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"Her Long Lost Cowboy"

a Western Historical Romance Novel,
by Evelyn Boyett

Blurb


Georgia Drake had been missing for twelve years. Aaron Compton thought he’d made his peace with that long ago. After making his fortune out west, he’d returned to the orphanage where he’d met his love--and found her gone without a trace. He’d returned with a heavy heart to Sloan Ranch--a place with a questionable reputation and a reputed Bluebeard for an owner. Aaron never dreamed he’d see his love’s sweet face ever again. 

When Georgia turns up at Sloan ranch as the owner’s latest betrothed, Aaron knows he must do something before she meets a sticky end. Facing down the enormity of Sloan’s forces, Aaron enlists the help of the foreman to help him execute a plan. 

But what chance do two men stand against hundreds? 

"Her Long Lost Cowboy" is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

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Chapter 1

Aaron Compton

Aaron Compton sat astride Bear, his big brown stallion, as close to the edge of the canyon as the beast would allow. Aaron was fond of looking out over the splendor of God’s creation, but Bear was of another mind entirely. 

It was an ongoing battle between horse and rider as to how close that might be and on any given day the favor went to one or the other. 

This afternoon Bear was feeling skittish and would only go within a couple of yards of the edge. Even then, the massive animal kept shaking his head from side to side, tossing his mane as if to make his disapproval known. From time to time Aaron tried to coax him forward, if only by a step or two. All he got for his troubles was a whiny of negation and one half-hearted attempt at being thrown.

“You great big baby,” Aaron crooned, rubbing Bear’s flank soothingly until his hooves remained resolutely on the earth. “How’d you get a name like Bear being so afraid of everything?”

Bear let out a derisive snort in reply that set Aaron to smiling. So he'd lost the battle today. What did it matter? 

Let the horse have things the way he wanted them. Neither one of them was completely his own man, but only one of them was made to shoulder a saddle and rider.

“So far,” Aaron muttered, “they haven’t been able to get a saddle on me yet.”

He grinned at the absurdity of the comment, doing his best to ignore the uneasy feeling that lodged in the pit of his stomach. Aaron was no slave.

His mamma had died giving birth to her one and only baby boy and he had lost his daddy to the War of Rebellion when he was only ten. 

His daddy had been a hard man, sometimes a mean man, but he'd been a fair sight better than the man running the orphanage where Aaron landed once there was no more family to be had. 

That man had been so mean to be sure. Aaron would have gone through hell or worse to get away from him, but after leaving, he understood that the place had given him something good after all, despite all its attempts at ruination.

It had taught him what a man could and could not take. He wore his freedom close to the vest, and he knew when to stick his neck out and when to keep himself to himself. 

The majority of the time, he went for the latter. Besides, it was hard to complain when he had the whole expanse of the great Missouri sky spread out before him. On an afternoon like this one, with so few clouds that the sky wanted to go on forever, life almost felt good.

“What do you think, Bear? Think it’s going to be a good afternoon?”

Another shake of the head and stamp of the foot and Bear was all in agreement. Before them lay the rocky green land and nothing but the animals to get in his way.

“What the hell’s the matter with you, Compton? You going soft on me?” a voice rang out from somewhere behind Aaron and Bear.

“Son of a bitch,” Aaron whispered under his breath while Bear snorted his firm agreement. Aaron knew that voice. He’d heard it enough times that he should know it. As foremen went, Ellis Donovan was a good one, but he was definitely a talker. 

Ellis could talk about just about anything and most of the time he did just that. A great big beast of a man standing halfway between six feet tall and seven with a grizzled scar running down the length of the left side of his face, Ellis had a menacing look. He looked like the kind of man you would cross the street to avoid confronting and still not feel completely safe.

Truth be told, he was only a fighter when he needed to be one. From the stories he told, even supposing you only believed half of them, Ellis had done enough fighting to have lost the taste for it. That was something Aaron could respect in a man. 

He respected it a hell of a lot more than he did the piss and vinegar penchant for a brawl in so many of the other ranch hands that blew through the Sloan Ranch. He wouldn't give those fools the time of day. Not if he could help it. 

Still, when it was all said and done, sometimes a man just needed to be on his own and Ellis had a knack for finding him at just those times.

“You thinking about jumping, boy? Because if so, you better make your peace with the Lord first. The Lord and that poor horse of yours,” Ellis called, his booming voice closer now. Between his thighs, Bear began to shuffle back and forth restlessly.

"Don't see that there's anything you could do to stop me if that's what I was aiming for," he called over his shoulder, not bothering to turn and look at Ellis’s reaction. 

He knew the man well enough to know that there wouldn't be much of a reaction at all. That was one thing you could almost always count on with Ellis, disinterest. In an unstable world that at least was as consistent as clockwork.

“Who’s trying to stop you? One last man to account for,” Ellis grumbled, his own big gray horse sidling up beside Bear. 

The two animals eyes each other disinterestedly before Bear went back to his vigilant monitoring of the chasm and Ellis’s horse bent his head to look for something to chew on.

“Trouble in paradise, boss?” Aaron asked casually.

“Pish, don’t do that. You know I hate that shit,” Ellis answered, spitting a great glob of chewing tobacco to one side.

“What, ask you questions?”

“No, call me boss. You know you’ve got responsibilities too, right? Did you forget about that? You may not be foreman, but—

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I don't need any reminding. Don't need to talk about it at all unless you've come to tell me you've changed your mind. If that's the case, I'll talk about it all day."

"No, Aaron, nothing like that." Ellis sighed, his voice an even match of humor and exasperation. "We've been over this. It wasn't a mistake. You're the right man for the job and I'm not going to take it back. Got it?"

“Yeah, right. I got it, Ellis. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.

For a minute, the two men and their horses stood side by side without saying anything at all. It was true, Ellis and Aaron had been over and over this topic over the last six months, always coming back to the same point. 

Ellis wanted help with the weight of responsibility of running Sloan Ranch. In all honesty, it was too much for one foreman to shoulder, whether old Sloan knew it or not. He'd chosen Aaron for the part, maybe thinking that Aaron would be grateful for the recognition.

Maybe he thought the pitiful raise in pay would be enough to turn his head. Aaron, on the other hand, didn't have a head that was easily turned. 

If he'd wanted to go for something like foreman he would have done it and he would have done so without needing the help of a man like Ellis, much as he liked him. Extra responsibility was exactly what he was trying to avoid. Keep your head down and stay out of trouble, those were words to live by. 

Far from being grateful to Ellis for the nod of recognition, Aaron found himself resenting the him. It was a good thing he liked the man so well, most of the time. Otherwise, he might have had to make things difficult enough to force Ellis’s hand, and bestow the dubious honor on someone else. As it was, he settled for griping about the relatively new situation whenever the opportunity presented itself.

“You know, I don’t understand you, brother. You make it sound like I shoved you in the stockade or something,” Ellis said grumpily. 

Anytime he was on his way to good and annoyed, the reference to the stockade came up. He had a whole handful of tells, and that was one of them. Aaron had thought on more than one occasion that the guy must be a lousy poker player.

“No,” Aaron agreed amicably enough. “Not exactly.”

“Dammit, you get more pay for the extra work, man. There’s plenty that’d be pleased to be in your saddle.”

"You think so? Maybe you should talk to one of them about taking it on? I won't put up a fight about it, I can tell you that right now."

"Right, except I don't want one of them. If I'd thought somebody else was up to the task, I would have asked him. You've gotta admit, you know more about what has to happen on a ranch than anyone else here. Sometimes I think you might know more than I do. Keep in mind that I'll deny saying that until my face is blue if you start repeating around."

“No worries, boss, your secret is safe with me.”

Ellis hissed his disapproval about Aaron's continued use of "boss" while Aaron thought over the latest point in favor of taking on a heavier load of responsibility than the rest of the hands. Six months. God, had it already been six months since Ellis had come to him and delivered the news that he would be taking charge of the northernmost quadrant of the ranch? It felt like it had been a hell of a lot longer than that, but it sounded about right. Heavy was the head that wore the crown and all that. 

Aaron remembered some pompous visitor to the orphanage saying something along those lines. He couldn't remember who the saying was accredited to or why the windbag had said it at the time, but for some reason, the saying itself had stuck. 

When he was a boy, still so angry at the world and the hand he'd been dealt that he hadn't been able to see three feet in front of his face, the words had sounded empty and stupid. Now that he was thirty and had some more life under his belt, he reckoned they had some merit. 

People were always looking for recognition, for commendations, even. There was something to be said for avoiding those things, though. If you couldn't do that, you wound up with a whole heap of extra work along with a pat on the back and a "job well done."

Truth be told, it wasn't actually the work he minded, at least not on most days. Work was good for a man. It was the best way Aaron had found to keep dangerous thoughts at bay. And if a man was looking for hard work, a ranch was the place to find it. 

Just keeping the sheep and cattle fed and healthy was a massive undertaking all in itself. There were miles and miles of land on the ranch with animals set loose to graze wherever struck their fancy. Guys who were still wet behind the ears tended to think that lack of formality meant less work, but Aaron knew that it meant more. More vigilance to see that the animals didn't get themselves hurt. Making sure that they didn't wander onto someone else's land, the money they were worth landing straight into a rival’s pocket. 

