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The only thing Brand Duggan's outlaw kin ever gave him was an undeserved reputation. Once he's through breaking horses, he'll leave Eden Valley. Staying means riskand heartache. And he has no business falling for a refined English miss like Sybil Bannerman.
The rugged cowboy who rescues her from a stampede is just the kind of man Sybil Bannerman's editor wants her to write about. Yet she has no idea how big a secret Brand Duggan carries, until her life is threatened. Despite the evidence against him, Sybil can't walk awayfor the man who lassoed her heart is the one she'll love forever .
Cowboys of Eden Valley: Forging a future in Canada's west country
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Eden Valley Ranch, September 1882
Brand knew what was happening before it took place. He saw the horses press against the corral gate, frightened by something beyond his vision. It could have been anything from a stalking cougar to a tumbling tumble-weed. Wouldn't take much to alarm a bunch of wild mustangs. Wood creaked. The gate wouldn't hold under the pressure of frightened horses.
Brand's fists tightened so hard on the reins his knuckles cracked. His heart squeezed his blood out in a flash flood.
He would shout a warning to those along the fence, tell them to stand back. But he barely had control of the horse under him, which until a few minutes ago had never been ridden.
The gate snapped. The horses reared and screamed and pushed at each other, as frightened by the noise of the breaking fence as they had been by being confined. Brand held his mount with a firm hand. The horse was not ready to ride in tight quarters, but from the first, he'd sensed a willingness in it that was absent in many of the others he'd worked with. With no choice but to trust himself and the others to the green horse, he rode in the direction of the escaped animals. He had to turn them away from the people, get them back into the pen before anyone got hurt.
He saw a little boy and one of the women who had been watching. They stood only a few feet from the kicking, screaming, twisting animals surging in their direction. Choking dust clouded the scene.
He kicked his mount, raced for a gate, slipped it open with lightning speed and galloped toward them.
The stampeding horses were ahead of him. Before them, the boy scampered toward a fence and rolled under it. But the woman stood frozen, her mouth hanging open. Brand couldn't tell if she screamed, couldn't have heard it in the uproar if she did.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the movement of other cowboys racing for their own horses. No one else was close enough to rescue her. Brand leaned over the horse's neck and urged him onward, closing the distance between them and the woman.
Ten more feet. He dared not look to the right or the left. All that mattered was that frightened woman.
One more leap of his horse and Brand reached her side. He leaned down and swept her into his arms, clutching her to his chest as they raced onward, out of the way of danger as pounding hooves thundered past and dust-laden air swirled.
He slowed, grateful the horse cooperated. "You're okay now. You're safe." He pressed her trembling body closer.
He'd noticed her earlier as she stood by another woman, watching him at work. How could he not keep stealing glances at her? She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, with her golden curls flashing in the sunshine. He could describe everything about her in detail the autumn-gold top she wore, the brown skirt that swung about her legs as she moved. The way she walked, as if life held nothing but promise for her. The way she smiled so sweetly at others.
It had taken all his concentration not to be distracted by her presence. It was his single-minded attentiveness that gave him his reputation as the best bronc buster in the West, and he wasn't about to lose it.
And now she rested in his arms, holding his shirt-front as if it was a lifeline, and lifted her gaze to him. His world tipped at the way her cobalt-blue eyes caught his in a pleading look. How was he supposed to keep his mind off her in this situation?
Cowboys turned the herd of wild horses back to the corral amid more dust and more shouting.
"You're safe," he murmured again, as fierce protec-tiveness filled his insides. He wanted to promise both himself and her that he'd make sure she was always safe.
Then his world righted and reason returned. He could never make such a promise. In fact, he carried more risk than any woman deserved, and certainly more than he meant to give one. He warned himself to stay away from her before he brought danger into her life.
A mahogany-haired woman rushed toward them- the woman he'd seen earlier with his golden beauty. And then Eddie Gardiner, the ranch owner who had hired him, raced up on his horse. Already the dust had begun to settle.
"Are you hurt?" Eddie asked.
