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Out of destruction comes hope; out of silence comes profound love.
Matthew Stone is a rancher who finds his greatest pleasure in working in the great outdoors, doing his part in building the Rose Ranch in the Oregon territory. He has watched his friends wed, and accepts their teasing about his confirmed bachelorhood. All that changes the day he is out repairing fences and looks up to see a horse jumping the railing, aware of how dangerous that is, as the last fence drops away. His warning does nothing to stop the rider, and a scream has him racing down the cliff, expecting to find the worst. What he finds instead is a small boy, clinging to a boulder while the river attempts to pull him away.
Sally Jefferson has just arrived in a strange place, and her young son Davy is the only person she knows there. Devastation and heartache have followed them as they braved the Oregon Trail, and she fears that, after surviving over two-thousand miles, she won't survive another moment when Davy's life is threatened.
The moment Matthew and Sally meet is like an echo of the storm that drove her from her home, as lightning seems to strike between them.
Matthew never expected to fall in love. Now he finds himself head over heels not only for Sally, but for a boy who doesn't speak and yet has stolen his heart.
Will Matthew be able to convince Sally that life can begin again? Will the fact that his very touch ignites her soul be enough to allow her to accept not only his love, but his discipline?
My Capricious Cowgirl is the fourth book in the Willamette Wives series about a group of pioneers who are building their dreams together and sharing in both the burdens and the joys. They are far more than friends… they are a family. Though this is the fourth book, it can be read as a standalone.
Publisher's Note: This book contains explicit sexual content, including spanking and anal play. If any of these offend you, please do not purchase.
Matthew removed his hat, pulling a blue and white bandana from his pocket to run across his forehead. The breeze lifted a few strands of his thick black hair, cooling him slightly. The sun was high overhead in a blue sky filled with white fluffy clouds. His head turned upwards at the sound of sudden chattering to see a pair of squirrels zig-zagging around the tree trunk, the leader often turning to scold his pursuer for a moment and then dashing away again. As he watched the animals leap from the trunk to a branch, the chattering reminded him of laughter, the chase more of a dance. Matthew grinned, the pair reminding him of the females who made up half the population of the Double R. When the smaller squirrel gave a sharp squeal, he instantly thought of how Anna often sounded when she found herself snatched off her feet by her husband, Richard. It was a sound that was both surprise and, well, contentment. The pretty young redhead might make a show of escape when she knew her actions or talk had her teetering on the edge of trouble, but he'd witnessed that same spirited woman almost seem to melt into complete acquiescence when Richard caught her up and put his foot down. Their dance never failed to end in a swat to a well-rounded derrière and a much longer smack of lips meeting in a kiss.
Matthew was brought out of his thoughts when Ranger, his horse, snuffed in disapproval of being disturbed as he grazed beneath the towering oak tree. Yup, winter was definitely over, and though he'd had his doubts as to whether the seemingly mountains of snow and the thick slabs of ice would ever truly disappear, signs of spring were in evidence all around him. Wildflowers had sprung up in abundance, along with the thick green grasses that would ensure the ranch's herds were well fed.
The plan to move the herd into the upper pasture had Matthew and Roger riding out and checking fences for the past few days. Having discovered one area where evidently the weight of snow had pushed down some posts, the two men had cut new timber at longer lengths than the original posts and reset them, placing each a few feet deeper into the ground to ensure additional stability. Today, however, he was working alone, making sure the railing was secure along the last section. He only had a few more rails to check before he'd consider the job well done.
Returning his hat to his head, he lifted his canteen from where he'd hooked it over a post and unscrewed the cap. The water was a bit metallic tasting and had lost a great deal of its coolness from being in the sun for the past several hours. Regardless of its tepidness, he swallowed the last of it, wiping his chin with the back of his hand before replacing the cap. As he draped the empty canteen over his pommel, a snort from his horse had him making a mental note to stop at the river on the way back down the mountain to let him water, as well. Picking up his hammer and placing a handful of nails between his lips, he returned to his task. His lips curled around the metal in his mouth. God, it was good to be outside, working at what he loved and having the entire world to himself. The hills rang with the echo of his hammer striking the nails as he drove them into wood he'd felled and planed himself, his work ensuring that the herd they'd worked so hard to bring over the Oregon Trail would continue to prosper.
