Lula stomped into the house and slapped her filthy hat against her
even filthier jeans, raising a dust cloud that could surely be seen
to the next county. Damn if it hadn’t been the worst day yet. Why
she had agreed with her father that ranching out west was the sure
way to a fortune after they’d lost theirs, she’d never know. Her
little brother was just lucky he’d been shot dead for cheating in
the same game where he’d lost nearly everything they owned, or she’d
have been tempted to shoot him herself.
Her legs buckled a bit at the memory of Joshua, and she would have
traded it all and more to give him a big bear hug again. Instead,
she wore his clothes and did the job he should have been doing. It
didn’t help that Papa had busted his leg when that damn half-wild
stallion, Cholla—appropriately named for a spiky cactus plant—threw
him the week before.
She was truly on her own.
“Papa, I’m home!” she called down the hall.
“I’m in the kitchen with Molly,” he replied.
She strode into the kitchen and found Papa sitting at the table
rolling dough into balls. A smile quirked her mouth. How things had
changed. She was rounding up the small herd of cattle for branding,
and Papa was kneading dough.
“We killed a sneaky, robbing fox just a little too late today,” he
continued. “Molly’s making chicken and dumplings with the bird it
grabbed. It should be done about the time you’re done cleaning up.”
“You’re making an awful lot,” Lula said after a quick glance in the
pot. “I’ve worked up a fierce hunger, but even so, I can’t eat quite
Molly gave her a swat with her spoon. “We’re having company, young
lady. So, you’d best get cleaned up and into some clothes fitting
for a respectable woman instead of a ranch hand.”
“I am a ranch hand,” Lula retorted, but scooted out the door before
Molly could paddle her again. If that didn’t bring back memories of
their life before, nothing did. Molly had a mean swing and good aim.
She also had a very real problem with Lula doing man’s work. Sort of
like a man Lula used to know.
Her heart squeezed painfully as Ethan’s memory ran through her mind
before she could stop it. He refused to understand why she had to do
what she did. He said he’d loved her, but truth was, he loved the
idea of her—dressed in some fancy outfit adorned with buttons and
They’d never figured out a way to compromise, and eight months back
she’d returned his ring.
With a shake of her head, she returned herself to the present, where
she belonged. She didn’t have time for a full bath, of course, so
she settled for a wash in the bowl on her dresser. All the parts
that showed were nice and clean, though not the alabaster skin she
used to have. Any more, she looked dark as an Indian.
She pulled on her best dress, which wasn’t saying much since she’d
sold most of her wardrobe when they’d moved here from Boston, but it
was clean and it was a dress. She pulled a brush through her hair,
thinking again that she might cut it short. It really was a pain to
take care of.
Oh well, nothing to do about it now. She pulled it back into a loose
gather and secured it with a pink ribbon. A glance in the mirror
showed that it was as good as it was going to get. Her stomach
growled loudly, and she pressed a hand to her gut with a laugh.
Hopefully whoever the company was wouldn’t mind it too much if she
spent the time eating and not talking. She hadn’t had a bite since
She left her room and headed toward the dining room. Men’s voices
rumbled, and she heard her father say, “Thanks again for helping out
until I’m back on my feet. Lula tries, but she can’t manage the
branding on her own.”
She bristled a bit, but had to agree at his assessment. She peered
around the corner to see who was visiting and, just as her shocked
eyes took in the familiar broad shoulders clothed in a dark blue
shirt, Ethan spoke.
“I’m happy to help, Paul, you know that. If Lula had bothered to
mention that you’d broken your leg, I’d have been here sooner.”
At that, she set her shoulders and swept into the room. “If I had
needed help, I would have asked for it.” But not from you, was
implied in the tone she used.
“Damn it, Lula.”
“Damn it, Ethan,” she mimicked him. But when his cobalt eyes raked
her from head to foot, she couldn’t suppress a shiver of awareness.
“Walk with me a minute before dinner is served?” He took a step
toward her and poked out his elbow.
“You’re asking?” She pressed a hand to her chest in mock surprise.
“When did you switch from ordering?”
“Lula,” her father broke in. “Show Ethan what needs doing while
Molly gets dinner on the table.”
“Yes, sir.” She placed the tips of her fingers on Ethan’s forearm
and allowed him to guide her out the door.
They walked in silence around the house and toward the barn. Lula
looked at the hem of her gown as it grew dustier with each step,
looked at the clouds building in the sky and wondered if it would
rain, looked at the tall grass waving across the pastureland. Looked
everywhere but at the man beside her.
“So, how have you been?” he asked.
“Oh, just fine. You?”
“Good, thanks. I had a strong calving season. I’m pleased.”
Lula stopped and pulled her hand away from Ethan’s arm. She tipped
her head back to look him straight in the eye and said, “Small talk,
Ethan? Haven’t we progressed far past the need for that?”
His nostrils flared and she wondered if he would finally lose his
temper, something he hadn’t done even when she’d broken their
engagement. He began to get himself under control, so she prodded
“Why are you here? We don’t need your help. Don’t need you.”
She swore she could see the thread of his temper snap. He grabbed
her by the shoulders and shook her until she thought her head would
shake off her neck. “Don’t need me? You don’t need me?”
She opened her mouth to speak, but was silenced by a quick, hard
kiss that was over nearly before it started.
“Heaven help me then, Lula. Because I sure need you.”
Her heart sped up at his words. “I’m the same woman you didn’t want
eight months ago.”
“Ah, honey.” He gathered her against him, wrapped her in a tight
hug. “You’re the same woman I’ve always wanted.”
She pushed away and tugged on her dress, pulled the ribbon from her
hair and waved it around. “This isn’t me. I dress in Joshua’s
clothes. I ride straddle. I castrate cattle. I don’t dress in
buttons and bows, and I won’t. Not for anyone. Not even for the man
His eyes darkened at her words. “Do you love me?”
“Oh, Ethan.” She reached up and cupped his cheek. “I’ve loved you
since I met you. But I love you the way you are. Can’t you do the
“Every day, Lula. If you’ll have me.” He pulled a ring from his
pocket and held it out to her. The same ring she’d yanked off her
finger and thrown at him. The same ring he swore he’d feed to his
“You kept it,” she whispered.
“In my pocket, every day. I’d hoped to have a chance to put it back
where it belongs. I’ve missed you. And, whether you’re the woman I
thought I’d be married to, or not, you’re the woman I love.”
“No matter how I dress?”
“You can wear pants during the day,” he said with a wink. “If you’ll
give me buttons and bows at night.”
Despite the warmth that filled her cheeks she smiled and held out
her hand. “Deal.”
He slipped the bit of gold around her finger and sealed the promise
with a kiss.