Alone in the wilderness, Victoria Fowler hides as men on a cattle drive stop at her camp. Ben and Wade Beaumont are surprised to catch a woman sneaking food and know they can’t leave her out here alone. Both enthralled with her, they each think she’ll make a wonderful addition to their ranch. Tory’s alarmed to discover they want to share her and even more alarmed that she’s even considering it.
Victoria Fowler stilled. Coming to her feet, she turned, listening as the sound of approaching riders got louder with each passing second.
They were coming back!
She looked around frantically for the best place to hide. Eyeing her collection of weapons, she made a hasty decision. She kept the large knife strapped to her belt and dropped Frank’s knife into her boot. Buck’s knife, the one that he’d worn strapped to his own belt, would be too big to fit comfortably in her other boot, so she carried it with her.
She hadn’t been able to find Will’s knife and James’s had been broken. Wishing for the hundredth time their guns hadn’t been taken, she scrambled up the slope for cover.
The ungodly noise kept growing and her heart raced as she thought of the possibilities. Did they realize that there had been five horses but only four riders? Did they go through the saddlebags, find her clothing and decide to come back?
Scrambling up the ridge to an outcropping of boulders, she fought the waves of dizziness that nearly took her to her knees. She hadn’t eaten in two days and her body grew weaker with each passing hour. She’d hoped to find something among the destruction the men and the coyotes left behind, but the only thing she found had been the knives and her brothers’ remains.
Fighting nausea and dizziness, she raced up the hill, slipping on several loose stones. Once she finally managed to get behind the rocks, she stopped and listened, trying to quiet her breathing. The noise got louder and closer, far too loud to be just a few riders. Could it be soldiers? They’d run across many soldiers along the way, some not even knowing the aggression had ended.
Would she be rescued?
As the noise grew even louder, she heard raised voices and whistles. Peeking around the rocks, she blinked when she saw what looked like hundreds of cows.
Cows? Why would there be cows out here?
A horse came into view, the rider wearing a kerchief over his mouth and nose, hiding his face. Holy juniper. She’d never seen a man that big before. When his gaze slid in her direction, she hurriedly ducked back behind the rock.
The only reason for a man to cover his face that way would be if he were a bandit. But why would he have it covered out here in the middle of nowhere?
The cows kept coming and she blinked, wondering if she was seeing things. She peeked again to see another man, surprised to see he looked every bit as large as the first. The second paused next to the first and motioned to several other riders, who quickly rode ahead.
Both men wore chaps and cowboy hats, not the uniforms she’d hoped for.
They slowed and herded the cows into a ravine not far from where she hid. The two big men, along with several others, got off of their horses in the clearing as even more riders diverted the cows.
Panicked now by the sheer number of men, she slowly worked her way around to another large rock, putting a little more distance between her and them. With a sinking heart, she watched as a wagon brought up the rear and stopped in the clearing.
The two big men appeared to be in charge, barking out orders to the others. With their faces now uncovered, they walked over to the hole she’d been digging and paused when they saw the remains of her brothers.
Tears slid down her cheeks as she watched them get a shovel from the wagon and finish the job she’d been unable to complete. Silently thanking them, she sent up a quick prayer for her brothers’ souls.
Some of the men set up camp, gathering firewood and coming to the pond to fill pots with water. Others stayed with the horses, leading them to the pond for a drink while still more men stayed with the cows.
She tried to count them, but they moved around too much for her to keep track. The two who appeared to be in charge conferred with a grizzly older man, all three scanning the surrounding area the entire time. She moved around the rock to look out from the other side, staying low so they couldn’t spot her.
The smell of food cooking made her stomach growl and weakened her even more. The two larger men kept looking at the ground as though trying to follow a trail, but with all the prints on the ground, she hoped they wouldn’t be able to follow hers.
Approaching the small pond, they scanned the area, forcing her to duck down again. Lying on her belly, she looked through the tall brush down to where the two men studied the footprints around the pond. The way they kept looking at the ground, occasionally kneeling down to touch something, and then lifting their gazes to the rocks where she hid scared the bejesus out of her. Could they track her?
She would love to go down there and ask for help, but she didn’t yet know if she should trust them. Her life depended on her not making a bad decision. Staying hidden seemed the best option for now. Checking that her knife still remained in her belt, she hunkered down to wait, trying to ignore the tantalizing smells that drifted to her.
She would wait until they all fell asleep. Perhaps then she could steal some food.