layer of sawdust?"
"I seen to that yesterday, Miss Estelle."
"Of course you did, Biddle." She shook her head. "Don't mind me."
"Anything else, Stella?" Mason blew air through his lips. "Let's go over it now so you can relax for the day."
"What about the race? Are the horses tacked and saddled?"
Hank spoke up. "Everything is in order."
Lauren gave Nelly a quizzical glance. "I'm able to assist this morning, Aunt Estelle, if you need me."
"Oh, no, dear, that won't be necessary. You've taken care of the entertainment for the afternoon, a monumental task." A nervous chuckle left her lips. "Perhaps we should go over the events one last time."
"Very well." Excited, Lauren fidgeted in the chair. "Festivities begin with the horse race after the guests arrive." She counted them off on her fingers. "Let's see...Edwin Kendall and his sister Abigail will race."
"Edwin is a fine horseman not to mention a fine—"
"You know I'm not interested in Edwin, Aunt Estelle."
"I know, dear, but he's so smitten with you. Do be cordial to him."
Lauren sloughed off her comment with an agreeable nod and continued. "Then there's Jonathan Gray."
"And his sister, Anna, don't forget," Uncle Mason interjected.
Lauren frowned. Everyone knew the woman lusted after Creed. "And Anna." She wrinkled her nose.
"The Gatlin's are excellent riders." Alight with mischief, Estelle's eyes sparked. "Perhaps they came out of Polly's womb wearing spurs."
"Or horns," Lauren interjected referring to Creed.
Her mental list grew until she lost track of the number. The impending race loomed foremost on her mind. Today she'd prove years of riding lessons would ensure a win. How grand it would be to put the overbearing handy man in his place once and for all. She couldn't allow Creed to best her, not after her humiliating tumble in the corral.
Estelle clucked her tongue against her cheek. "In the South proper young ladies ride sidesaddle adorned in the proper attire—a cumbersome dress, leather riding gloves, and boots."
"Don't forget the ridiculous hat perched upon their head," Lauren added with a snort.
"Social etiquette is of little importance here, not when it comes to racing. Dress the part of a formidable challenger, my dear niece; long pants of kid leather, knee-length boots, and a cotton blouse." A smile softened her aunt's features. "And forget about the hat. Tie your hair back with a ribbon."
'Thank you, Aunt Estelle; I'm relieved you don't hold to Southern standards."
"What else do we have planned, Lauren?" Mason asked. "I want to be prepared."
"Horseshoe tossing contests for the men and gunnysack races for the younger children. The dance starts at dusk and Jonathan's mother will accompany the banjos and fiddles with her harmonica."
"We can always count on Eleanor for lively entertainment," Estelle said.
"Looks like we're all set." Mason turned to her. "Run along now, Lauren, and ready yourself. Prepare for a splendid time."
Lauren scurried up the stairs to her room, hurried through her daily ablutions and changed into riding clothes. While pulling the boots over her feet, her aunt entered the room. Lauren rose and spun around in a circle. "What do you think?"
"Perfect!" Her aunt said with a clap of her hands. "A true woman of the plains."
"Plain?" A frown found her. "I don't want to look plain."
"You're breathtaking." Estelle looked her over, head to toe. "I always thought women sitting astride a horse encumbered them. One must use their legs for balance, control, and for the most part, to remain in the saddle during a race."
Lauren gave her a conspiratorial wink. "If one intends to win, they do."
Estelle stretched her neck and peered out the window before hustling toward the door. "I best change now."
"You have thirty minutes before they arrive, Aunt Estelle."
Stopping in her tracks, her aunt turned and faced her again. "Soon you will meet the other members of the Gatlin family, the parents and younger children."
"I will do my best to make you proud."
Her aunt snapped her fingers. "I knew I forgot one. You haven't met Brand yet."
"No, I haven't, but if he's anything like his eldest brother, I think I can forego the honor."
"I still say you're wrong about Creed, Lauren, but you're old enough to decide for yourself." After a curt nod, Estelle fled from the room.
They met up on the landing a short time later and walked outside together. Harness bells jangled and horses neighed as guests arrived in wagons, buckboards and carriages. Lauren watched her aunt glide through the yard to shake hands with neighbors, embrace friends, and chatter with a tall, broad-shouldered man and a petite woman with black hair.
Estelle motioned her forward. Moments later, her stomach lurched over introductions. "I'd like you to meet Sam Gatlin and his wife, Polly."
Lauren extended her hand, shook Sam's, and turned to Polly. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
A child introduced as Jack rested on Polly's hip and another named Minnie clung to the folds of her skirt. With her fine features and gunmetal eyes, Lauren should have put two and two together before her aunt introduced them. Creed favored his mother.