There were the newfangled fences gone up along the perimeters, but those offered a whole other set of problems with the animals prone to tangling themselves up and sustaining injury rather than staying put.

There was also the added pressure of knowing how important it was to keep each and every animal as healthy as they were able. The last year's winter had been the worst on record in Missouri, and many of the animals had perished. 

Sloan had been furious and more than one hard-working man had lost his job over something only God could rightly control. The tensions amongst the men had been heightened ever since. 

There was the calving to look after, chores that went from before the sun was up to long after it set, branding the livestock, building repair, and a whole other mess of jobs Aaron was too tired to think about. Ellis had needed to delegate, he really had. It just would have been nice if he could have asked someone else to do it.

“What are you doing out here, Aaron, really? Something troubling you?” Ellis asked, breaking into Aaron’s thoughts.

"Nothing more than the usual. Just trying to get a sense of the way the land is laying before old man Sloan gets back. I'm thinking it'll be tonight or sometime tomorrow he'll get here if my estimations are right."

“That’s what I was thinking, too.”

"And what do you reckon?" Aaron asked, clenching his jaw as he surveyed the sun beginning to make its downward trek across the sky.

“What do I reckon about what?”

“How many men do you think he’ll let go this time? Seven? A dozen?”

“I don’t know, Aaron, maybe he’ll let things stay the way they are a minute this time. Business has been good. Maybe he’ll let things lie.”

“You know as well as I do, Ellis, that’s not going to happen. The old man always works the same way. He likes to keep his workers on the move. Don’t know why you and I weren’t told to shove off a long time ago.”

"Shit, somebody's got to run the place, don't they? He's not here enough to do it himself," Ellis answered, unable to completely hide his disgust for the boss's practices. 

It was something the people on the ranch rarely spoke about, but it was always there. When you were hired on as a hand at the Sloan ranch, you could expect to be moving on to someplace else in less than a year. It was the most consistent thing about the place. 

Sloan hired a man on for a season, maybe two, then sent him packing. He liked his hands transitory, to say the least. It struck Aaron as an odd way to conduct his business, but it also suited him just fine. He wasn't one for forming relationships, and the constant movement made it easy not to take on the deadweight of friends. The only man he might count in that category was Ellis, and even that was a superficial kind of thing. He knew Ellis well enough to know when the man was unhappy, though, and he was definitely that right now.

“All right, gun to my head, my guess is eight. Eight men gone and probably a week before we make up the losses with new men. Gonna be a tough week, brother. Best we get prepared for it.”

“Eight sounds about right,” Aaron agreed. “It'll be all right. We’ve got at least eight I can think of off the top of my head that don’t do anything but take up resources. Wouldn’t mind him trimming off some of the fat.”

“There you go again.” Ellis chuckled. “Just a bleeding heart, ain’t ya?”

“Just calling it how I see it, boss—

“Aaron, you jackass. Cut it out with the boss stuff.”

“Right, we’ll see,” Aaron said, working his jaw to keep a straight face. “Time to head back, wouldn’t you say?”

Ellis nodded his agreement and the two men turned their horses towards home. Ellis’s mount fought the move, making a play for continued grazing time, but Bear was more than happy to go. Every step in the opposite direction of the cliff saw him more lively, and by the time they had moved a half dozen yards, the damned horse was ready to join a parade. 

Big dumb animal or no, the creature had a mind of its own, and just like his rider, he wanted what he wanted and could not be put off his course.

Aaron hadn't planned on making the ride back to the barracks with company, but it did little to spoil his mood. They had timed the ride back just right so that they moved across the land at his most favorite part of the day. 

He'd never say it to another living soul, would fight a man for even suggesting it, but the setting sun was a wonder of nature he had never quite got over. He had loved it as a boy waiting for his daddy to come home from a war that would swallow him whole and he loved it now, a grown man older than his daddy ever was while he lived. 

The sky was wide and endless, splattered violently with warm color with no rhyme or reason to the pattern. It looked like a canvas. He could ride off into that sunset and just keep riding until he was in a completely different life where nobody knew him, and he could start again. It was the only time of day where he entire world was on fire and when he looked at it, Aaron always got the feeling that he could do anything. He could feel free to dream of what might someday be and if it left him feeling a little melancholy once the night was on, so be it. It was a trade he was willing to make.

"So? What do you reckon?" Ellis asked, his voice a little louder than it needed to be. Aaron snapped back to the present and saw that they were close to the living quarters now. 

He'd been lost somewhere inside of his own head for most of the ride, and something told him Ellis had gone on talking for most, if not all, of that time. His tone now belonged to a man who was asking his question for a second, maybe even a third time.

“What do I reckon?” Aaron parroted, sorry to see his momentary solitude go.

“About the boss, if’n he gets back sometime in the night.”

“What about him?”

“Come on, brother, you’ve got to know what I mean. How long’s it been since the last one died?”

“Shit,” Aaron mused, caught off guard. “I don’t guess I rightly know. What’s it been, eight years? Ten, since the last one went?”

“Eight years, my ass!” Ellis exclaimed loudly. “Nothing like that! It’s been fifteen. Fifteen years and the old man hasn’t taken another wife. I reckon that’s some kind of a record for the old bastard.”

“Fifteen? Are you sure? Doesn’t sound right, from the stories I’ve heard.

"Fifteen years. I'd stake my life on it. That's how old Marion is, isn't it?" Ellis said decidedly.

It wasn't a question but a fact, and it was one Aaron wasn't prepared to argue with. Marion was Sloan's daughter, his one and only child, and she was something of a soft spot for the Sloan Ranch foreman. 

Marion's mother, Sanford Sloan's fourth wife, had died in childbirth, leaving Sloan with an infant daughter he had no time for nor interest in. As soon as he'd seen his wife's parting gift wasn't a son, he'd lost all interest and left her to her maid, Virgie, for the raising.

The only things Marion ever learned about her mother, who had been frightfully young when she married Sanford and still young when she'd sacrificed her own life for that of her child, came from Virgie. From Virgie and, whenever he was able to bend her ear, from Ellis.

Although he'd never come out and said as much, it was no secret to Aaron that Ellis’s feelings for Marion ran deep. He was the only worker on the Sloan ranch to have seen the majority of her growing up and as such, he was protective of her in a way few others could be. As Marion grew from a little wisp of a thing into a young woman, Ellis’s feelings for the girl had changed, too. He had confided once when he was deep in his cups that he'd like to marry her one day when she was old enough. 

He would take good care of her, too, except that Sloan would never allow it while he was still alive. He may not have had even a passing interest in his daughter, but there was no way he would give her over to someone else. Sanford Sloan didn't like to share his things.

“Sure,” Aaron answered amicably. “That’s right. I didn’t think to measure things against Marion’s age.”

“Fifteen years is a long time for him, no question,” Ellis said, his tone grim and his eyes narrowed and far away.

“You reckon he’ll take another one soon?”

"Sure as the sun will set. It's only a matter of time," Ellis affirmed, clicking his tongue at his horse softly. There was no love lost between foreman and owner, but it wasn't the horses' fault, and he was careful not to let his reproach lap over onto them.

"You really think so? Jesus, he's got to get tired of it eventually, right? The old man's got to be in his sixties by now, and a new wife takes some energy, doesn't she?"

“You know that from experience?” Ellis asked with a raised eyebrow and a laugh.

“Hell no, not me.” Aaron shook his head emphatically. “But it doesn’t take a genius to see as much. He’s taking on girls thirty years his junior, easy.”

"Sure he is, but then again he's not interested in making ‘em happy, is he?"

This was the other topic of rampant speculation amongst the staff of the Sloan Ranch. The stuff to do with the frequent hirings and firings was easy. When it came to that one, it wasn't so much a matter of if, but of when. Sanford's wives were another story. 

Most men had one, maybe two wives depending on how their luck played out. Over the last twenty-five years, Sloan had taken on four. Four wives and all of them dead, each and every one. It couldn't be disputed that the last one had died in childbirth. Both Ellis and the main house's cook, who had somehow managed to stand the test of time, remembered hearing the poor woman's agonized screams fading as she'd passed.

It was a messy way to go, but in the end, she had still been the lucky one. She was the only one of Sloan's wives to die unquestionably of natural causes. The other three had been and still were the subject of much speculation. Each of the poor girls had undergone an accident and in the end, had perished. 

Life was hard when you lived on the land, and some people simply weren't cut out for the trials. To have three wives go that way, though, each of them with their own unbelievable misfortune? 

There was something funny about that, whichever way you sliced it. It was one of the things the men whispered about when the work was done and the whiskey out, whether it was a smart topic of conversation or not.

Even Ellis and Aaron weren't above the gossip on the topic. They had an ongoing, often renewed bet about Sloan's next marital move. Ellis was sure that when Sanford returned from his latest trip, he would have a new girl in tow to be his bride. Aaron had a fiver on the line that he would come back alone.

