The Cowboy Earns a Bride (Page 3)

The Cowboy Earns a Bride (Cowboys of Chance Creek #8)(3)
Author: Cora Seton

“Fred Warner raped me.”

Mia clapped a hand to her mouth and her eyes brimmed with tears. That was the last thing she’d expected Inez to say. “Oh my God, Inez. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Inez blinked rapidly. “Well, actually, no—I’m not really fine, but I’m seeing a counselor and she urged me to talk to you when I told her what happened. I’m so sorry, Mia. I should’ve spoken up back then, but I was too scared. I didn’t want anyone to know what happened.”

Mia took her hand. “It’s okay. I’m okay. He didn’t hurt me like that.”

“But he tried, didn’t he?’ Inez scrubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand. “And you spoke up—you told people. I wanted to thank you for that. He would’ve come after me again if you hadn’t, I know it.”

“I’m so sorry he hurt you. If I’d known—”

“You couldn’t have known. And I wouldn’t have brought it up now, but I can’t stand the fact that you hate me—”

“I never hated you,” Mia cried. “I just… missed you.”

“I missed you, too.”

Mia stood up, moved around the table and hugged Inez. “You don’t have to miss me anymore. Thank you for being brave enough to tell me. I swear I won’t breathe a word to anyone else.”

Inez lifted her eyes to hers. “That’s just the thing. I want you to speak up. Fred Warner—he’s still judging beauty pageants.”

“Did you get a nice gift for that lady friend of yours, Luke?”

“I sure did, Mrs. Stone.” Luke Matheson smiled at the old woman who leaned on her cane on the front porch of her small house. Bundled up in her white winter coat, hat and gloves, she looked like a grandmotherly snowman. “Got her a real pretty bracelet to go with the flowers and candy I bought her.”

“That’s one lucky girl. ’Course any woman would be lucky to have a man like you.”

“I don’t know about that.” The compliment warmed him, though, as he shoveled the last bit of snow off her walkway. She’d been one of his favorite people ever since he was just a boy and she and her husband, Thomas Stone, a hired hand, lived at the Double-Bar-K. Back in those days when life on the ranch got too much for Luke, between his brothers’ scrapping and bickering and his father’s legendary bouts of temper, he’d escape to the little log house on the edge of the property the Stones had rented—a house that had long since been torn down. His own mother was no slouch, but Amanda Stone kept the tidiest house Luke had ever seen. Stepping into it, sitting down at her spotless table, and being served a snack on her clean, white china was a welcome change from the chaos at home.

Amanda had always understood his need for order. Luke liked things in their place. He liked knowing what was going to happen next. He liked being prepared. His father and brothers, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy flying by the seats of their pants. Ned might keep his workshop tidy and Luke’s mother might have been spot on with the ranch’s accounts back when she did them, but the rest of them thrived on disorder and controversy. Sometimes Luke couldn’t stand it anymore. The Stones had moved off the ranch over a decade ago and bought a modest house on the west side of town. Now that Thomas had passed away, Amanda lived there alone.

“Would you like some breakfast?”

“Not today. I’ll be eating with the family. It’s Ned’s wedding day, you know.”

“Tell him congratulations from me and get on home. You shouldn’t be over here messing with my walk today of all days.”

“Glad to help, Mrs. Stone—and don’t you hesitate about turning your thermostat up if you’re chilly. There’s enough cash in your account to see you through the winter.” A few years back he’d come over to find her shivering and discovered she didn’t have the funds to pay her heating bill. Since then he’d arranged to pay a deposit to each of the utility companies in advance so if she was a little short she wouldn’t lose her services. He figured it was the least he could do. When she had car trouble six months ago, he’d taken the vehicle to the shop only to find the repair bill topped a thousand dollars. He told her it was a hundred and made up the difference because he knew how much independence meant to Amanda.

These days, however, that independence was getting pricey. He’d replaced a window in her kitchen that wouldn’t open anymore, dealt with a foundation issue that let moisture into her basement and soon he was afraid he’d need to replace her roof.

“Say hi to Mia for me, Luke. She’s such a sunny thing.”

“I will. See you next week!”

He checked his watch and picked up speed as he stowed away his shovel in the shed he’d built a year ago, and got into his old truck to make the trip back to the Double-Bar-K. His engine refused to turn over the first time he turned the key. He held his breath as he turned it a second time. There, that did it. Pretty soon he’d need a new truck, too. That was going to stretch his finances.

As he drove home, however, his thoughts turned to a happier topic.

Mia.

Today was the day.

Today was the day he and Mia would stop being just friends and get on to the good stuff. It was Valentine’s Day—and his brother’s wedding day. Surely that double-dose of romance, plus the gifts he intended to shower her with, would finally convince the pretty young woman that the man she was looking for was right under her nose.

He could never tell with Mia, though. Every time he thought he’d got the measure of her, she surprised him. Hell, she’d managed to keep him at arm’s length for two long months now, and they were living in the same house.

He frowned as he turned into the long lane that led to his family’s home. He pulled up in front of his parents’ house and parked. If he couldn’t move his relationship with Mia to a more romantic level soon, he wasn’t sure what he would do. Living in close proximity to her was driving him wild. It was hard to concentrate when she was around—and it was doubly hard, pun intended, to sleep knowing she was right next door.

He exited his truck and made his way into the house where the smell of bacon led him straight to the dining room, where most of his family was already seated. Everyone who lived on the ranch had gathered to eat and then help set up for the wedding. He wasn’t entirely surprised to see Mia’s customary chair empty, however. He knew she wanted to look extra good for the wedding. He ducked into the kitchen to wash up and slid into his own seat just in time to snag the platter of pancakes from Ned’s hands. If Mia didn’t make it, he’d put together a plate of food and bring it to her after he ate.