"I've been meaning to ride over to meet you, Lauren, but I'm afraid spring planting has kept me tied to the ranch."
Distracted by a flurry of activity—horses braying and men laughing―Lauren had trouble concentrating on the conversation. She managed to eke out, "Aunt Estelle speaks of you often."
Emily and Belle stepped forward and Lauren's heart launched into a tremulous beat. They exchanged warm greetings before the girls drifted off to greet other friends and neighbors in the yard.
Finn appeared and took her hand. "Miss McCain, how nice to see you again."
"Lauren." Lord, the boy's smile was infectious. "It pains me to think we must call each other Mister Gatlin and Miss McCain forever."
"Lauren it is." He turned to a lean, handsome man beside him. "Have you met my brother Brand?"
Tall like Creed with a sturdy build, the man's blue-violet eyes reminded her of amethysts. "Brand." She extended her hand and took note of the angular planes of his handsome face.
"I've heard so―"
"—much about you." She longed to deliver a stinging retort to Creed while he watched her every expression with the sight of a hawk.
Brand's engaging smile put her at ease. "From your aunt."
"It must be all good, then." Lauren locked her arms between Brand and Finn's, led them to the table of liquid refreshments, and hoped Creed noticed her direct cut.
Soon the yard overflowed with people and the conversation turned to the anticipated horse race. Guests wandered toward the corral to inspect Mason's fine steeds, stopping their scrutiny when her uncle stepped forward and cleared his throat.
He fanned a sheath of paper in the air and then held it close to his eyes. "I have the rules for the race here. In order to be declared winner, you must adhere to them."
The crowd fell silent.
"Now then," Mason continued. "Beginning at the corral, two riders will mount and wait for the sound of my pistol. When the shot rings out, the riders will head for the open field, one heading left, the other right. On both sides, I've placed five bales of hay one hundred feet apart."
Heads turned in unison toward the field.
"The horse must jump every bale and if the rider falls from the mount, they are disqualified. When you reach the opposite end, you must maneuver your horse around the three bales." At no one in particular, Mason winked. "The bales have been placed in a crazy-eight pattern. When you've completed this portion of the race, you cross over and do the same thing on the opposite side."
"Then what?" Jonathan Gray asked.
"Then ride like hell to the finish line." Mason drew a line in the dirt with the toe of his boot. "Right here."
Giggles and nervous chatter erupted.
Mason motioned to his wife. "Stella, if you'd be so kind." She stepped forward holding a cluster of wheat stalks in her hand, her closed fingers hiding one end. "Who draws first?" she said lighthearted. "Come on, don't be shy. If you plan to race, you have to draw."
"Do we want the long or short straw?" Edwin asked.
"The two shortest will race first, then the next two shortest." Her uncle scanned the nervous crowd. "The winner of each race will receive a spool from Estelle and retreat to the sidelines until you're called for the second round." Mason cleared his throat. "Step up, let's get on with the race."
Jonathan Gray and Abigail Kendall drew the shortest straws, picked out their mounts, and climbed into the saddles. Cheers and whistles rose above the crowd when the shot rang out. They were off, racing neck and neck until Jonathan overtook Abigail at the far end of the field and finished well ahead of her.
"A superior finish!" Lauren squealed and slapped Jonathan on the back after he dismounted.
"You did fine, Abby." Finn led the young woman to the sidelines to lick her wounds.
The races continued with one rider eliminated at the end of each round. Edwin raced against Belle, Emily against Martin Kendall, Creed against his brother Finn, and finally, Brand stepped up to race against Lauren.
Tugging on the brim of his hat, Brand bowed before her, and then hoisted his muscular body onto the Appaloosa. "May the best horseman win."
"Horsewoman." Lauren swung her leg over Adobe's back and clutched the reins in her hand.
The shot rang out and the riders were off. An unquestionable tie to the end of the field, Lauren pulled ahead as she maneuvered Adobe through the crazy-eight pattern. In the distance, a blur of arms waved in the air and bodies jumped up and down like cork bobbers in a stream.
She rose in the stirrups and leaned forward, level with Adobe's mane. The rapid thunder of hooves behind her mount's rump pounded in her ears. The Appaloosa breathed down their necks. "Now boy!" she bellowed and lowered her body until she became one with the horse.
The crowd went wild with a lewd chorus of shouts and whistles. Adobe's nostril's flared and he lowered his head. The ground sped by in a whirling dervish as Lauren crossed the finish line first. Boisterous howls of congratulations reached her ears.