“Shit,” Ellis growled, putting a hand up to his eyes in the dark and squinting at the brightly burning fires outside of the bunkhouses. “Speak of the devil.”

"He's back, then," Aaron said, thinking that the devil was just about the perfect nickname for the old coot. The two men glanced at each other, Ellis grinned mischievously, and they dug their spurs into the horses' flanks. It was always a mystery what kind of things Sloan would turn up with, and it paid to be there to see the chaos when he arrived.

“Hot damn!” Ellis crowed as they drew closer, close enough to see the many cases being hefted down from the back of Sloan’s coach. “Will you look at that? Looks like you’ll have to pay up this time, Compton. Five smackeroos!”

"Shit," Aaron grumbled, grinning despite himself. It always tickled him to think what the good ‘ol boss would think if he knew the way they placed bets on his personal comings and goings. 

This time, Ellis had been right. The unusually high level of chaos accompanying his arrival was the first indicator, followed by the pile of travel cases being heaved upon the ground. The third and final nail in his coffin was the slight-framed female being helped down from the coach once the luggage was all down. 

He was beat, fair and square, and it was time to pay up. He was in the process of rummaging around in his rucksack for the money he now owed when he stopped, his hand frozen in action.

"Shit," he whispered again, this time with not a hint of humor. This new arrival, this pretty little thing, had to be Sloan's future wife number five. She had to be, it was the only thing that made sense. 

Now that she was here the whisperings about Sloan's propensity for losing wives in mysterious ways would multiply tenfold. The men would talk about it happily, greedily even, just to have something to break up the monotony of the days. They would talk about it without any real concern because without knowing the woman, she was hardly a real person, only something to speculate over while the whiskey made the rounds. 

Not for Aaron, though. Aaron wasn't seeing a nameless unfortunate soul ventured onto the wrong ranch at the wrong time. He knew this woman, even after all of these years. He knew this woman as well as he knew his own name.

“Oh, Georgia,” he whispered, his skin gone clammy and cold. “Oh, Georgia, no.”

Chapter 2

Georgia Drake

"Are you comfortable, Sanford?" Georgia asked softly, trying and only partially succeeding at keeping the worry out of her voice. 

Her inborn nature was that of a happy girl, or so her memory of her youngest days told her. Life had dealt her a series of unfortunate blows, however, and over the years her body had become accustomed to worry. 

Her nerves, her muscles, even the very bones acting as her personal frame, were comfortable with the feeling now. Even when there was nothing expressly wrong, she had a tendency to slip into the condition if she was not either very sure of herself or very diligent. She was not at all sure now, and she was far too fatigued to be diligent, much as she would have liked to have been. 

And that was how, for perhaps the fifteenth time in a half an hour, she found herself asking her future husband about his physical state of being. Even as the words tumbled out of her mouth, she could not help but wince. She had promised herself the last time she'd asked that it would be the last time and yet here she was, saying those same tired words again.

“Fine,” he grunted. “Just fine.”

"All right," she said uncertainty, then continued on in a rush before she was able to clamp her mouth shut. "But are you sure? Is there anything I can do for you? A pillow, perhaps, or maybe a blanket? It does get surprisingly cold here, doesn't it? On the plains, I mean. Is that what they call these? Are they plains? I've never been to Missouri before. I can't for the life of me remember if I've told you that. I haven't been, and I must say, I'm surprised by the look of the land. So much more diversity than I ever would have expected!"

The words flew out of her mouth every bit as powerfully as one of the many rivers their coach had rolled by and all the while she was unable to staunch their flow. She watched Sanford's face carefully while she spoke and wished that she could look away. 

She wanted him to be happy, of course, she did, but nothing she did seemed to achieve the desired effect. The more she spoke, the darker his expression became. By the time she was through he looked positively angry and when he glanced in her direction, his brow was knit with frown lines.

“Christ, woman, I’m fine. Don’t you ever stop?”

“Yes,” she said gently. “Of course. I’m sorry.”

He looked at her a little longer with that awful sour expression before turning his face back to the slowly changing landscape passing them by. She sighed, winced again at the noise of it, and then turned her own face to the outdoors with something that felt very like relief. 

She had meant what she'd said about the wonders of this new terrain, and she was more than happy to take in its beauty. 

If only she felt better about the state of things between Stanford and her, she might have actually enjoyed the drive, so terribly long as it was. She had come on this journey sure that it was God’s intention for her new path but some of her confidence in the idea was waning, to be sure.

When she shut her eyes, Georgia thought she could actually count the number of words that had passed between her and Sanford on the days long journey from her home to this strange new land. The trip had begun with him treating her just as he had on the day they had first met. As if she were some exotic new treasure and he the fool lucky enough to have stumbled upon her. As the days had rolled by, however, he had spoken to her less and less until even saying hello came out sounding like a dreaded chore. 

When she looked at it that way, no wonder she was so filled with worry, so tempted by the compulsion to ask him if something was troubling him. What other explanation could there be for such an acute and abrupt change in behavior?

Their first meeting was still clear enough in her mind that she could reach out and touch it with no more effort than briefly shutting her eyes. It shouldn't be difficult, really. They had only first met some two months before. 

He had come barreling into the shop where she worked as a seamstress, only part-time but hoping desperately to gain hours until she was fully employed. He had taken offense to something her mistress had said and the potential for gaining his business had seemed in peril.

When he had laid eyes on her, however, all of his sour mood had evaporated, his entire demeanor softening until he was as harmless as a puppy dog. Even in the gloomy light of her nook beneath the shop's stairs, Georgia had seen his admiration for her shining clearly in his dark eyes. 

The mistress of the shop had been thoroughly impressed by Georgia's handling of what was immediately deemed as one of the more difficult customers. She had been so impressed, in fact, that as soon as the bell above the door had rung signaling Sanford's exit, Georgia had been offered the full-time employment she had so deeply desired.

As it turned out, however, that hard-earned position wasn’t needed, after all. Sanford had come into the shop every day for two weeks, and by the time he was ready to return to his ranch in Missouri, he had asked for her hand in marriage. Because there was no parent to either give or deny a blessing, she had taken it upon herself to accept.

Sanford Sloan was not the man Georgia had dreamed of when she was still a little enough girl to dream about such things. When she was very little, she had dreamed of a hero from a fairytale, a man who would ride into her darkest hour on a grand steed and whisk her off to safety. 

When her parents had died during the War of Rebellion, and her life had been turned upside down, she had only been seven years old. Still quite young but old enough to understand that fairytale princes weren't real. If her parents were never to come back for her, never to rescue her from the orphanage that became her home, there would certainly be no hero coming for her, either. Her idea of who she would like to spend her days with had changed into something more tangible, but then he had gone and left her on her own as well.

By the time she met Sanford, she wasn't entirely sure what she hoped for, which made being swept up by him that much easier. Although she had yet to discover his actual age, she knew he was quite a bit older than she. When she thought about it for very long, she considered it quite possible that he was older than her father would have been if he were still alive as well. 

He was a landowner, a ranch owner, to be more precise, but something told her that he'd had very little experience working the land himself. His hands were too smooth for him to have done much real physical work, which meant he was more inclined to pay another man to do his work than to do it himself.

Still, he was kind and sort of funny, and he hadn't treated her as though she were worthless simply because he had found her working in a shop. For all of these reasons and because she had been living in varying states of fear for most of her natural life, she had accepted his offer of marriage and the underlying security that marriage would entail. 

But what now? Could she still count on that security now? He had hardly spoken to her since they had passed into Arizona and the words he did give her ranged from grudging to downright dismissive.

Or perhaps it was only her own doubts getting the better of her and coloring the way she saw the rest of the world. She shut her eyes, allowed her head to rest back on the seat behind her, and tried to make her mind rest.

“Miss? Miss, time to rise and shine, now. Go on, lift up that pretty head. Unless you're fixin’ to spend the night out here in this here coach. Don’t know how they do things where you come from.”

For a moment, Georgia was sure that she was dreaming. Even with her eyes firmly shut, she could tell that it was pitch black outside, which meant that it was night. She did not recognize the voice calling to her through the dark, and she shook her head in her half-sleep and tried to shake it off. Instead of leaving her be, the source of the voice drew closer, close enough that she could feel the hot breath, smell the spice of the whiskey that must surely have been recently imbibed.

“Will you look at this?” the unknown voice crowed. “Little Miss has decided she’s not getting up! Looks like she’s spending the first night right here. Or maybe I’ll just lift her up, throw her in the barn with the rest of the livestock. What do you fellas think?”

The question was met with a burst of raucous laughter, loud enough to pull Georgia completely out of her hard-won sleep. She sat up too quickly and plastered both of her hands along the side of her head. Whether it was the way she had fallen asleep or some other unknown assailant, she had a pounding headache that made her eyes want to cross. 

She peered out of the open door and saw a man she did not know leering back inside. Between the extravagant shadows being cast from the large fires dancing just outside of the coach's door and the dirt caked on the man's face, it was difficult to get a sense of who he was. Still, she could tell that he was looking at her intently and it was far from a comfortable feeling.