A blur of something caught his peripheral vision. He straightened, squinting just a bit, trying to determine what was streaking across the pasture. Spitting the last nail out, he crossed over to Ranger and pulled his rifle from its scabbard. Spring didn't mean only flowers and grasses were growing. It also meant that animals were coming out of dens where they'd been sheltered from the worst of the snows. Babies were being born and yet, despite the fact that the animal he'd seen had seemed to be alone, he was willing to bet it wasn't some new babe in the woods, as mothers tended to keep their offspring close, at least during the first few months of their lives. He used one hand to shield his eyes from the sun, attempting to ascertain the species, trying to determine if it posed a threat or could possibly make a tasty meal after a winter of eating mostly smoked and cured venison and elk. Shit, whatever it had been, it was fast, as he could no longer see any movement in the grasses. Possibly a fox? If so, he'd have to remind Wyatt and Agatha to double check the wiring around their chicken coop, as the animals were known for their affinity for chicken.
He had just replaced the rifle when another movement, far more grand, had his eyes widening. Though he instantly recognized this animal, just seeing it appear as out of nowhere had him momentarily frozen. However, realizing that the beast was about to crash into the newly repaired section of fencing had him stepping back from Ranger and waving his arms.
"Hey! Look out!" he yelled, knowing his warning was too late. He watched as the horse's muscles bunched and it leapt, its body clearing the top rail of the fence. A ground rumbling thump attested to the fact that the horse landed safely, its hooves churning up grass as it raced across the pasture. "Stop!" Matthew yelled again, snatching his hat off his head and waving it in an attempt to gain the attention of the horse's rider. "Damn it, stop! You're going to kill yourself!" The horse may have cleared the fence on the other side of the pasture, but if it continued on its course, jumping the other fence would likely not be as successful… the land outside that railing dropped steeply, ending in boulders that made up a part of the riverbank. The man was not only trespassing, he was most likely going to end up killing not only his horse, but himself.
"Fuck!" Matthew growled, loosing Ranger's reins and vaulting onto his back. He dug his heels into the horse's flanks and guided him outside the fence towards the cliff. The path was still dangerous, rocks loosened by the snows and ice providing dangerous footing, but at least he knew where he could descend with a modicum of safety. Concentrating on his path, he cringed as he heard a sharp cry coming from his right. "Come on, boy." It was testing fate, yet everything within him urged him to go just a bit faster.
Once at the bottom, he pulled the reins to the right, Ranger instantly bolting forward until they came around a curve. Matthew, braced to see carnage, was shocked to see the rider slide from the saddle, stumbling just a bit at the height of the dismount but immediately grabbing a lariat from the pommel and racing to the river's edge. Jumping from his own saddle, Matthew quickly followed. What in the hell was the fool doing now? "Hey!" His call was ignored as the rope began to twirl in the air before it was released to hover and then drop over the water. Climbing over the last of the smaller boulders, Matthew took in the scene, looking to where the rope had landed.
What he'd thought might have been a fox was actually a dog. The rope hadn't come close to the struggling animal, who was swimming not towards the bank but away from it. He watched as the rope was reeled in, but it was the cry that had him turning his gaze towards the bank. The man started looping the rope in order to throw it again.
"It's too short," Matthew shouted, "hang on." He was back over the rocks and had grabbed his own rope, returning in moments. From his vantage point, he could see the dog was struggling against the current's attempt to pull him towards the center of the river. The animal was continuing to paddle towards a group of boulders. How the guy expected the animal to grab a rope was beyond Matthew.
"I think he's making for shore," he said, his eyes remaining on the dog. "That rope isn't gonna help."
The shout had him snapping his head around to stare at the man—who, it appeared, wasn't a man at all. Instead, the voice and the pure emotion in it told him that the rider was a woman.
"He'll take it to Davy. God, please… Davy, hang on!"