"No. I'm fine." The woman had a gentle, soft voice with a sweet English accent. A voice full of music and peace, despite the danger she'd just been in. Was her life really as peaceful and perfect as her voice caused Brand to think? From what he'd seen of her, he knew her to be a high-class lady. Likely she had never had reason in her privileged life to deal with the harsh realities of a place like his.
Realizing he still held her tight, Brand forced his arms to unfold, and lowered her to the ground, where her friend took her hand and pulled her close.
"That was exciting," the other woman said.
The golden beauty shivered. "A little too dangerous for my liking."
If she thought a herd of wild horses was dangerous, he could not imagine what she'd think if she knew the truth about him.
Eddie glanced about. "Where's Grady? Wasn't he with you?"
The woman gasped. "He was right here." She and her friend spun around, looking for him.
They must mean the boy who had wisely taken himself out of harm's way. Brand's smile formed as he looked toward where the boy had hidden.
"I'm here, Papa." The little fella crawled from under the fence and dusted himself off.
Brand would have guessed the blond-haired, blue-eyed child to be about five or six.
Grady swiped at his runny nose and looked up at Brand. "I wasn't scared."
Brand laughed at his bravado. "I was."
Grady hung his head. "Maybe I was a little."
"It's a good thing to be scared sometimes." A message he wished he could send to the woman he'd rescued and who now looked up at him with big trusting eyes.
He touched the brim of his hat and reined around. Already others had the horses contained and were moving them back into the corral. He should have checked the enclosure better. His oversight had put people at risk.
Eddie's wife raced down the hill, her skirts held in one hand. He'd seen she was in the family way, and hoped she wouldn't fall.
As soon as she was close enough, she caught Grady and sank to the ground, cradling the boy in her lap. "Thank God you're safe." She glanced up at Brand. "I saw the whole thing. You saved Sybil's life. You're very brave."
Brave! This woman was called Sybil. As if that could cancel out danger. It couldn't.
Brand wanted to ride away, avoid all this fuss, but he was surrounded by people.
He felt Sybil's gaze on him. Felt its warmth and watchfulness. He tried to avoid looking at her, knowing her blue eyes did something funny to his resolve. Made him weak and vulnerable.
"I don't think you have met Brand." Eddie pulled the woman close. "This is my wife, Linette, and my son, Grady." He turned to the other two ladies. "Mercy Newell." The darker of the pair. "And Sybil Bannerman, our guests from England. Ladies, this is Brand, best bronc buster in these parts."
"Pleased to meet you." Brand touched the brim of his hat. His dusty clothes and hat had seen better days. Normally he didn't care, but Miss Sybil was so neat and proper, he felt grubby.
"Mr. Brand, you are indeed a hero."
Her gentle words drew his gaze and he smiled despite himself. "No hero, ma'am. Just in the right place at the right time and glad I could be." He doffed his hat and edged away.
"Wait," Linette called. "You must let me do something to show my gratitude. Please join us for supper."
"Appreciate the offer, ma'am, but I got a dog back at my campsite and he's waiting for me." Dawg would be fine on his own, but Brand grasped at any excuse to avoid joining the others. Again, he vowed to ignore Miss Sybil. Again he failed to do so. He met her gaze. She flashed a bright smile that caused his heart to shift sideways, and almost made him lose his balance.
He touched the brim of his dusty hat again and turned his attention back to his job. The horses milled about, upset at their sudden escape and equally sudden corralling. The one he rode picked up the tension. "Enough for today," he said to the men fixing the fence. "No point in trying to work with them when they are riled up like this." He dismounted and turned his horse into another pen, away from the mustangs he hadn't yet ridden.
Cal, the young cowboy who'd given Brand nothing but dark glances since he started work on the horses, looked him up and down. "Guess you think you're pretty special, having rescued Miss Sybil."
No mistaking the challenging tone in the other man's voice. "Nothing special about doing what a man can do. I'm sure you would have done the same if you'd been on a horse at the time."
"You got that right. And I could break these horses if the boss would give me a chance."
"Yup. I figure you could, all right." He had no mind to start a disagreement. "Maybe next time the boss will let ya. Seeing as I won't be back here again."
"Huh. Figures." Cal stalked away.
Brand had no idea what bothered Cal and didn't rightly care. He would be here long enough to do the job Eddie had hired him for, then be gone, never to see any of them again. It was how he must live his life.
