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She wants to be claimed.
Leslie has loved Gabe for most of her life. But while she wants him as her husband, he sees her more as a childish little sister than as a woman. If only she could make him understand that she has grown up. She wants nothing more than for him to claim her as his own. When she finds out he is poised to marry someone else, she decides it is time to take drastic action.
Gabe is ashamed that he has secretly lusted after Leslie for years. He's convinced that they can never be anything other than friends, and he feels guilty for fantasizing about a girl who has been almost like a sister to him. Besides, the tomboyish little hellion could never be the kind of wife he wants. He needs a submissive woman, and he's convinced that Leslie would never surrender control to him.
But when Leslie shows up at his home in the middle of the night, she presents too much of a temptation for him to resist. Can he ever grow to love her the way she needs him to, or will they forever be at odds?
Publisher's Note: This steamy historical love story contains elements of power exchange.
Willamette Valley, Timber Grove, Oregon, 1874
Leslie Catherine McKenzie loitered near the back of Thompson's General Store trying to be inconspicuous as she eavesdropped on the conversation between a nearby group of young ladies. She normally wouldn't have paid them much mind, but when she heard Gabe Faulkner's name mentioned, her ears pricked with avid interest. Leslie had been in love with him for years, and hearing other young ladies gossiping about him grated on her nerves. Especially when Lena Lewis was doing most of the talking.
"Are you sure he's going to ask you to marry him?" one of the ladies whispered with awe.
"Well, I'm not sure," Lena replied with a smug smile, "but he has certainly been showing all the signs."
"Oh, tell us everything," said another of the excited young ladies.
Lena shrugged while stroking a bolt of fine blue silk. Her casual behavior didn't fool Leslie for a second. Lena was obviously enjoying being the center of attention.
"Well, he has joined us for lunch after church for the last five Sundays in a row. Pa says he isn't just interested in the food."
"You're so lucky," one of the ladies said with an envious sigh. "He's the most handsome man in Timber Grove."
"Are you kidding?" said another. "He's the most handsome man in all of Oregon!"
The other young ladies giggled and squealed with delight. Leslie felt as if she might throw up. She peeked between two displays, watching as the young ladies leaned in close and whispered so low that she couldn't overhear what they were saying.
Lena was everything that Leslie wasn't. Lena was tall, slender and the epitome of a well-bred young lady. Her hair was as a rich chestnut, and her fair complexion and wide blue eyes never failed to draw attention from the men in the town. No wonder Gabe was smitten by her. A soft masculine voice jolted Leslie from her gloomy thoughts.
"Can I help you find anything, Miss McKenzie?"
Leslie jumped and whirled to face the owner of the store, Mr. Thompson. His twinkling eyes told her that he knew she had been shamelessly eavesdropping rather than shopping, and her cheeks heated with a guilty blush.
"Uh, no, thank you, sir. I was just having a look at these new slingshots you have."
"They are nice, aren't they? Are you interested in a certain one?"
Leslie shook her head, dipping her head to hide her red cheeks. She normally would have loved to chat with the friendly shopkeeper, but she abruptly turned away to escape the embarrassing situation. "Just looking, sir. I'll come back another day, when I have enough money."
"Okay then. Say hello to your ma and pa," Mr. Thompson called to her as she quickly made for the door.
"I will, Mr. Thompson. Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon," he replied with a grin. He shook his head, his smile turning wistful. "Oh, to be young again," he muttered to himself with a chuckle as he watched her mount her horse and trot down the street.
She reined her horse to a stop and turned to see who was calling her. Leslie inwardly groaned. The last thing she wanted right now was to talk with Bernard Phillips.
Bernie was another neighbor who lived on the other side of Gabe's farm. He was a couple of years older than she was and she had known him her whole life. Unfortunately, he had a rather obvious infatuation for her and had been trying to win her affections for the past several years. Nothing she said or did seemed to dissuade him.
It would have been easier on her heart if she could have returned any of Bernard's feelings. He was reasonably attractive, although he had never held any interest for her. He had brown hair, brown eyes, was tall and broad shouldered, and his features were pleasantly average. His personality was also pleasant, although he was annoyingly persistent in his efforts to win her heart. Leslie had tried several times to let him down easily, but he just wouldn't listen. She took several deep breaths and prayed for patience as she waited for him to catch up.