“Get away from her, will you?” a familiar voice roared. 

Sanford grabbed the ranch hand’s shoulders and pushed him to one side without ever giving the man a chance to do as he was told. Georgia’s heart soared to see Sanford come to her defense, and so quickly, too. If the amount of force used seemed excessive, maybe it was only a sign that his dark mood from their travels was past and he would return to who he had been before.

"Time to get out of the coach, Georgia. You've been sleeping too long as it is," he said, holding out a hand. He didn't look at her as he spoke and her hope began to falter, but she took the hand anyway and with his help climbed out of the coach.

For a moment she only stood there, stunned. Even after the great expanses of world she had witnessed during their journey, she was shocked to see the amount of earth Sanford claimed as his own. She was used to living in the city, where everything was so tightly packed that a person was never able feel entirely on her own. The streets were clogged with the waste, filth, and debris of people piled on top of each other and the skies were filled with too many fires. She had never realized how tainted the air she breathed truly was until now when the only scent on the air was crisp cool and of growing, living things. She looked up into the sky and gasped involuntarily.

It was a deep purple with more stars than she had seen over the course of all her years combined. It was the loveliest thing she had ever witnessed, and before she could stop it, tears sprang to her eyes. She closed them gently and kept them that way until the emotion passed.

“Georgia,” Sanford broke in, his tone terse and unforgiving. “There’ll be time to exclaim over the place at a later time. Open your eyes, girl, and meet the workers. They’re waiting for you.”

Georgia did as she was bid, not a little bit startled. She felt foolish for thinking that he would revert back to his kinder self just like that and even more foolish for allowing her feelings to be hurt by his snappishness. 

There was no time for her to fret, however, and perhaps that was best. She was too tired and discombobulated to have anything but irrational feelings towards Sanford's short tone. There was no time to dwell, however, because she and Sanford were not alone. As her eyes adjusted to the deep dark and penetrating firelight, she saw that they were far, far from alone. A quick estimation told her there must be at least fifty people in the clearing in front of the house, all standing at attention and watching her every move. Her heart began pounding, threatening to lodge itself in her throat, and she took a deep, steadying breath.

"Woah, there, ladies and gents!" Sanford shouted out over the low den of their conversation. "That's enough yapping for now. Stop and take a listen, will ya? I've got someone who wants to meet Y'all." He gave a low bow, tipped an imaginary hat, then looked at her and indicated for her to go on.

“Oh!” she stammered, ill-prepared for this sudden spotlight indeed. “Well, hello, all. I’m Georgia, Georgia Drake. I’m pleased to meet you all. I’ve never been on a ranch this size. I’ve never been on a ranch at all, come to think of it. I hope you all will be patient with me while I get used to things.”

"Y'all!" Someone from the back of the crowd cried out, laughing and elbowing the man next to him, "We say Y'all around here!"

"Of course," she agreed, laughing shakily as she scanned the crowd for the one who'd spoken. It was in this scanning that she first saw it –  the last thing in the world she expected to find on a ranch in the middle of Missouri. 

Her heart really did stop for a moment and the next breath she took felt like a gasp. Once she found him, she couldn't understand how she could have missed him to begin with. He was standing in the front of the crowd, holding out both hands in front of one of the fires to keep himself warm. 

He looked as though he'd been out all day. His clothes were covered in dust and grime and he was looking at her. All of them were, those many people, but he was the only one really looking. The way he looked at her made her feel as if he could see all the way through her, down into the parts of her meant to be kept for her alone.

“Aaron,” she whispered, hardly aware of speaking at all.

“What?” Sanford asked sternly, suddenly right beside her elbow and speaking loudly into her ear. “What was that?”

“Nothing,” she answered quickly, glancing at him with a reassuring smile. She couldn’t say why, but it seemed important not to show any sign of knowing one of Sanford’s hands. Especially not one so tied to the past she was trying to escape.

Even so, as Sanford led her from person to person, doing the introductions and making the rounds, her mind slipped helplessly back to Aaron Compton, the first and perhaps only love of her life. She had met him for the first time when she was only seven years old, still crying as she was led into the orphanage for the first time. It had been Aaron to take her under his wing without being told, he who had kept her safe and helped her dry her tears that first night and many nights after. 

She had been seven and he only ten, but at the time he had seemed impossibly adult to her, impossibly grown. She had trusted him implicitly, both with her care and with her heart, and as the two of them had grown up together, their friendship had developed into something far deeper. 

She had been fifteen when he had come to her with the idea of going into the world to make enough money to take her away and marry her. She had, of course, approved with all of her heart. The idea of it had been far more romantic than the execution, however, and when he'd gone, Georgia had realized just how sheltered he had kept her from day to day. With Aaron gone, she had been easy prey, and not for the other boys in the orphanage, either. 

It was the orphanage director who had gone after her and she had been so desperate to get away from him. When she realized he would not stop coming after her, would never stop, she had married the first man who'd offered. That had fallen apart, too, of course, leading her to the Sloan Ranch with Sanford, and leading her back to Aaron after all of this time.

"Georgia, do you need to sit? Because if you're gonna pass out, I wish you would sit. My days of catching damsels in distress are long over," Sanford muttered. 

His tone was far from kind, but at the moment, it was exactly what she needed to pull herself together. She cleared her throat and when she chanced another glance in Aaron's direction, he was gone, just as if he'd never been standing there at all.

“Georgia!” Sanford barked impatiently.

“No, I’m just fine, thank you. What’s the matter?”

“Nothing’s the matter. I’m trying to introduce you to my daughter and her damned nursemaid. Or aren’t you interested?”

“Of course I’m interested. I’ve been so looking forward to meeting her. Where is she?” Georgia asked, trying to ignore the pang of nervousness sprinting through her blood.

“Over here, by the front steps. Come on, let’s get it over with.”

Georgia followed her husband to be dutifully, ignoring his general unpleasantness and putting on a friendly face. It was a good thing, too, because Sanford’s daughter appeared to be every bit as nervous as Georgia was herself. She was a slight girl with bright red hair that must have come from her mother.

She was pretty, too, although she didn’t seem to know it. She looked only at her feet or at her nurse, never at the people around her. When Sanford approached she shrunk into the warm, round woman as if she was afraid that her father might try and give her a hug.

“Here she is,” Sanford said disinterestedly. “My girl, Marion. Say hello, girl.”

"Hello," Marion whispered, her voice so soft it was almost not there at all. Georgia's smile widened in sympathy of the girl child's nerves and stuck out a hand to shake. It hung there in the air untouched for several long moments before Georgia let it drop again and dusted it free of imaginary dirt on her long, heavy skirts.

"She's a little shy of strangers," the nursemaid offered instead. She was far from friendly, but her voice was strong, at least, and Marion looked pleased with the explanation. Sanford was already halfway up the front steps, his limited interest in the exchange already expended.

“That’s all right, so am I,” Georgia confided, offering her hand to the maid in the hopes of a better response. “I’m Georgia. What’s your name?”

"Virgie. I take care of the girl. If you need to talk to the girl, it's best you go through me. She's wary of speaking to outsiders, you know."

“Of course, I’ll keep that in mind. I—” She started, not entirely sure what it was she wanted to say.

“Georgia!” Sanford bellowed, interrupting her. “Get a move on, will ya? I’m ready for this day to be done.”

"Coming, Sanford," she answered, a brittle edge to her voice. 

She was willing to make some allowances for the stresses of travel, but really, this was getting to be too much. She took a moment to give Marion and Virgie a little courtesy, then hurried up the stairs and followed Sanford into the house.

Whether or not he wanted her to hurry, Georgia stopped abruptly in the house's front hall. It wasn't so much a hall as a grand entrance. It was unlike anything Georgia had ever seen, let alone set foot in. 

The floors were made of darkly polished wood upon which lay thick, plush carpets that looked to have come from far off lands. Every direction she looked there was something she wanted to touch.

There were crystal chandeliers and expensive china vases with the most intricate paintwork she had ever seen. In both directions, there was room after room after room, and she longed desperately to be shown through them all. Sanford, however, appeared to have other plans. He was already two-thirds of the way up the imposing winding staircase.

“Are you coming or were you planning to stand there with your mouth hanging open for the rest of the weekend?” he asked impatiently.

“Coming,” she called airily, tripping up the stairs two at a time in order to catch up and, hopefully, get something of a tour of her new home’s many rooms. 

As it turned out, she would not be so lucky, at least not that evening. Sanford strode purposefully past one closed door after another without giving them a second glance. It was only when he arrived at the room at the furthest end of the second landing’s massive corridor that he stopped and waited for her to catch up.

"We're here," he announced happily, giving her a strange look while he spoke. 

There was something in his eyes she wasn't sure she liked. A certain shine that had not been there before, perhaps, or maybe it was her female intuition. She watched him open the fat mahogany door with held breath and an unshakable feeling of trepidation. 

She told herself she was only being silly, but when she saw where he had brought her, she understood that she was facing her first bit of real trouble with the man.

