Returning home after a long absence, Cade Weston is waylaid by Nicole’s expressive, jade-colored eyes.
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After spending two years in Wyoming, Cade Weston is eager to return to his family’s ranch to celebrate the Christmas holiday. But fate intervenes in the form of a tortured soul—Nicole. Her guardian has abused her, leaving Cade with little choice but to pay for her freedom and take her with him. Holed up with her in a Denver hotel, a feeling hints he wants more from her than a thank you for having helped her. Problem is she doesn’t return the feeling.
Nicole Lamar has spent the past six months dreaming of freedom. Savannah, with its warmth and sunshine, beckons. Now that Cade has rescued her from an evil proprietor, that freedom is within reach. But when the handsome cowboy proves he’s the owner of a Christmas Heart, a life without him suddenly isn’t so desirable. Before she can approach him about the matter, he purchases a ticket for her on an eastbound train. And one for himself on a southbound train.
Colorado, December 1874
“What the fuc…” Cade Weston pulled up on the reins and stared, uncertain, at the couple ahead of him. Had he just witnessed the flabby-armed, potbellied man slap the woman cowering at his feet? Or had his eyesight been unfocused? He had been woolgathering about returning home after a two-year absence, celebrating Christmas with his family and—
Sonofabitch! The bastard slapped her again, with enough force to snap her neck to the right.
Easing his pistol out of his holster, Cade nudged his mount forward. “Hold up, there,” he called to the couple, aiming his Colt at the man’s head. “You strike her again and you’re a dead man.”
The stranger glanced over his shoulder. His hooded eyes gave Cade the once over. “Get lost,” he snarled before spitting into the grass. “This here don’t concern you.”
“It does,” Cade said evenly. He halted his mustang, kept his gun trained on the bushy-haired fellow while sliding a glance toward the woman. “Ma’am, are you all right?”
“She’s fine. Ain’t that right, honey?” He took a step toward the saddled horse at his left.
Feeding on the dead grass, the mare was bony. Flies buzzed around a scrape on the tip of her ear and the bare patches along her rump. Clumps of dirt stuck to her mangy coat, causing Cade to grind his teeth. He loathed seeing an animal mistreated, but at the moment, there was little he could do to help the pinto. And plenty he could do to help the woman.
“I’ll hear her answer.” He dropped a hard look on the burly man. “You’ll do yourself good to stay put and keep your hands where I can see them.” He eased out of the saddle, went to the mare and removed a rifle from the scabbard. Holding it firmly in his left hand, he motioned with his Colt for the stranger to move away from the woman. He did, and Cade approached her.
Dark, red hair tangled and unwashed, a thin body trembling beneath a stained, torn dress that had once been blue; he knelt in front of her. “Ma’am, is it true? You’re unharmed?”
Keeping her face averted, she nodded. He didn’t believe her. If she was fine, she wouldn’t hide from him.
Setting the rifle aside, he tucked his finger beneath her chin and turned her head toward him, felt an imaginary fist slug him in the gut when her frightened eyes of jade met his. She was young. More importantly, beneath the dirt and bruises marring her skin lurked the face of an angel.
“You did this to her?” Cade swung his gaze toward her companion, the urge to pummel him strong.
He spit into the grass again, unbothered by Cade’s outrage. “She took a tumble down the side of a hill. Lucky she didn’t break her neck.”
“Damn lucky I don’t break your neck,” Cade murmured. “Get some water.”
“Get it yourself,” he retorted. “Better yet, have her fetch it. I was paid good money for her to see to my needs. Reckon it won’t matter much if she sees to one of yours.”
Cade angled his head. “Come again?”
“Little Bit is my property. She does what I tell her.”
“That include taking a beating from you?”
A sly grin spread across his features. “You happened upon us whilst we were having a difference of opinion.”
“Yeah,” Cade said dryly and returned his attention to the woman. “Is what he says true? He owns you?”
She swallowed hard in answer then looked away, her fingers clutching her dress.
“Whatever you were paid, I’ll give you double.” Cade stood and dropped a hard look on her owner.
His eyes widened with surprise. “You wanna buy Little Bit?” And then, his gaze narrowed. “What for?”
To get her away from you. “Does it matter?”
“I got near ten dollars for her. Only things I see that you got of value are that Colt and yer horse.”