At that knowledge, he turned and stared up the hill. Linette and Eddie, with Grady between them, entered the house, Mercy on their heels. But Sybil had paused halfway to the house and stared toward him. He couldn't see her eyes at that distance, but nevertheless, felt the intensity of her look. Wondered at it. For a moment, he couldn't tear himself away.
Then, with a great deal of effort, he pushed forward all the reasons he had to ignore her.
Dawg would be waiting for his supper. "I'll be back in the morning to work on the rest of those mustangs," he said to any of the nearby cowboys who cared to listen. He didn't glance about to see if anyone acknowledged his words.
His gaze lingered two more seconds on the beauty up the hill. Then he jerked around and strode to the clearing he'd chosen as his home away from home. Not that he had any home to be away from. Hadn't had one since his ma died six years ago. Even before that their homes had been temporary at best, as Ma tried to keep ahead of Pa and Cyrus, Brand's older half brother.
Brand had asked her often why she'd married a man who robbed houses, banks and stagecoaches. She said he hadn't done that until later, when things went wrong once too often.
"He said it didn't make sense that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer no matter how hard a poor man worked," his ma had said. "So he decided to even things out."
Only the way Pa and Cyrus went about doing it put their faces on wanted posters as the Duggan gang. And in order to protect Brand from the shame and the danger, Ma took him and fled.
At the memory he pressed his palm to his chest-the same spot where Sybil's head had rested-then jerked his hand to his side. He crossed to the fire pit he'd built out of river rock, and lit a fire. His memories flared along with the flames.
Brand had continued to run for the same reasons-to avoid the shame and the danger. He avoided friendships for the same reasons, plus more. One thing he'd learned well in his twenty-three years: associating with Brand Duggan put others at risk. Pa and Cyrus didn't hesitate to threaten his friends in order to try and force Brand to cooperate with them. Besides, simply being associated with the Duggan name spelled ruin, and shunning by decent people.
He'd once allowed himself to grow fond of a young lady, but when he'd grown bold enough to tell her his last name she had reacted in anger and firmly informed him she'd have nothing to do with a man bearing such a stained name. She'd made sure he understood all the risks and shame she could face simply by being allied with him.
And she was right. Knowing him put her at risk from his family and at risk of censure from the community. People like Sybil, Eddie and the others at Eden Valley Ranch could live where they chose, in a big house, open and free, while he must always be on the lookout.
So Brand put down no roots, told no one his last name and didn't get close to others. Not even beautiful women like Miss Sybil. Especially not a woman like her.
Dawg had trotted toward him as he reached the clearing. Brand bent and scrubbed his fingers through the dog's silky fur now. This was all he could allow himself in the way of friendship.
He had no hope of a life full of peace and serenity. Nor did he intend to disturb Sybil's sweet world.
It took a lot of kicking clumps of dirt and throwing wood on the fire for him to persuade himself he didn't mind dealing with the truth of his life. Finally, he looked about, determined to find reasons to be grateful. Fall was in the air, filling it with deep-throated scents. Sure, it meant winter would soon be upon them, but he liked the color of the changing leaves, the cool night air and the migrating animals. He glanced up, hearing the honking of a V of geese overhead.
After a bit, his emotions back in order, Brand hunkered down beside the blazing fire, forced to sit a good distance away to avoid being scorched.
Dawg stretched out at his side.
For a time Brand stared into the flames.
"Dawg, you should have seen the commotion." He didn't know if he meant the runaway horses or the reaction to his rescue of Sybil.
"Miss Sybil just stood there as if frozen." He'd seen her eyes. Expected the fear he saw. But there was something more-a watchfulness that surprised him. There was something intriguing about the golden miss.
He dug his fingers into Dawg's fur. "Could be it's because she's such a fine looking woman that I can hardly keep my eyes off her." But his gut said it was more than that. Something that made him consider turning his back on the facts of his life and living recklessly free for a few days, just so he could enjoy spending time with her.
He reminded his gut that to do so would put her in danger. Association with a Duggan-even one not involved in the unsavory exploits of the gang-would sully her name.
Trouble with his gut was it never listened to reason.