"Which room is this?" she asked stupidly, scrambling for time. She knew the answer, of course. The boat of a bed placed squarely in the middle of the room was the first hint. The wardrobe with one door partially askew, revealing a neat row of Sanford's clothing, did away with any uncertainties.

“This is the master bedroom, my love. Where we’ll be spending most of our time, I hope,” he answered, stepping around her neatly and shutting the bedroom door. 

She jumped at the sound of the latch catching as high as if it were the sound of a rifle round going off. When she turned to face him, to ask him what he was playing at, something caught the corner of her eye.

“Are those my trunks, Sanford?” she asked with measured, studied calm, indicating a pile of her belongings with one trembling hand.

"Yes, of course, they are. Who else would they belong to? I think someone needs her rest," he answered, smiling at her all the while. Perhaps it was childish of her, but Georgia had never considered this scenario.

It wasn't that she had been treated with kid gloves by the men in her past, excluding Aaron, of course. Far from it. The director of the orphanage had started paying her his unwanted attention the very day Aaron had left and by the time she had left, she had been sure he would rape her if she stayed another moment more. She'd gone straight from him to her first husband, who had been lovely for a handful of months and then become the worst kind of brute. 

On the night he died she had believed with every fiber of her being that he was going to kill her. It was only thanks to a brave servant and a particularly heavy brass candlestick that she had escaped with her life. 

In the end, it had been her life traded for his and she had run as far and fast as she was able. Georgia knew something about dangerous men and the even more dangerous situations they could put a woman into and looking at Sanford now, there were bells of warning ringing loudly in her head.

“Sanford,” she started slowly, thinking of each and every word before she spoke it. “I think there must be some mistake.”

“Do you now?” he asked, laughing dismissively. “That’s a mighty big claim for someone so new to the ranch.”

“I know it’s not my place to make the orders but my trunks shouldn’t be here. Not in this room. I cannot sleep here.”

“You ‘cannot?’ Who in tarnation says so?” Sanford asked, the color in his face rising steadily. He was not a man accustomed to being contradicted. He was even less accustomed to being denied.

“Sanford, surely you must see. We aren’t married yet. We can’t be sharing the same room before we’re married. It wouldn’t be proper.”

“You saw fit to travel across half the country in my company unchaperoned,” he countered. “And last time I checked there was nothing proper about that, either.”

"It was the only choice, Sanford, but there are so many rooms in this house. Surely there is a guest room you could spare. Something, please? So that we can do things properly?" she asked. 

It felt painfully foolish to plead with him this way, and she could feel anger beginning to bubble up from under her concern. He should not put her in this position to begin with. The gentlemanly thing to do would be to put her things in a guest room without any mention of it ever being made. It was not right for him to treat her this way. Even after all of her poor treatment, she knew that. And if he was willing to treat her thus now before they were even wed, how would he treat her when the novelty of her wore off?

"Come now, Georgia," he sighed indulgently as if speaking to a slow-minded child, "this isn't your first rodeo, is it? You've been married before, haven't you?"

“I have,” she whispered, stung as badly as if he’d hauled off and slapped her across the face. “You know I have.”

"So then there's nothing to preserve. What difference does a handful of nights make when we've got the rest of our lives?" he asked, his insistence bordering on relentless.

If he thought he could needle her into giving him his way, though, he was sorely mistaken. He did not know her well enough to know how deep her stubborn streak ran or else he would never attempt it in the first place. 

She dug in her heels, both literally and figuratively speaking, and balled her fists up at her sides. It may have been only her first night in his palace of a home, but she would not allow herself to be swayed.

“You’re right about that, Sanford, we’ve got the rest of our lives. And as such, a couple more nights spent apart for the sake of tradition shouldn’t make a lick of difference.”

Georgia watched as Sanford’s face first rose and then fell as he grasped her meaning. He took a step towards her, his face as dark as the night sky, and she steeled herself for what was to come. Just because he had been kind to her before did not mean he would treat her gently now. Nothing about Sanford on his land was like the man she’d met in the little shop.

“Fine,” he said finally, his voice rigid with anger. “Have it your way. For tonight you may take this room. I’ll have your things moved in the morning to one of the guest rooms down the hall. Is that proper enough for you?”

“Yes, Sanford, it’s wonderful. Thank you so much. Truly.”

The relief in her voice was real, not that it did anything to sway his mood. He offered her no answer in return, only shook his head violently, brushed past her, and stalked out the door. 

She counted to ten with her eyes shut tightly and then hurried to the door herself, shutting it soundly before sinking to the floor in relief. For this night, at least, she would be safe and unbothered. The question lingered, however, what on earth had she gotten herself into now?

Chapter 3

Aaron Compton

“Quit your complaining, old man. Doesn’t do you any good.”

Aaron’s words, although whispered, rang out clearly in the ranch hands’ shared bunkhouse. He wasn’t a man prone to talking to himself, that was sure enough, and he hadn’t planned on doing it now.

Sometimes, though, a man had to get the thing screaming on his insides out into the open. Otherwise, it could eat him up from the inside out. And if ever there was something eating at him, it was now. Of all of the people to show up on the ranch, it had to be her.

It had been a long road from the orphanage to Sloan Ranch and much of it hard. He'd survived because that was what he did. Born of two survivors who had lost their final battles, he’d been thrown into a hard world; surviving had been the only thing to do, and he had done it well. 

On the ranch, that meant not asking any question that didn't absolutely need asking. That and keeping his nose out of places where it didn't belong. One thing that fell into that category, no question whatsoever, was matters having to do with the boss. The boss's intended was none of his concern. The only thing to do was get to work and move on, leave the ranch if that's what it took not to get involved.

"But it's Georgia," he hissed violently through his teeth. 

He punched one fist into another and then sat up, swinging his legs wordlessly over the edge of his bunk. His whole body ached from the day's long work and in anticipation of the next day's work to come. 

He needed his sleep, damn it, and usually, he got it. Growing up in an orphanage and moving from one ranch hands' bunkhouse to the next in the subsequent years had made him good at sleeping.

He could do it anywhere, under almost any conditions. But every time he let his eyelids shut, every time his mind began to drift, there her face would come swimming out of the abyss. Georgia. Georgia on the Sloan Ranch and slated to marry the boss.

He couldn't let her do it. That was the rub, the thing that set his heart racing and kept him away from sleep. At the end of the day, he couldn't let her marry the bastard whether he wanted to get involved or not. 

The least important reason for it was that he still loved her. She was the reason for all of his work. She had been since he'd hopped on the very first coach and set out to conquer the world. 

Seeing her only crystalized that motive. It took an idea he’d carried in his heart and punched him in the gut with it, made the love something that made him want to be sick. No man wanted to give up the woman he loved, and that was more true for Aaron than it was for most. In his mind she had belonged to him for all of these years after all; twelve of them, but who was counting?

If that had been all, his pride, his heart, he would have shoved it aside and kept to his work. She wasn't that little seven-year-old girl anymore, was she? She was a woman and free to make decisions of her own. 

But there was more to this story than most. She wasn't just marrying any other man; she was marrying Sanford Sloan. To let her do a thing like that? He might as well drag her out to the well, toss her down it, and then wait for her to die. Wedding Sloan was as sure a death sentence as that, and probably more painful in the end.

Aaron didn’t take to gossip, never had, but participating and hearing weren’t the same thing. He had heard plenty, none of it good. The first Mrs. Sloan had taken ill sometime in the middle of the night. One doctor was called and then another and all of the time she had steadily gotten worse. By the time she had finally died, a week after the illness had taken hold, she had looked like a woman twenty years older than her twenty-one years. 

The second girl had fallen from a horse while out on a ride with one of the ranch hands, somewhere on the edges of Sloan’s land. She had fallen, broken her neck, and that was that. The worker has not fared any better in that one, seeing as it had been him supervising the woman while she fell. Sloan had dragged him out to the largest tree he could find and hung him, watching until he took his last breath. There had been rumors that maybe the second Mrs. Sloan had been rolling around with said ranch hand behind the boss’s back but Ellis’s opinion was that the source of the rumor had been Sloan himself.

The third wife had drowned in the ranch's pond while going for a midnight swim. That one had a reputation for being a little strange, and nobody had been surprised. Then again, by the time the third one went to meet her Lord, lots of people were talking. 

It was only the fourth wife, Marion's mother, who had died naturally and if there had been a way to pin that one on Sloan, people would have done it.

Aaron hadn't been around for any of them so he couldn't say for sure. He didn't need to know for sure to know that he didn't trust his boss, though. And the only way he could leave Georgia to him and find some small amount of peace was to know that she would be safe. No maybes, no second guessing. He had to know without a shadow of a doubt. He couldn't do that, and so he could not rest.

"Forget this," he mumbled to himself, pausing in his movements when the guy on the next cot over said something in his sleep, stretched and rolled over. That was one of the problems with having no place that belonged to you and you alone. A man couldn't have a conversation with himself without having to worry he was going to interfere with someone else's slumber. 

Not that he'd ever had a spot to call entirely his own. Maybe when he was really little, back before the whole world had gone to hell, he'd had a place. Maybe there had been a little room to call his own. 