Bernie trotted his horse up beside hers and gave her a brilliant smile. "I didn't know you were coming into town today. I could have come with you."
"Hi, Bernie. I'm actually just on my way home, so if you will excuse me."
"I'm headed home, too," he said, beaming at her. "I'll escort you."
Leslie turned her horse toward home, and Bernie brought his horse alongside hers. They nudged their horses into an easy canter.
Leslie rolled her eyes and sighed. "I don't need an escort, Bernie. How many times have I told you that?"
"A beautiful young lady like you shouldn't be riding around all alone. It's not safe," he insisted. "I'm surprised that your pa allows it."
Leslie frowned at him. "My pa allows it, because he knows that I am perfectly safe. I know everybody who lives around here."
"You never know when some dangerous strangers might be in the area. I would hate for you to be caught all alone on the road, that's all."
Leslie gave an unladylike snort. "Bernie, we both know things like that don't happen around here. And even if they did, I can take care of myself."
"But you shouldn't have to, Leslie. I would be more than happy to serve as your escort anytime you want to go into town. You know that I would like nothing better than to spend more time with you." He gave her a hopeful look. "In fact, I would be honored if you would allow me to court you properly."
Leslie sighed and turned to meet his eye. "Bernie, please stop. You are a very nice man, but I could never think of you as anything but a friend. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can find some other young lady who will appreciate your attentions."
Bernie nudged his horse closer to hers and spoke earnestly. "But, Leslie, I'm only interested in you. If you would just give me the chance, I'm sure that I could change your mind."
Leslie heaved another weary sigh. "Look, Bernie, I really don't want to hurt your feelings. I've always liked you. You've been a good friend. But my heart already belongs to someone else."
Bernie looked surprisingly unconcerned. "If you're talking about your fascination with Gabe Faulkner, you're wasting your time. I heard it on good authority that he has been courting Lena Lewis for the past few weeks. It looks pretty certain that those two are headed for the altar."
Leslie's heart twisted in her chest. It seemed that everyone knew about this except her. Luckily, they had reached the turn off for her home. She drew her horse to a stop and faced Bernie.
"That's neither here nor there. I'm telling you, Bernie, you are wasting your time with me. I will never have any feelings for you other than as a friend."
"But you don't know that unless you give me a chance," he insisted.
Leslie made a frustrated sound and began to turn away. "Bye, Bernie. I have to get home."
She didn't wait for him to answer. She trotted down the lane and didn't slow down until Bernie was out of sight. She slowed her horse to a walk and patted his neck absentmindedly.
Leslie frowned as she slowly rode the rest of the way home. Her eyes burned with unshed tears, and she blinked rapidly to keep them from falling. Gabe couldn't marry Lena! He belonged to Leslie, at least in her own mind and heart. She had loved him since the first day she met him, eight years prior. She had done everything she could to earn his love in return, but he always treated her more like a child than a young woman.
Gabe Faulkner and his family had moved to the neighboring farm when Leslie was ten-years-old. Gabe had been sixteen at the time, and he had instantly captured her heart. Even as a teenager, he was large for his age. Now, he stood well over six feet, and although he was solid muscle, he moved with sleek grace. His black hair, blue eyes, deep dimples, and well-proportioned features had inspired many a pleasant daydream, not only for Leslie, but for the entire female population of Timber Grove.
Gabe had quickly made friends with Leslie's male cousins and brothers, and he was a frequent visitor to the McKenzie farm. Leslie had always been a tomboy, and she went wherever the boys went, whether they were hunting, fishing, trapping, or just having fun.
Leslie's father, Brian McKenzie, had taken a special liking to Gabe. When Gabe's parents passed away just months after they'd moved to Oregon, Brian had taken Gabe under his wing, teaching Gabe a lot about farming and supporting him through his grief. Because Gabe was around the McKenzie family so much, he treated Leslie almost like a younger sister, teasing and playing with her but never really noticing her as a female.
