After witnessing her fiancé's murder, Jayne Gardiner won't let herself be caught on the wrong side of a gun again. But a disastrous first lesson in self-defense has left her with a wounded cowboy. She insists on nursing the handsome stranger back to healthwhether he wants it or not!
Getting waylaid by a wild shot has definitely put a hitch in Seth Collins's stepand plans. Duty may call him home, but Seth can't resist lingering on Eden Valley Ranch to teach the English beauty to shoot. And when a shadowy figure from Jayne's past resurfaces, Seth's sudden urge to protect her has nothing to do with duty.
Cowboys of Eden Valley: Forging a future in Canada's west country
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Eden Valley Ranch, Alberta, Canada
I didn't expect it to be so heavy." Jayne Gardiner held the pistol between her fingers. She couldn't bear the cold feeling of the stock against her palm. Her hand trembled and the shiny steel barrel winked in the sun like an evil tormentor. Panic clawed up her throat like threatening flood waters. She struggled to push it back. She knew firsthand the destructive power of a gun.
She stiffened her spine. Fear would not be allowed to rule her life. She would learn to defend herself and those she cared about. She'd be ready to take action if ever another lifeor-death situation arose.
Behind her, her friend Mercy laughed. "It won't bite." But then, Mercy lived for adventure. That's why she'd accompanied them on this trip west. As if ready for an escapade, she wore suede riding pants that she'd purchased before they left Fort Benton on their journey to western Canada and the Eden Valley Ranch, and her mahogany hair was pulled back in a braid.
Beside her, Sybil twisted her hands in the fabric of her fashionable pinstripe blue walking skirt. She completed the trio that recently arrived from England. More reserved like Jayne, she wanted to come on this visit to Canada to get over her parents' deaths.
Jayne had come to visit her brother, Eddieowner and operator of the Eden Valley Ranchand his wife, Linette, though some might think she'd come to put the past out of her mind. She tightened her lips. People who thought that would be wrong. She didn't intend to forget the lessons her past had taught her.
Sybil shuddered, causing the golden curls that had escaped the elegant roll to bounce around her shoulders. Modern wisdom said a woman with curly hair would be of gentle temperament. Sybil lived up to the expectation. "I hate guns."
Jayne sucked back an echoing shudder. Her brown hair was thick and straight, supposedly indicating a strong-willed woman. So far, she'd proven the statement false but she meant to change that starting now. "I hate what guns do but I want to learn to shoot one." She studied the target placed about fifty feet away.
The young women were in a grove of trees that sheltered them from the wind and provided slices of shade depending on the position of the sun. They were far enough from the ranch buildings to not alarm Eddie, Linette, or any of the other caring people there who saw no need for Jayne to learn to shoot a gun. Eddie had said it wouldn't serve any purpose. It wouldn't bring Oliver back. And, he'd carefully pointed out, there were plenty of cowboys around the place should it be necessary to shoot a gun. What's more, he'd said with utmost conviction, he didn't think such an occasion would likely occur.
Jayne had tipped her chin and vowed she'd learn with or without Eddie's help. It wasn't some foolish notion of undoing the past. She would not allow herself to ever again feel as helpless as she did on that horrible day. The events had been burned permanently into her brain.
The day she had in mind had been sunny and warm after days of damp sky. Her fianc , Oliver Spencer, had suggested spending the afternoon together instead of abandoning her to her own amusements while he pursued his as so often happened. On several occasions, she'd objected mildly to the amount of time Oliver spent in gambling establishments. The promise of some quality time together, just the two of them, had caused her to laugh at his jokes, though, as usual, she failed to understand them. He must have thought her so innocent.
They'd been walking side by side along a street lined with shops inviting their business. She had glanced in one window and noticed a beautiful display of lace gloves and thought of purchasing a pair, but she hadn't suggested a stop because she and Oliver were discussing the future. She didn't want to distract him.
"We'll live in the house with Mother and Father. There's more than enough room. No need to own another house."
Did he mean she would go from being under her parents' direct supervision to being under his parents'? She wanted to be a woman with her own home. Of course, it made sense to start with. "Will we get our own home when we have children?" A hot blush had flooded her body at the intimate topic.
Before Oliver could answer, a man had jumped from an alley brandishing a gun and demanded Oliver give him everything.
Jayne had shrunk back into the recessed doorway of the building beside them and watched as Oliver emptied his pockets of quite a lot of cash.
"It's all I have," he'd said, his voice hard with anger.
The thief had jammed the money into his pocket. "You know that's not all I want." He'd waved the pistol. "Where's the key?"