Ever since the orphanage, though, he'd been bunking with other people, and he had developed habits for when he couldn't stand being around people any longer. If ever he'd had a night where that was true, it was this one. 

After what felt like a reasonable amount of time for the disturbed man to settle back down, Aaron eased himself out of bed, walked as silently as he was able across the old dirt floor, and let himself out into the night.

If gun to his head, he'd had to guess, Aaron would have put the time somewhere around three in the morning. It was late enough that even the youngest and most rambunctious of the hands had fallen into bed, done with their drinking for the day. 

Aaron remembered those days with a mixture of fondness and disgust. Drinking for as late as the body would let him, falling into bed already most of the way asleep, throwing his guts up in the morning and then doing the whole thing over again the next day. That was a young man's way of attacking the job--like you were going to wrangle it into submission. Aaron was thirty years old, and if he'd ever truly had the stamina for that kind of life, it was long gone now.

Aaron ambled towards the barns, taking his time to enjoy the night air. He wanted to be sleeping, and he knew he was going to pay for the lack of it in the morning, but he didn't hate that he was awake. 

The night was his favorite time, the only time that had ever felt completely right to him. It was the in-between time, the time where most of the world was quiet, and creatures felt free to do as they pleased. There was a chill in the air and he pulled his old canvas jacket around his shoulders tighter, watching his breath come out in white plumes of smoke and drift away on the wind.

He let himself into the barn quietly, inhaling deeply as the scent of hay overwhelmed him. Beneath that smell were other smells, most of the animal variety. A lot of men hated those animal smells, said it turned their stomachs, but Aaron found it comforting. It was a smell he understood, and because of such he often came to the barns when he needed to be away from other people or to think.

"What do you think, you big baby?" he crooned into one of Bear's ears while he stroked the graceful beast's flank thoughtfully. 

If only the problem was that easy to solve. Ask the horse and have him make the decisions for you. His horse didn't care one way or the other, though, because he kept silent. He stood there brushing the horse and for a little while, time stood still. There was nothing but the two of them, their warmth in the chill, and the gnawing problem that had so suddenly come into Aaron's world.

He would have felt just fine if he could have kept things just as they were in that barn, with nothing moving forward. Except that he knew from long and painful experience that that wasn't the way the world worked, at least not for people like him. He could hide out in that damned barn all he liked, but it wouldn't get anything solved.

Sloan would still be an evil son of a bitch and Georgia would still be in danger. The longer he stood communing with the livestock, the more immediate the problem became. He didn't want to get involved—almost couldn't make himself do it after all of these years of doing the opposite—but he was going to do it anyhow. 

It was a sickening feeling, knowing the trouble it might bring down upon his head, but dreading the consequences was still better than having no course of action at all. He would talk to her and let the chips fall where they may.

“Get some sleep, Bear,” he whispered to the horse, scratching behind the ears in just the right spot. “Tomorrow’s gonna be a busy day.”

Bear whinnied in reply and shaking his head with a smile, Aaron exited the barn. He was halfway back to the bunkhouse when something caught the corner of his eye. He turned his face towards the distraction instinctively, already half convinced that whatever it was that had drawn his eyes in that direction had only been in his sleep-deprived head. When he did a double take, he saw that he was wrong.

"Georgia?" he called softly, his words cutting through the silent night like a knife.

At first, she didn't even glance in his direction. She only looked out into the dark, staring at something only she could see. With her white dressing gown and nothing but a shawl pulled tightly around her shoulders to keep her warm, she looked achingly like the girl who had first come to him at the orphanage. 

She was twenty-six years old now, and every bit as beautiful as he had known she would become. With nobody around to watch her, her hair fell in loose curls halfway down her back. When she was a girl, her hair had been somewhere between flaxen and brown, but now it was a rich chestnut that gleamed in the moonlight. Her skin was milky white and he was happy to see it. Judging by its creaminess, he thought she had managed to avoid any hard outdoor labor in the time since he had left her and for that he was thankful. For a couple of long moments, she didn't respond to his soft call, didn't seem even to have heard him. Then she shook her head slowly back and forth, negating a question only she could hear and turned her eyes slowly in his direction. Her deep blue eyes peered at him through the dark and in the moonlight, seemed to glow.

"I thought it was you," she said softly, standing up and pulling the shawl more tightly around her shoulders, "I felt like a crazy person when I first saw you, mind you, after all of these years. I believe I would have felt less crazy if someone had sworn up and down that I was seeing a ghost, but I knew it was you all the same. Aaron Compton, living and breathing right here in Missouri, in the flesh and back from the dead."

There was a quality to her voice that hadn't been there the last time the two of them had spoken, and it made it difficult for Aaron to keep his concentration on the reason he had come looking for her in the first place. 

Her voice was rich and self-assured, none of the deference she had shown him when she was fifteen and honestly believed he knew all there was to know about the world. There was nothing unfriendly about it, but Aaron shifted uncomfortably in his boots all the same. 

It was strange, seeing her this way. It was like having one foot in two different worlds or, using her own words, like seeing a ghost so real she was almost more there than the people still living. The sheer unlikeliness of the scenario hit him all at once, coupled with the knowledge of the kind of trouble she could be in if he couldn't talk some sense into her, and he felt his body's fatigue rush up upon him with monster force, threatening to knock him over. 

He cleared his throat and shut his eyes, gathering his wits about him. When he opened his eyes, she was looking at him intently; if possible her eyes were burning even more brightly than before. If she saw his unexpected struggle, she didn't let on.

“It’s good to see you, Georgia,” he said quietly, almost too quietly to hear. The words felt empty, lacking after so much time and so much history, and he cursed himself under his breath while he waited for her response.

“Yes,” she said softly, that damned far away look still in her eyes. “I suppose so. I suppose it’s good to see you, too.”

"It's a shock, I'll reckon," Aaron plowed on, determined to get through what he had to say if it killed him, "if it hit you anywhere close to the way it hit me. It's a shock, finding me here."

"Yes, you could certainly say that. A shock is the perfect word for it," she agreed, this time with a little smile playing at the corners of her lips. 

The smile should have been encouraging, but instead, it set his stomach in knots. It was entirely unrecognizable, that smile, not the shape of it but the feeling behind the gesture. His mind went back as if of its own accord — back to pretty little Georgia rolling around on the floor like a puppy. 

Back to him reading her bedtime stories when the reality of losing her parents was too much for her to bear and he thought she might never sleep again. Back to the first time his lips had found hers and he had realized that she was the only home he would ever need.

“And you’re here for him, are you? You’re here to marry Sloan?” he asked, careful to keep his sudden bitterness out of his voice as best he could manage. 

She must have had her reasons for agreeing to do it. It had been ten years since the two of them had discussed his leaving the orphanage and seeking his fortune so that they could come back together and never have to struggle again. Or, at the very least, never have to rely on anyone but each other.

“Yes,” she answered, her voice suddenly prim. “That’s right. I’ve come to the ranch to become Sanford’s wife.”

"You can't, Georgia. You can't marry that man. You need to get away from him, away from this place, as fast as you can." He hadn't meant to say it that way, that abruptly, and he could see the effect the words had on her straight away. Her eyes grew brighter, too bright, and when she spoke next, her voice was flat and almost unrecognizable.

"You have no right to order me around, Aaron Compton. No, right at all."

"Georgia, if you'll only listen to what I have to say—" he started, still convinced that their conversation could be reasonable.

She shook her head violently, and her curls flew around her face in a rich, deep fan of color. There was color in her cheeks too, the high color of anger and indignation. This, at least, he recognized with no confusion. She was furious with him, as furious as a woman could be with a man without using her fists.

“No, Aaron. No! I won’t listen to you, not on matters like this one. Why would I? How could I, after what happened?”

"Nothing happened," he said tiredly, his voice already indicating that the battle had been lost. "I did what we spoke about. I left for us, to build a life that I could bring you back to. I was going to come back," he ended lamely, and Georgia scoffed, turning her face upon him with a stony expression.

“How easy it must be for you to say that to me,” she said, her voice dripping with contempt.

There was nothing to do but give up, to maybe try again once their tempers were more settled. Instead, he kept right on going, too dogged to be deterred.

"None of this is easy, Georgia. I've thought about you every day. I always planned on going back for you. Anyway, that's not why I'm saying this. I'm trying to look out for you, all right? I want to keep you safe, and if you marry Sanford Sloan, you won't be safe. You might as well throw yourself off yonder chasm. It'll be a faster way to go."

"You left me, Aaron. You left, and you didn't come back. You have no idea what I've been through since you left. I did what I had to do to get by, and you have no right to judge my choices. You left. That was your choice.”

“Me?!” he exploded, finally losing his cool the way he knew he would. “What about you, Georgia? I left to hold up my end of the bargain. You’re the one who saddled yourself to someone else. I never said it would be fast, never said it would be easy, but I never gave up on us. You’re the one who gave up on this. You want to blame someone, look at yourself.”

“Get out of here, Aaron. I don’t want to talk to you about this or anything else. Get out of here. Go worry about something that actually matters to you.”