The urgency and desperation in her voice had Matthew moving away from the slight incline and towards the woman.
"Where?" he demanded, no longer able to see the dog's progress.
"There!" she screamed, pointing for a moment before she loosed the rope again.
Assessing the situation only took an instant and told Matthew that even if the dog somehow managed to snag the rope and take it to the boy, there was no way the woman would be able to haul the child from the water. Not only did the jumble of boulders make a recovery difficult, if not impossible, but from what he could see of the child's face, if the boy wasn't already unconscious, he would be soon. Pulling off his boots and stripping out of his clothes took another minute, then he ran back upstream and, taking a fortifying breath, slid into the water, gasping with shock as its icy cold embrace wrapped itself around his lean frame. Allowing the current to carry him out past the boulders, he waited for another tense moment, calculating the angle to reach the boy before beginning to make strong strokes in a line that would hopefully place him behind the child.
"Hurry, please!" The shouted encouragement was barely discernible above the roar of the water striking the boulders and yet caused Matthew to dig his hands into the water, his legs kicking in strong strokes. "Davy, hold on. No! Don't let go!" she screamed. Matthew watched as limp fingers slid from their tentative hold and the boy seemed to hover for a heartbeat before dropping away from the rocks.
The woman's scream overlaid his curse as Matthew changed direction slightly, knowing the next few moments could mean life or death for the child. He felt a thud against his torso and saw the dog, exhausted and yet determined to save its master. Matthew took a deep breath, lowered his face into the water and swam for all he was worth. His lungs were bursting but he continued, the sight of a limp leg pushing him onward. Reaching out, his fingers wrapped around a small ankle and he pulled—fighting both the current and death's grip. Gasping for every breath he could manage with the waves slapping against his face, he continued to draw Davy towards him. Though he understood he needed to get out of the roiling water, he allowed the current to pull him farther downstream, knowing that once they were free of the boulders, the river's pull would ease a bit. Finally, he began to stroke one-handed towards the shore, keeping the boy's head above the water line. Though exhausted, he had to grin when he saw the dog paddling at the boy's side. Once he could get his feet beneath him, Matthew stood and lifted the boy into his arms.
"Good dog," he praised, using one hand to give the dog a gentle shove towards the bank. "You did good."
"Oh, thank you, thank you." The words of gratitude were delivered with tears as the woman met them on the bank. "Davy… oh, God, he's frozen!" Before Matthew could respond, she had her skirts lifted and was stepping out of her petticoats. He dropped to his knees, stripping the child from his sodden clothing. Though concerned about the effect of the water's cold temperature, Matthew was more concerned about the boy's unresponsiveness. His lips were tinged blue and his arms and legs had given no resistance, flopping limply as Matthew laid him on the ground.
Pushing the woman's hands away as she tried to pull the boy to her, Matthew rolled him onto his side, striking his palm between the child's shoulder blades.
"Don't hit him!" she admonished, again attempting to pull him away.
"He's gotta get rid of any water he swallowed," Matthew said, checking to make sure the boy's face was turned and repeating the strokes. A moment before he was about to place the boy on his back and attempt mouth to mouth resuscitation, which he'd seen performed on the Oregon Trail, the little body jerked and with a strangled sound, water spewed from his mouth.
"That's right, cough it up, son," Matthew said, assisting the boy in keeping his head turned to the side until the spasms had ended and a ragged breath was drawn. The child was still as limp as a rag doll, but color was returning to his face. Kneeling closer, it was only when Matthew felt several small exhales of air against his cheek that he allowed the woman to begin her ministrations, drying him with her petticoat. He rubbed the boy's arms and legs, their efforts to both dry and warm the boy hampered a bit when the dog began to shake vigorously, flinging water from his fur directly onto the three.
"Hey, go dry yourself over there," Matthew said, pointing, and was rather amazed when the dog gave him a look and then trotted further away to begin his own drying process again. Drawing his own deep breath, he said a prayer of thanks. Though sure to be traumatized from the ordeal, as well as most likely sporting a few bruises, Davy had been lucky. He would live.