“I have money.” Cade extracted some greenbacks from his pocket and waved them in the air. “You agree to the sale, she’s mine. I won’t sell her back to you. Understand?”
His brown eyes lit up with greed. Spittle dribbled from the corner of his mouth. Cade was certain he’d accept the cash, but then, the lout’s gaze slid toward the girl. He considered her for a long moment before taking another look at the greenbacks. “Deal.” He snatched up the money. “Can get two Little Bits with this.” He licked his lips.
Cade sneered at his comment. “Get on your horse and ride. Forget you ever knew her.”
The stranger shoved the money in his pocket and mounted up. “I’ll be taking my rifle back.”
Cade lifted the rifle from the grass and thrust it toward him. “You double-back to steal her away from me and I’ll kill you,” he said matter-of-fact. “Name’s Weston. I always keep my promises.”
“Whatever.” He rolled his eyes and then urged his poor mare into a trot.
Cade stood rooted to his spot for a long spell, watching until the man was nothing more than a speck on the horizon. Then he sheathed his weapon, fetched his canteen and brought it back to the woman. Hunkered down beside her and removed his bandanna. “Have a drink,” he said after pouring some water onto the red-checkered cloth.
Vigorously, she shook her head. “Crowley didn’t allow water before the evening meal,” she said, hoarsely. “Reckon you won’t, either.”
“I offered.” He pressed the canteen into her hand. “Crowley no longer owns you. I do. That is, I paid for your freedom. You can go where you like, do what you like. Crowley doesn’t have a say in the matter.”
“You don’t know Crowley,” she said, eyeing the canteen cautiously, and him.
“Drink some.” Cade urged.
She didn’t, though she did keep her hand firmly wrapped around the water pouch.
“Maybe you’re not thirsty.” He smiled gently before raising the bandana to wash the dirt off her face. She jerked back from him, her gaze widening in fear. “You can breathe easy. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Crowley promised the same when Mrs. Whittaker gave me to him.”
“I’m not Crowley.” Slowly, he stretched his hand toward her. “I’m Cade Weston. If you’ll allow it, I’ll help you.” He indicated the bandana with a nod of his head.
She considered him and the bandana. When she didn’t offer an answer, Cade took her silence for ascent and gently cleansed her bruised cheek. “Who’s Mrs. Whittaker? Why did she give you to Crowley?”
“My ma was one of the Whittakers’ maids. Mrs. Whittaker said Ma’s final wish was for her to give me to Crowley. He was to look after me.”
Something about her words didn’t seem right. Why would a mother wish for her daughter to be given to Crowley? She had to know her daughter would suffer under the brute’s hand. Then again, he didn’t know the woman. Or her particulars. Passing judgment on her was wrong.
Finished with his task, he rose and offered the girl a hand up. “Tonight, you’ll sleep in a real bed.”
“I can’t accompany you. I don’t know you.”
“Did you know Crowley before you went with him?”
She shook her head. “Mrs. Whittaker did. She performed the introduction society requires for me to travel with him. Then she read the letter Ma had written.”
The nerve along his jaw ticked. Why had Mrs. Whittaker made known her maid’s last wishes and not an attorney? Could be the society woman had developed a close friendship with her maid. He’d heard of that happening with some of Denver’s elite women. “You can’t stay out here by yourself.” His gaze roamed over her features and womanly curves, causing his stomach to do a slow roll.
What the…? His heart hammered in his chest. Twice now he’d reacted to her not out of concern for her welfare but out of… Lust? No, that wasn’t it. He’d lusted after a woman in the past, and the feeling had been nothing like this one hell-bent on burrowing itself deep in his gut. “You don’t have food or water. Or a coat. The days have been unseasonably warm, but the nights are downright cold. You’ll come to Denver with me. We’ll deduce a course of action for you there.”
“No buts.” He led her to his horse, took the canteen from her and looped it over the saddle horn, boosted her sideways into the saddle and mounted up behind her. Taking up the reins, he nudged the mare in a southerly direction, slid his arm around her waist and eased her back against his chest. “Rest your head on my shoulder, Little Bit. Close your eyes and sleep some. We’ll make Denver before nightfall.”
“I…” She glanced up at him, her lower lip trembling.
“No need for you to be afraid. No harm will come to you while you’re in my care.”
She studied his features a moment. “My name is Nicole.” And turned her gaze forward.