Before he had a chance to say anything, offer up another argument for her to reject, she whirled and stomped back up the front steps and into the main house. 

For a moment of insanity, he considered following her, taking her by the arms and forcing her to listen. If he was caught inside the house, though, there would be trouble for the both of them and his chances of getting her off the Sloan Ranch safely would only grow slimmer. 

He stood for a minute, looking up at the house with his hands balled by his sides and all of the chords standing out in his neck. Then he turned and stalked back towards the bunkhouse with not a single thing resolved.

Chapter 4

Sanford Sloan

The silly, little thing refused to share his bedchambers and that was the first part of Sanford Sloan's new endeavor that hadn't gone his way. He wasn't pleased about it, far from it, but when it was all said and done, it was a slight he was willing to bear. 

While he prepared himself for a night of sleep in his own lovely bed, he marveled over what a perfect storm Georgia's life must have been for her to fall under his spell so completely. In his experience, there were only two kinds of women who were sensitive to his particular brand of charm.

The first were greedy women, women who knew of his fortune and wanted to attach themselves to his success. He was sure that Georgia was not one of these. She had never asked him about his fortunes, not even once, and she showed none of the tell-tale signs of a woman digging for gold.

The second kind of woman was the one who was broken. They were broken in a plethora of ways, each as unique and horrible as the last. He had met plenty of them, these shattered girls, and he understood that they could be further broken in many different ways.

For some women, it was one catastrophic thing that brought them down low, something that shook the core of who they were and made them doubt everything they encountered. For others, it was a longer, more complicated process. 

Those were the girls who were mistreated from the very start and they were also his favorite. Georgia was one of the latter and she was one of the most interesting cases Sanford had ever seen. 

She was a perfect set of contradictions. She was strong and yet fragile, and he could never say which version of her would be there to greet him. One moment she would strike him as the most delicate of girls and the next she would say something, give him a look, and he would see a fire in her he could only describe as unexpected. All in all, she was an interesting woman, far more interesting than the ones that had come before her. It was almost unfortunate that he had to let her go so quickly.

The first thing to pique Sanford’s interest in Georgia was the air of desperation about her –  her clear drive to find a way out. The second was that she struck him as an enigma and was certainly beautiful as well. While these things had piqued his interest after he'd first seen her in that horrible little shop, none of these qualities would have been enough to tie her to him, however. None of those were what he looked for in his next potential wife. There was nothing romantic about the matrimonial state for Sanford, and there never had been, not even when he’d been young and stupid. He liked to think of marriage as a business opportunity and it was a philosophy that had served him well. In that respect, Georgia was well-qualified indeed.

Money. The young woman had money, and in the end, that was the only thing that could really turn his head. Georgia had that in spades, although the source of her income remained unclear. He had attempted to suss it out over these past several months, although the attempts could only be described as half-hearted at best. 

In truth, he couldn't have cared less where her money came from. While many men would undoubtedly have required explanation for propriety's sake, in Sanford's humble opinion, the seedier the money's origins, the better. Women with checkered pasts were more grateful to be looked after and far less likely to ask questions of their own. If Georgia was to hear about his past wives and their mostly strange and untimely demises, her own secrets would create a wall she would find it difficult to jump.

Considering the fact, he smiled, a smile that could have stripped the paint off the wall. He stood in front of his bedroom’s closed door even still, close enough that he could hear her moving around inside, rifling through her meager possessions in preparation for sleep. 

He was an aging man, a man with much experience in many things, and he had had his share of experience with women. It was enough that he could shut his eyes and instantly conjure up the image of her slender, supple frame moving from her trunk to the dressing table. 

She would strip off her cumbersome clothes and slip her dressing gown over her head, then remove the pins from her hair and let it fall free down her back. In his mind's eye, he could see her brush working its way through its length. He could see his own hands plucking the brush away from her, raking his fingers through that lovely hair roughly, rough enough that her head would strain back and she might even cry out in pain. He could imagine all of the things he would do to her when he was let into that room at last, and it made his body break out in gooseflesh.

"Pity," he whispered to himself, shaking his head sadly before turning to shamble down the hallway and the long stair to his study's door. 

It was a pity, too, because she was a rare breed and he would really have liked to have his use of her for more than a few weeks. He could only imagine all of the ways in which he could bend her will to his own, all of the ways in which he could turn the misfortune of her past into his own good luck. There were times, though, in which a man had to make a decision with his head and nothing else. There were times when business was king, and if ever there was one, this was one of those times. There was work to be done, and he was the person to do it. He sat down behind his desk, shut his eyes, and got to work.

“Hank!” he bellowed. “Hank, my man, I need you to come in here right away!”

Sanford had many, many men working for him on the ranch, and several women too. For the most part, he strove to keep his workers transitory, moving them on before they became too comfortable or started asking questions. 

Most people believed that longevity in an employee was an asset, but Sanford was smart enough to know better. He was smart enough to know that the more people who understood a business’s inner workings, the more opportunity there was for interference. 

He couldn't stand for that kind of thing, not with everything he had to use. Nor could he tolerate the idea of allegiances formed between people with similar suspicions. It was best to keep everyone in the dark and some of the time, when it was absolutely necessary, to instill a little fear.

There was a handful of people, however, and these were mostly men, who he kept close to him from year to year to year. It was these men whom he trusted with the less savory elements of the work he needed done, the things that could incriminate them if they were ever to come to light. These were the men who knew the most about how Sanford had acquired his own substantial fortune, and they had a stake in seeing his success continue. It was amazing, almost alarming, how much of a man's loyalty money could buy.

"Boss?" Hank drawled, ambling around the corner from the hallway to the office with an almost bored look on his face.

Sanford gritted his teeth, biting back the incrimination that leapt immediately to his lips. He supposed it was too much to ask for the men around him to have his same sense of urgency about the things that needed doing. He was paying them enough, by God. The money alone should have been enough to make Hank move a little faster. Some of his feeling must have shown on his face, too, because Hank's drink-dulled eyes widened and he shook his head quickly, presumably to clear his mind enough to be delivered orders.

Sanford nodded, acknowledging the effort, and then looked from side to side to see if anyone else was there to hear.

"Good, you're not so far in your cups that you can't walk. I expected worse, I don't mind saying."

“Sorry, Boss,” Hank answered quickly, looking down at the floor and holding his hat in his hands, “I didn’t hear you calling for me.”

“That’s why I ask you to stay around close, goddammit,” Sanford barked, more than happy to perpetuate the lie that he’d been calling for Hank for some time. “So you can do your job. Is Smith around?” he finished, peering at Hank stonily through his wire-rimmed glasses until Hank began to squirm.

“You betcha, Boss, he’s right in the other room. Want me to get him?” Hank asked, his desperation to redeem himself so plain it made Sanford’s stomach turn. 

He looked for the weakness in the men and women around him and used it to his advantage every chance he could, but he had a hatred for it, too. He couldn’t abide the same quality he sought.

"No," he snapped, grimacing with distaste when Hank's face fell, "I'll take care of it myself. Smith!" he bellowed, even louder than he had shouted Hank's name. 

At least Smith had the decency to move with some speed and Sanford made a mental note to give the man some kind of commendation. Something small, of course. Men didn't become rich by handing out bonuses, but enough to make sure both men knew what kind of behavior garnered rewards and what kind was likely to bring down punishment.

“I’m here, Boss,” Smith said briskly, standing at attention with his hands clasped tightly behind his back. “What do you need?”

"I don't think I need to draw attention to this, but I don't always know what I can trust with you fellas and what I can't. In the interest of transparency, I'll draw your attention to our newest resident. Were the two of you outside when I brought her out? My lovely bride-to-be?"

Hank and Smith exchanged glances, and while Hank still looked ashamed, Smith had a smile spreading across his face that could only be described as knowing. Sanford was careful to keep his own expression as straight as an arrow, but he made another mental check in the column of the man's admirable qualifications.

“Yes sir,” Smith answered, his eyes shining mischievously. “Saw her getting out of the coach. A right pretty thing she was, too. You’re a lucky fella, Boss, if you don’t mind my saying so. A lucky man indeed.”

“You know what, Smith? I don’t mind you saying so. Don’t mind it one little bit. She is a pretty young thing, isn’t she?”

“Mighty pretty,” Smith answered while Hank nodded wildly, giving him a stupid look that Sanford didn’t like. “Wonder how she’ll take to life on the ranch.”

The three men looked at each other, none of them saying a word. Some men, if put into the same situation, might not see the point of going through the ritual. The ritual was the same every time with the ranch hands from the past and with his most trusted men now. Bringing a new wife in without even the pretense of caring for her was too uncouth, even for Sanford's taste. Besides, all of what they were saying about Georgia was true. She was a lovely girl, and she had many admirable qualities. It was right to say so before she met her end. It was as fitting as an eulogy, even if delivered before the fact.

“We’ll need to have a conversation about that. We must handle this one more delicately and with far more speed than in the past. Things being such as they are, I find myself with a need for escalation.”