Moving back to sit on his heels, Matthew waited until she had dried Davy's feet and then scooped him up into his arms again.
"What are you doing?" she asked, reaching for him.
"My clothes," he said, beginning to walk back towards where he'd slipped into the river. "He needs to get warm."
"Oh," she said, grabbing the discarded clothing. "Come, King. What a brave dog. What a good boy." She petted the dog's head and quickly followed Matthew. "Thank you… you're a saint—" Her words ended in a sob, and Matthew knew she was undoubtedly thinking how very different the results of the boy's plunge into the river could have been.
Matthew pulled his shirt over Davy's frame. It hung almost to the child's ankles, the sleeves far too long, and yet would provide warmth. Still, it wasn't enough. Evidently she thought so as well, as she began to unbutton her skirt.
"Um, no need," he said, knowing he wasn't a saint as part of him was kicking himself for stopping the removal of her skirt. Standing, he strode to Ranger, who was waiting patiently next to the woman's mount, and removed a rolled up blanket from behind his saddle. Once he'd wrapped the boy in it, he finally placed the child in her arms. She immediately cradled him to her chest, and then looked up, her eyes glistening with tears.
"Thank you," she said softly, her fingers combing through the boy's wet hair. "I… I don't know what I would have done if… if you hadn't come. I… he… oh, God." With that, she hugged the little boy closer to her breast and broke into wracking sobs.
Matthew stood for a moment, unsure what to do now that the major crisis had passed. It was seeing his pants and boots on the ground that had him remembering that he was standing stark naked in front of God and a woman he didn't know from Adam. Grabbing his pants, he pulled them on, followed by his socks and boots. Once dressed, minus a shirt, he gathered the boy's wet clothes from where the woman had dropped them and rolled them into a bundle with her damp petticoat. Using the lariat, he attached them to the back of the mare's saddle, giving her neck a pat.
"You are a pretty amazing horse," he said, running his hands over each of the animal's legs, making sure the dangerous descent hadn't caused damage. "Stupid but amazing."
"Butte… Buttercup is not stu… stupid."
Turning, he saw the woman had calmed and that Davy had finally opened his eyes. Not wishing to cause the boy any more trauma, he kept his initial thoughts of exactly how stupid the stunt had been to himself. "How are you feeling?" he asked instead. "Davy, isn't it?"
The boy didn't respond, just turned and buried his head back into the woman's breasts. And they were quite a nice pair of breasts, the boy's wet hair having dampened the fabric so that it clung to the woman's body. Matthew, realizing the improperness of that thought, had to force his eyes away from two definite points that were well-defined against the bodice.
"Um, we need to get him home. A hot drink and a fire will finish warming him." Having assured himself that the horse was miraculously unharmed, he held out his hand. "Where exactly is home?"
"Not too far," she said, allowing him to help her to her feet.
"By the way, my name is Matthew. Matthew Stone."
"Oh, um, I'm Sally and this is Davy," she said.
"Oh, Jefferson, Mrs. Jefferson."
"Nice to meet you. You said not far but you're on the Double R Ranch. The closest homestead I'm aware of belongs to a family named Colby. Are you perhaps visiting?"
"No, I don't know them," Sally said. "We haven't been here very long."
"I see, well, like I said, we need to get Davy home. I'm sure his pa must be worried about him."
"If you'll help me?" she asked. Nodding, he took Davy from her, ready to adjust his hold in order to help her mount, but she was already fitting her booted foot into the stirrup. The distance required to do so had her skirts sliding up to reveal a trim ankle as well as a great deal of white bloomers as she hauled herself into the saddle. The skirt remained bunched a bit as the stretch required to straddle the horse ensured the woman wasn't able to ride with modesty in mind.
"I'll take him now," she said, turning to look down at them.
"No, he can ride with me," Matthew said.
"No! I mean, I can hold him. Really, you've done enough. I'll just get him home and… and we'll be fine."
Something about the way the woman spoke sounded a bit desperate, and yet he couldn't determine exactly what put that tone in her voice.