Leslie couldn't really blame him. She had always worn boy's britches rather than dresses. She was far more interested in comfort than she was in fashion. She would never be able to ride, climb trees, or traipse through the woods in dresses like she could in britches. Her ma had tried to coax her to wear feminine clothes, but Leslie refused. Seeing Lena in her ribbons, lace and fancy dress, Leslie felt envious for the first time in her life. She would never be able to match the other woman's beauty.
Gabe hadn't been around as much lately, and Leslie really missed him. Over the past few months, their relationship had become strained. She noticed that Gabe didn't seek out her company, and when they were together, things were awkward and stilted between them. She felt like they had grown apart. Hearing Lena bragging that Gabe was courting her had come as a shock. It had filled Leslie with a feeling of dread, and she couldn't think of anything other than finding a way to win his love before it was too late.
When Leslie arrived home, she took her horse into the barn and began unsaddling him. She was just finished settling her horse in his stall when she heard voices from outside the barn. She pressed against the outside wall of the barn and peeked around the corner. Her pa was talking with Gabe.
The two men looked similar enough to be mistaken for father and son. They both had black hair, but Gabe's was wavy, and Brian's had just a sprinkling of silver at the temples. Her pa had sparkling green eyes, whereas Gabe's eyes were the deepest blue. But they were both of a similar build, similar height, and they both had charming dimples that appeared whenever they smiled or laughed. Leslie thought they were the two most handsome men in the world, and she loved them both dearly. Her heart was pounding in her chest as she strained to hear their conversation.
"Are you sure you're ready to get married?" her pa asked. "It's an awfully big step."
"Yes, sir," Gabe said with a nod. "Ever since my folks passed away, it's been mighty lonesome at my farm. I've been thinking it's time to find a wife and start raising a family of my own."
Brian McKenzie nodded slowly. "I suppose so. I can certainly understand how you feel. Just make sure you pick the right woman. A good marriage can be the making of a man, but a bad one can be Hell on earth."
"I think I've already found the right woman," Gabe said, "but how can I know for sure?"
Brian looked momentarily surprised, but then he chuckled and looked toward the cabin where he knew his wife, Sarah, was working on supper. "You'll just know. When you find the right woman, you won't be able to think of anything but making her happy and making her yours. She will always be in your thoughts, even when you aren't with her. She'll be the most important thing in the world to you. That's when you'll know for sure that you love her."
Gabe frowned thoughtfully as he listened. "Is that how it was when you met Mrs. McKenzie?"
Brian laughed again. "It still is, son. After almost twenty years of marriage, I love my wife more now than the day I married her."
"But when did you know for certain that she was the right woman for you?"
Brian's expression was nostalgic as he slowly smiled. "I thought Sarah was absolutely beautiful when I first laid eyes on her. But it was the first time I kissed her that I knew for sure that she was the woman for me. I wanted her, and I don't mean just physically. I wanted her as my woman, my wife. I wanted her so badly that I couldn't think of anything besides claiming her as mine. I knew then and there that she was the woman for me and no other woman could ever compare."
Gabe frowned and nodded thoughtfully. "Well, maybe that's the problem. I haven't kissed the young lady yet." He grinned at Brian. "Maybe I'll just have to kiss her to know for sure."
Brian laughed and clapped him on the back of the shoulder. "Maybe you should. Then again, maybe you shouldn't settle on that woman if you aren't already certain she's the one for you. If you're patient, you might find just the woman you need in the most unexpected place." Brian raised his brow and grinned. "Care to join us for supper?"
"I wish I could, sir, but I'd better get home. I still have some chores to finish."
Brian nodded. "Another time, then. You know that you're always welcome."
"Thank you, Mr. McKenzie. I sure do appreciate it, and I appreciate your advice, too."
The two men exchanged a warm handshake, then Gabe gathered his horse's reins and swung into the saddle. He smiled and waved to her father.
Leslie watched as Gabe rode away, then she slid onto her bottom, wrapped her arms around her knees, and squeezed her eyes tightly shut against welling tears. She was startled when she heard her father's voice beside her.