Hank looked puzzled, but Smith nodded knowingly, even going so far as to drop Sanford a wink. Out of everyone working on the ranch at the moment, Smith was the one with the most knowledge of Sanford's true dealings. 

These were the things Sanford liked to think of as his inventive endeavors, the ones that didn't operate strictly within the boundaries of the law. Over the years, these had included a variety of different things, everything from stealing cattle, to crimes with branding, to breaking and entering and petty theft. 

There had never been a con Sanford hadn't enjoyed and that, along with his wise choices in matrimony, were part of what had made him the man that he was today. Ventures like his, though, came with risks. The risks were usually outweighed by the rewards, almost always they were, but when the risks became reality, it could make for serious trouble. 

Serious trouble was what Sanford was in now, or at least on the precipice of, and he needed money to get himself out of it unscathed and quickly.

It was a shame, all things considered. Georgia really was a looker and what he hadn't yet seen, Sanford's imagination had take care of handily. He would have liked to get the full use of her, just as with any other filly in his stables. He would have liked to get the use of her for years at the very least and maybe even to acquire the one thing life had thus far denied him –  a son and heir. Instead, it would be a matter of weeks, no more than a month at the most, and she would have to go. 

This was where his cleverness and ingenuity became of real importance. He would need to make it believable that a woman of only twenty-six would perish when all signs pointed to her being healthy. He would need to make it look good, too, because there was more at stake now than ever. There was more at stake than his fortune, and for Sanford, that fortune was almost everything.

“Men,” he finally said, steepling his hands together on his desk and looking down at their tips stoically. “Now we’ve come to the most delicate part of all and I want you to brace yourselves. Do you think you can handle it? Think you can stand up to the pressure?”

"You bet your ass, Boss," Smith answered immediately, shaking his head emphatically as he spoke. 

Sanford nodded at him approvingly, pleased by the pure fanaticism he saw on the man's face. He turned his gaze upon Hank and felt another prick of irritation. Honestly, if the man couldn't get it right for this, if he'd lost his stomach for the really hard work, it would be best for everyone if he would just come out and say it. Sanford would make it easy on the poor son of a bitch if he would only do that. The guy didn't have any family anywhere, so there was no need to worry about them recouping the repercussions. If he was upfront about wanting out, Sanford would make it quick and painless. If he'd lost his nerve and botched part of his job, though, now that would be another matter entirely. 

When Sanford wanted to, when he felt the compulsion rise, he could make a man suffer. Sometimes he even enjoyed it, too. If there was ever a mistake for a man to avoid, it was letting Sanford Sloan down.

“Hank?” he asked slowly, with careful precision. “Are you still with me here?”

“Right, Boss,” Hank answered hastily. “Here. Ready for what comes next.”

“Good,” Sanford answered, steel in his voice. “Because I’m going to need all hands on deck. We’ve got an outsider sniffing around where he doesn’t belong. You know how we feel about outsiders on the Sloan Ranch.”

“Want me to take care of him, boss?” Smith asked eagerly, his eyes shining at the possibility. Hank only watched, his eyes shifting back and forth between Sanford and Smith restlessly.

"I do, Smith. I wish like hell I could send you out riding right this goddamn minute, but that won't be a choice this time around. The man sniffing around is a marshal, boys. We've got a marshal, and he won't be quite so easy to take care of as some of our other problems. This one will be noticed if he doesn't turn up where he belongs."

“So then what, Boss? What do we do?”

"Right now, we watch. You know how the rumors fly. Keep your ears to the ground for any talk about me and my ranch. We must be quick, boys, if we're going to pull this one off."

Neither man offered an answer to this and Sanford grew quiet with them. He did not know what passed through the minds of the men he employed and he didn’t care. He knew what passed through his own, though, and it was his very own notoriety. It was a notoriety he had enjoyed and enjoyed well for all of these years, and he didn't like to think of it as something that might bite him now. His upper lip curled at the thought of it, and his hatred for the damned marshal shot through him like liquid fire. There was rarely a problem he could not make go away with the wave of a hand and a little ingenuity. It made his disgust with not getting his own way fierce enough to kill. 

It was something he would have liked to stew on for a while, stew on sitting alone in his office with a glass of whiskey in hand. He would do it later, too, he would do that very thing, once the details of the matter at hand were settled.

"I want you boys to arrange an accident. Think of something new, something that hasn't happened to one of my wives before. It wouldn't matter so much if things were running normally, but with the damned marshal sniffing around we can't afford the added gossip. Think something up, something new, and think of the pitfalls, too. I want a tidy plan, men, all wrapped up and tied with a bow."

“I can think of one problem right off, Boss,” Smith answered immediately, taking a small step forward. Sanford, who’d considered their unconventional meeting over the moment he was done speaking, looked up sharply.

“What is it, Smith? What’s the problem now?”

“Sorry to say it, but it’s to do with your daughter,” Smith said slowly, at least with the good graces to sound like he’d rather not be speaking at all.

"Marion?" Sanford asked incredulously. "What's any of this got to do with Marion? Shouldn't even touch the girl. She doesn't have much of anything to do with anything, and that's the way I like it."

“Right, I know, but the new missus—”

“Georgia,” Sanford corrected with a thin smile. “You should learn her name, Smith. The woman is my intended, after all.”

“Georgia, Boss, apologies.”

“Apologies accepted. Now, what about her?”

“I was watching her when she got out of the coach—”

“All of you men were. She’s easy on the eyes.”

“Right.” Smith laughed a little too loud. “Won’t get any arguments here. I was watching the way she greeted Marion, though. She seemed real interested. Interested in getting to know the girl, you see what I’m saying?”

“Doesn’t matter. Marion doesn’t get to know anyone. It’s the only really good quality she’s got.”

“I know it, and it’s how a woman should be, but I got a feeling about the interaction that I didn’t like. Marion had a look in her eyes like she might like to make a friend.”

"Keep an eye on that, too. I'd like to spare her feelings, I guess, if it's possible. More important, you best keep her out of the way. Her being in the way won't change what needs to be done, not one iota. You understand what I'm getting at?"

“Boss, you don’t mean that, do you? She’s your daughter, for Christ’s sake,” said Hank.

Sanford lifted his face, his neck creaking in the sudden silence of the study. Hank's face was beet red, he knew what he'd done, but for the first time his eyes didn't waver, and Sanford's displeasure with the useless son of a bitch finally erupted.

"Is there something you want to say to me, Hank? Something you want to get off your mind?" His voice was like poison running through the room, and Hank's reaction to it was visceral. 

The man’s eyes widened and he actually took a step backward, away from Sanford and everything his words implied. There was nothing else like that feeling in the world, at least not for Sanford. There was nothing better than the feeling that a person was really and truly afraid of you. There was no doubt in Sanford's mind as to what he would do. If there had been any question as to where Hank's allegiance lay, it was not there any longer.

“Thank you, Hank,” he said quickly, his words clipped and without the offer of negotiation. “That’ll be all.”

"Boss," Hank started, "I—"

“That’ll be all, Hank. Your services are no longer needed here. Leave this to the men, why don't you? Leave this to the willing to do the things needed to be done. You'll be well compensated for your efforts if that's what you're worried about. You'll be well compensated as long as you pick up and go right now."

Hank opened his mouth, glanced from Sanford to Smith and after finding no aid in either man, promptly shut it again. His muscles twitched visibly, and Sanford waited to see if he would keep fighting to regain the position he had just lost. 

Then he turned on the scuffed heels of his boots, let out a slew of curse words under his breath, and then stormed out of the door. Sanford showed no sign of feeling about the retreat one way or the other and waited to see what Smith would do next.

“So then, if she gets in the way,” he started, pausing for a beat before barreling straight ahead. “If Marion gets in the way, take care of her, too. Is that about the way of it, Boss? Is that how you want things to go?”

“You’re a good man, Smith. A good man to have on the ranch.”

“Thanks for saying, Boss, but if you don’t mind, there’s one more thing I need to say. I won’t lie, I reckon you won’t like it.”

“Best spit it out, then. Things like this only curdle if you let them linger, that’s what I always say.”

“It wasn’t only Marion I saw Georgia talking to when she got out of that coach. One of the men, Boss.”

“What about him?”

“If I were going to put my wages on what I saw, I’d say the two of them knew each other. From the looks of it, they knew each other well.”

“Who?” Sanford asked coldly, calculating.

“It was Aaron, sir. It was Aaron Compton.”

“Good, Smith. That’s real good. Keep an eye on them, too. See if there’s anything to worry about there. Look to see if it’ll be a problem. We can’t be too careful here, can we? You let me know. Smith. Make sure you let me know.”

Smith nodded once, needing nothing more than that to send him on his way. And then he was alone. Sanford sat in his study chair, his hands clasped tightly behind his head, and thought of what was to come for him and his ranch over the weeks to come. He thought of all of the fun to be had, and in the guttering light from the oil lamps, he began to grin.

Chapter 5

Thank you for reading the first 4 Chapters of my Best Selling Novel "Her Long Lost Cowboy"! Loved what you've read? Read my full novel on Amazon!

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