"I'd rather take him," Matthew said. "I'll feel better knowing you made it home all right. I still can't believe you didn't kill yourself jumping my fences and coming down this bank."
"Mr. Stone, I'm a good rider, and Buttercup is a great horse. Now, if you don't mind, please give my son to me. The sooner you do, the sooner I can get something warm into him. I promise to return your blanket and, um, perhaps you'd prefer to take your shirt now?"
"No, it's best where it is," Matthew said, still undetermined about what he should do. The boy hadn't yet spoken but didn't seem to be suffering from anything but the cold.
The one word, softly spoken, had him nodding as he carefully lifted the boy, who instantly settled himself against his mother. Perhaps the woman was afraid her husband wouldn't look too kindly upon a strange man appearing out of the blue, even if he was doing so because of the unusual circumstances. No matter the reason, Davy did need to get home.
"Fair enough," Matthew said, keeping one hand on Buttercup's halter. "But if Davy doesn't come around fully by this evening, take him to see Doctor Williams in town. He's a good man, and his wife, Harriett, has a very soft spot for children."
"I-I will," she said.
"And, young lady, if I ever see you pull a stunt like jumping over a cliff again, I promise you won't be sitting as easy in your saddle." He had absolutely no idea what had made him add that warning and yet, when her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open in a small "O", he only continued, "Understand?"
"Um… yes," she said, a flush moving from the collar of her dress up her neck to stain her cheeks. "Thank you again."
He nodded, reached down to ruffle the dog's fur and then pointed to the path he'd taken to descend.
"Follow that up to the bluff and…" Before he could say anything further, he was looking at the backend of the butter color roan as the horse easily began the climb. He stood watching until they made it safely to the top, lifting his hand to wave, not at the woman but at the dog, who'd stopped and turned back, giving one deep woof as if saying goodbye.
Matthew sighed. His day's work, combined with the difficult swim and adrenaline inducing rescue, hit him all at once. Squatting at the river's edge to fill his canteen, he shook his head as his fingers hit the water. This river was always chilly, but with the snow melt high in the Cascades joining the river's flow, it was downright icy. How that boy had survived even a few minutes practically completely submerged was a miracle. On that thought, he stood, spying something caught in a crag in the boulder. Moving closer and bracing one hand against the slippery stone, he leaned over the water and grabbed what might just be a stick but instinct had him pulling it free. The broken bamboo told that it wasn't just a piece of flotsam, but what had been a fishing rod. So that explained what the boy had been doing, but still left a great deal of questions unanswered. Standing again, he looked back up the cliff. The boy had obviously been fishing but where had he come from? The climb down was difficult enough for a grown man, it should have seemed insurmountable to a child no older than five or six. How had Sally—make that Mrs. Jefferson—even known where to find him? Forget that, where in the hell was the boy's pa? Surely there were far safer places to take his son fishing. Shit, Matthew never should have allowed her to leave on her own. Blaming the decision on both her softly uttered plea and his exhaustion, he mounted Ranger and climbed the slope himself.
She might not have offered her home's location but even though Oregon was a large territory, he was pretty confident that someone in Cascade had to know where the Jeffersons had staked their claim. It would only be a matter of time before he knew exactly where the family lived. It might not be his place, but he had a few things to discuss with Mr. Jefferson. Allowing his son to wander unsupervised over land that could be dangerous and where animals were beginning to hunt after a long winter was just plain stupid.
Stopping at the fence to retrieve his hammer and pouch of nails, he looked again across the pasture. He hadn't been lying, and apparently, neither had she. It truly had been both a dangerous as well as a remarkable feat of horsemanship for her to jump the fences and make it safely to the water's edge. His lips curled into a small grin as he remembered his parting words. As he mounted his horse, he couldn't help but wonder if she'd be quite so anxious to perform such a feat knowing that once the horse landed after flying over the rail, her little butt would bounce rather hard into the saddle. It would be jarring enough, but far more uncomfortable if that little rear had been reddened. Mounting his horse once again and turning him towards home, he kicked Ranger's flanks. "Let's go home, boy."