Brand brought his mount to a stiff-legged halt beside her and dismounted. "My sincere congratulations and irrefutable concession."
Her cheeks flushed with victory, she smiled. "Thank you, Brand. You were a formidable opponent."
From several feet away, she heard Creed utter one word. "Amazing."
Breathless, she ran to Estelle and embraced her. "I won! I beat one of the best riders!"
"You sure did, girl." Her aunt looked over her shoulder toward the crowd. "One down, one to go."
Trying hard to stifle her apprehension, she couldn't look his way. "Heaven help me, Aunt Estelle, I race Creed after we eat."
"Like I said, one down, one to go."
Uncle Mason had joined them. "Well young lady, you bested one of the best, and I'm proud of you. You rode Adobe like a seasoned veteran, every movement full of grace. By the time you hit the final lap, I couldn't tell where horse began and woman ended."
Though elated, something akin to dread crept up Lauren's spine when her uncle frowned. "What is it, uncle?"
"You'll have to do better than that if you plan to beat his brother."
"I'll beat him." Confidence rang in her words. "You can count on it."
Ol' Biddle pulled the rope to the dinner bell and dispersed the crowd gathered around the corral. Guests clambered to tables set up in the yard laden with roasted pig, sweet yams, new potatoes, roasted corn, and buttermilk biscuits. Polly's peach cobbler sat beside the chocolate cake, and a dozen berry pies anchored the main table.
When Lauren sought out Brand and asked him to sit with her, he didn't hesitate to accept. A lively and pleasant conversation ensued, and by the time the meal ended, she understood why people gravitated toward him. Countless people paused at their table to wish him well, engage in conversation about crops, the weather, and of course the Rebellion.
"What do you think, son?" Levi Nash stopped by next, his plate overflowing with food. "Both sides have prepared for battle, the North with its twenty-three states and twenty-two million people against the Confederacy." A boastful snicker twisted the man's mouth. "With the South's eleven states and smattering of nine million, what in Sam Hill are they thinking?"
"Three and a half million are slaves," Brand said. "And I think they believe they can whip us in ninety days."
"Of all the arrogance..."
Lauren couldn't listen. The talk always turned to war these days and she stood in the middle, loving people from both sides. Her gaze drifted to Creed at the far end of the long table. Seated next to Anna Gray, their cozy banter was riddled with intermittent laughter. Lauren fought to keep her runaway emotions in check.
He seemed to enjoy the obnoxious flirtations lavished on him by the pie-faced woman. Inside, Lauren fumed when Anna rubbed her plump bosom against his shoulder and mooned over him with eyes the color of watermelon rind. The rumors must be true about Anna and Creed. He'd hooked his arm through hers when he led her to the table. He looked up once and caught Lauren staring, his dark face schooled to hide his emotions. Gripped by fascination and mortification, their gazes locked in timeless wonder before she averted her gaze and then cursed her recklessness.
Through the pounding heartbeat in her ears, she realized she wanted him, wanted him like she'd never wanted another. Damn, had she lost her mind? The man reeked wild abandon, would take her body in the blink of an eye, no... it wouldn't be in a blink. It would be wild, crazy passion, all the things she'd yearned for, craved, in the dark solace of her dreams. How she wished she'd never laid eyes on the decadent man.
Brand's calm voice pulled her from her tumultuous thoughts. "Time for that race, Lauren." He rose and offered her his arm. "I'm placing my money on you."
"I wouldn't advise that."
"You can beat Creed. Concentrate, and no matter how much you want to see if he's about to run you over, don't look back."
She chewed on the inside of her cheek and nodded. "It's going to take a miracle to win, isn't it?"
"Miracles happen every day." He brought his fingers to her face and brushed her cheek. "Ride like you rode against me today and you have a chance."
* * *
An indefinable feeling snaked through Creed's gut when Brand walked forward with Lauren. Anna pressed her voluptuous breasts into his side and wished him luck, but her words didn't register. He'd known Anna for years, but only in the last several months had he succumbed to her fleshy curves. The woman had tried every wile known to female to rein him in. All had failed. Although warm and eager, Anna had never held his interest for more than an hour or two. But then no woman had ever intrigued him the way Lauren McCain did.
During the meal, he had stifled the lust pedaling through his veins every time she looked his way. And he suppressed his anger when she sat beside Brand and flashed her sphinxlike eyes on his brother. The feelings she aroused in him left him unsettled, edgy and sullen. God, had he come down with an illness? He barely knew the she-cat with the barbed wire tongue.