Jayne had glanced about, hoping for rescue but no one turned down the street toward them. No one noticed the robbery.
"I want it back," the robber had growled.
Jayne had swallowed hard. People passed at the intersection a few yards away. She tried to call for help but her voice failed her.
Oliver had continued to say he had nothing more. He'd even turned his pockets out.
"Where is it? I can't prove it but I know you cheated. You took everything I have." The thief had lurched toward Oliver.
She'd never seen Oliver move so quickly. His arm slashed across the man's wrist. The pistol dropped to the cobblestones and he'd kicked it toward Jayne.
"Pick it up. Shoot him," Oliver had ordered as he and the thief tussled.
Jayne had stared at the gun just two feet away but she couldn't move. She'd never touched a gun, let alone shot one. She didn't even know how.
Oliver's head had hit the ground with a thud and he'd lain stunned.
The thief had grabbed the pistol. A metallic click had rung through Jayne's racing thoughts.
"Get up," the thief had ordered. Oliver had staggered to his feet. "I'm done playing around. You know what I want. Give it to me."
Oliver had swayed.
Someone from the nearby intersection had called out. "He's got a gun."
Then everything had happened so fast Jayne couldn't say what came first. A shot had rung out. Oliver had pitched to the pavement. The thief had raced down the alley. A crowd had surrounded them.
Jayne had hovered in the doorway, too frightened to move while blood pooled around Oliver. Someone had leaned over him. A man had looked up, seen her and waved her forward. Her legs numb, her heart beating erratically, she'd managed to make the few steps and knelt at Oliver's side. "You'll be fine. You'll be fine." She hadn't believed the words she'd uttered.
He'd caught her hand. He'd struggled to speak past the gurgling in his throat. Something about gambling and winning from the man who had shot him. Then his words ended in a gasp. Gentle hands had pried her away. Someone had taken her home.
For days she'd sat in a straight-backed chair beside the cold fireplace and replayed the scene in her mind. The skin on her face had grown taut every time she'd come to the spot where Oliver had kicked the gun toward her. Fear as deep as the English Channel had shaken her insides. Oliver was dead because she hadn't been able to act. Hadn't known what to do with the gun that lay so close to her. All over some gambling money. The world had gone crazy.
One day Bess, her quiet younger sister, had pulled a chair to Jayne's knees and taken her hands. "Jayne, I have always admired you for your determination and sensibleness. It amazes me you sit here day after day. I beg you to get up and start living again."
Jayne had looked into Bess's sweet face and made a decision. She would not be defeated by this event. With God's help she'd use it to grow stronger. She'd pushed to her feet and hugged her sister. "Bess, you are right. Never again will I feel so helpless. So useless."
Bess's smile had widened with relief then faltered at the conviction in Jayne's voice. "What are you going to do?"
She had no firm plan at the moment. "I'll tell you what I'm not going to do. I'm not going to be a helpless woman."
That conviction had carried her away from home and across the North American continent to a new, inviting country.
Now she lifted her arm and looked at her two friends in the grove of trees. "I will learn to shoot."
Mercy steadied Jayne's hand. "Hold it like this. Brace with your other hand. Look down the barrel to the target." She guided Jayne into position then stepped back.
Jayne's arms lowered until the gun pointed at the ground. "If I hadn't been so scared of guns I might have grabbed the one Oliver kicked toward me. He might still be alive."
"Exactly," Mercy said.
"Or you might both be dead." Sybil covered her face with her hands as if she couldn't bear the thought.
Jayne wished she could as easily block the sight of Oliver's death from her mind, but it wasn't possible. Any more than it was possible to forget she was twentyone, no longer planning a wedding, and not ever wanting to think of such things again. Oliver had taught her that life was too fragile to make dream-filled plans.
"You don't want it happening again," Mercy insisted.
Jayne cringed. "I don't have another fianc , you know."
Mercy laughed. "Not yet, you mean."
"Not ever." Oh, she'd likely marry. Everyone did. But nothing on earth would convince her to again open her heart to such fear and pain and disappointment. Any more than she would ever again let herself become so weak and dependent on others. Though she'd only begun the journey toward living strong and free. "But you're right about needing to learn to protect myself." And people she cared about. Never again would she stand by, shaking in fear, while someone died. "I can do this."
Mercy repeated her instructions on how to hold the gun, aim it and fire it.
Sybil crossed her arms and looked like she'd sooner be anywhere but there. "How do you know all this?" she asked Mercy.
"I sweet-talked one of the cowboys in Fort Benton to teach me."
Jayne and Sybil looked at each other and shook their heads in unison. Mercy was notorious for sweet-talking men into doing favors for her.
Mercy saw their exchanged glances and simply laughed. "Jayne, pay attention. Aim, squeeze and fire."
Jayne lifted the gun, steadied it as she squinted down the barrel toward the target. She closed her eyes and squeezed. The gun jerked upward, the noise of the shot making her squeal.
Mercy gasped. "You're supposed to keep your eyes open and focused on the target."
"Hi yii." A yell came from a distant spot.
Jayne eased open one eye. Through the trees she saw a man leaning low over the neck of his horse as he raced away. Her heart clambered up her throat and stuck there like an unwelcome intruder. "Did I shoot him?" Her voice barely croaked out the words.
Sybil fell back three steps. "He might be after us. We better get back to the ranch."
Jayne shook her head. "First, we have to check and make sure I didn't injure him." Her stomach turned over and refused to settle. "All I wanted to do was be ready to defend us against bad people. But if I've hurt someone instead" The blood drained to her feet, leaving her ready to collapse in a boneless puddle. Much like it had when Oliver was shot. So much blood. Such a dark stain.
Tremors raced up and down her spine. Cold as deep as the worst winter day gripped her insides.
Mercy wrapped an arm about her waist. "I'm sure you only frightened him and he decided to get out of range of your deadly aim." She laughed like it was no more than a silly joke.
"We need to check." Jayne lifted the hem of her black taffeta walking skirt with its stylish Edwardian hoop underskirt and forced her milky legs to take one step forward and then another. Mercy marched at her side. Sybil hung back then, realizing she would be alone, rushed after them.
They passed the untouched target, pushed through some low bushes, wended between tall poplars with their leaves fluttering noisily in the breeze. The wooded area gave way to a grassy slope with a faint trail skirting boulders. Allowing her legs no mercy, she hurried to the trail and bent over, looking for clues.
She stopped at a round rock that could serve as a seat if they'd been inclined to sit and enjoy the view. A dark, wet streak dripped down the side of the rock. Her heart beat a frantic tattoo against her ribs. "Look. Isn't that blood?"
The others joined her. Mercy touched the spot and lifted a stained finger. "Fresh blood." She wiped her finger clean on a bit of grass.
Jayne's eyes felt as if they might fall from their sockets. "I shot someone." She straightened and stared in the direction the rider had gone. "What if" Would she find a body down the trail?
Mercy grabbed her hand. "It was an accident."
"Explain that to the man I shot." She pulled Mercy after her and signaled Sybil to follow. "I have to see if he's on the trail."
"Dead, you mean?" Mercy said, putting Jayne's fears out in the open.
"I knew this was a bad idea." Sybil's voice was high and thin. "Let's go back and tell Eddie. He can look for the man."
That sent resolve into Jayne's insides. Her brother wouldn't always be around to rescue her. Besides, he would be angry that she had ignored his directive to forget about learning to shoot. She squared her shoulders. "I don't need Eddie to clean up after me." She marched down the trail. But her courage faded with every step. Dark spots, some rather large, dotted the dirt. Once she touched a stain and lifted a damp finger.
"More blood," Sybil moaned. "Lots of it."
Jayne tried unsuccessfully to block the memory of blood pooling around Oliver's body. So much blood. Sybil had no idea.
They passed between two table-size boulders and turned by a stand of thick pine trees whose distinctive scent filled the air. The majestic Rocky Mountains rose to her right. Such wild country. Open and free. Had she spoiled it for some poor, unsuspecting man?
She could see down the trail until it turned and disappeared. No rider. No limp body stretched out in the grass. "Guess he wasn't injured too badly." Please, God, let it be true.
Mercy chuckled. "If we hear of some cowboy dying mysteriously on the trail, shot by an unseen assailant, we'll know who is responsible."
"Mercy," Sybil chided. "Show a little compassion."
But Mercy only laughed. "Jayne knows I'm only teasing, don't you? It's probably only a graze. No more than a splinter to a man who lives in this country."
Jayne's tension relieved by the absence of a body, she tucked her arm through Mercy's and pulled Sybil closer. "All's well that ends well. Now let's go back to the ranch and see if Linette needs some help." Her sister-in-law was efficiency on two legs even though she expected a baby in four months.
Sybil glanced over her shoulder. "I pray that whomever you shot won't be bleeding to death somewhere."
At the teasing, Jayne faltered. "Maybe I should ask Eddie to ride out and check the trail."
Mercy urged her onward. "Like I said, it's likely only a flesh wound. If the man needs help he will seek it."
Jayne nodded. The words should reassure her but they fell short of doing so. She couldn't get the sight of a large pool of blood out of her mind. The last thing she needed was another death on her conscience.