Now, with every step she took toward him, the blood rushed to his groin. He wasn't prepared for the vision she presented, the snug riding pants and filmy blouse. A dark brown ribbon held her hair back from her face before the wild tumble fell down her back in a veil of burnished copper. The color of those silky tresses reminded him of autumn leaves. Brown eyes, slanted upward at the corners, were topped by brows that arched high or low depending on her mood. How had he missed that nuance when he'd committed to memory every feature of her face?
Tall for a woman and thinner than smoke, he imagined running his hands down the small of her back, her perfect bottom and, hell… he had to stop thinking about fucking her all the time. He had to beat her in the race, and beat her he would. Smiling to himself, he savored the thought of what it would feel like to take her down a notch. The cocky smirk would be wiped from her lovely face, the I'm-better-than-you sneer she flaunted now as she sashayed forward.
"Miss McCain, I hope you haven't gorged yourself." He smiled when color stained her cheeks. "I'd hate to see your mount weighted down for the final race."
"Don't worry about Adobe or me." She spat the words and mounted. "We're more than ready to leave you in our dust."
The gold flecks in her eyes sparked. For a brief moment he forgot about the crowd and longed to yank her from the saddle and introduce her back to the dust she spoke of.
"To your success." Creed raised his tankard of ale, downed it and set it on the ground near his feet. He spoke to Mason as he swung a leg over the saddle, his words confident and bold. "Let's be about it then."
The crowd broke into rowdy whistles and then fell silent at Mason's words. "On the count of three. One...two...three!"
The horses bolted at the retort of the pistol. Adobe and Creed's black mare ran neck and neck to the opposite end of the field. Thick clumps of sod flew through the air from Adobe's hooves as he sailed over the bundles in perfect sync with Creed's mount. He dragged his gaze from her expert riding skills and concentrated on the race.
Someone had warned her not to look over her shoulder. She rode low, close to the stallion's mane her lush body one with the horse. The very air enveloping them groaned with a competitive edge he'd never felt before. The spitfire intended to beat him at any cost.
Although fleet of foot, his mare lacked size against the stallion. When they reached the bales at the far end of the field, his time had come to overtake her. Her stallion navigated the crazy-eight with ease, and so did the mare. His moment had arrived. The mounts crossed over and headed for opposite sides. She dug her heels into Adobe's side and drove him into the mare's withers. His horse stumbled to her stifles, her frightened whinnies echoing through the air. Lauren pressed on without as much as a backward glance.
The mare found her footing and like her rider, rage spurned her onward. She made up for the precious lost seconds the reckless stunt had cost them, but not enough to charge over the finish line before the stallion.
The crowd went wild as the riders swept past them in a swirling haze of dust. Damn, the cheating bitch had won. Halting near the corral, Lauren dismounted and bolted from her mount.
Creed dogged her heels; so close, he saw her knees quake. "You cheated!" He advanced and poked an accusatory finger into her chest. "You could have killed me with that crazy stunt you pulled!"
She backed away, shaking like a leaf. "Whatever are you talking about? You lost, fair and square."
He screamed so loud she jumped. "Liar!"
"Your clumsy mount lost her footing and plowed into Adobe!" Their gazes locked, and in that infinitesimal moment, he lost pace with his breathing. "You, Creed Gatlin," she said with quavering voice, "were bested by a mere woman. Live with it."
"You're no woman." He didn't know if he wanted to ring her slender neck or toss her to the ground and slam into her until she admitted she cheated. "You're a spoiled little bitch!"
An audible gasp fell from her lips before brown eyes narrowed.
"You could never beat me fair and square and you know it." He struggled to control his emotions. She'd beaten him in the race, albeit by cheating, but why did he sense her winning again now?
Her bottom lip trembled. He became aware of her childlike vulnerability, and his potent desire for her. The cutting remarks, the bold, confident persona were nothing more than a façade on her part. Her nearness sent his senses reeling―the scent of woman, horse and leather adding to the roaring chaos in his head. She stumbled on the words she tried to speak and tears filled her eyes.
"Leave, now," he said. "Before I do something we'll both regret."
She raised her dainty chin and held his eyes for an eternity. Long lashes swept down across her cheeks before she bustled passed him in a cloud of dust.
Lauren returned to Aunt Estelle's embrace. "Two down, none to go, dear."
"I do believe our girl has won the race," Uncle Mason said.
Lauren heard her aunt whisper the words. "But lost her heart."
Mason's gaze drifted to Creed near the corral. "Yes, and Creed lost both."
Emotionally drained, Lauren allowed the comment to pass and walked through the jubilant crowd, her head down, her heart thrumming against her ribs.