"Eavesdropping again, Cat?" her pa asked, using her family nickname
She jumped to her feet. "No, Pa," she said, her cheeks flaming.
Brian grinned down at her, shaking his head. He looped an arm around her shoulders and kissed her on the top of her head.
"Oh, yes, you were, you little wildcat. I saw you peeking around the corner. I swear you grow more like your ma every day." He winked at his daughter. "She likes to listen in on my conversations, too."
Since her father already knew Leslie had been listening, she might as well find out more. She sent him a pleading look.
"Do you think Gabe is really going to get married, Pa?"
Brian shrugged and started walking with her toward their cabin. "Sounds like he might."
"But, Pa, he can't," she cried. "I don't want him to marry some snobbish, prissy, empty headed girl."
"Sounds like you know who he's been courting," her pa said, raising his brows in question.
Leslie looked crestfallen as she nodded. "I heard Lena Lewis bragging to some other girls that Gabe was going to ask her to marry him. She's so beautiful and elegant. With her around, it's no wonder that Gabe doesn't even notice me."
Brian looked thoughtful. "You know, Cat, if you would listen to your ma and start wearing frilly dresses and styling your hair, maybe Gabe would notice you."
Leslie gave an unladylike snort. "Yeah. He would notice how plain and ugly I look compared to Lena."
Her pa stopped and turned her to face him. He scowled as he lifted her chin and met her eye.
"Don't let me hear you talk like that ever again, Cat. You're just as beautiful as your ma. You just need to put some effort into looking like a young lady instead of a cute little ragamuffin. You might be surprised by the results if you ever did."
She looked down and scuffed her toe in the grass. Leslie wished she could believe her father's words, but she was convinced that she could never compete with Lena's striking beauty. Seeing her dejection, Brian's features softened, and he hugged her tight against his chest.
"Oh, baby girl. Everything will work out the way it's supposed to. It always does. Now, go inside and set the table for your ma. I'm sure supper is almost ready."
He watched as she trudged inside with leaden feet and slumped shoulders. He shook his head and sighed. As he turned away to finish his chores, Brian sent a prayer to the heavens that his little girl's heart wouldn't be irreparably broken.
* * *
That evening, Leslie tried to ignore the noise her four younger brothers made as she pushed her food around her plate rather than eating. Her brothers, Alec, Gavin, Jamie, and Evan ranged in age from sixteen down to ten, and they could be a rowdy bunch. She was used to the controlled chaos. In fact, she was usually a major contributor to any ruckus during their family meals, but after what she had overheard earlier, she just wanted to be alone to think. Noticing her lack of appetite, her parents shared a concerned glance.
"What's the matter, Cat?" her pa asked. "Aren't you hungry?"
"Not really. I have a bit of a headache."
Her mother reached over and felt her forehead. "You're not feverish. You aren't one to complain of headaches. Shall I make you some willow bark tea?"
Leslie shook her head slightly. "No, thanks, Ma. I'm just tired. It's been a long day. Could I be excused? I'd like to go to bed early."
"Sure, honey. Go ahead."
Leslie retired to her room, barely noticing her brothers' teasing comments or her parents' concerned murmurs as she left. She lay on her bed, staring unseeing out her window as evening gave way to night. The house eventually grew quiet, and the full moon rose high in the June sky.
She had to do something. She couldn't simply stand by and watch Gabe marry someone else. And the thought of him kissing Lena to find out if she was the right woman for him made Leslie spitting mad.
She wracked her brain trying to think of some way to win Gabe's heart. She was a year older than Lena, so why did he think of her as a child and the other girl as an attractive young woman suitable for marriage? Leslie rose and went to the large stand mirror in the corner of her room.
She surveyed her image with a critical eye. She had been told often that she was the spitting image of her mother, and her mother was very beautiful. Everyone thought so, including Leslie. But somehow, Leslie couldn't see much of a resemblance. She was the same height and build as her ma. She also shared her mother's honey gold hair, but Leslie usually kept hers braided into pigtails or wound into a tight bun beneath her felt hat.
Leslie absolutely refused to wear dresses, despite her mother's gentle coaxing. She preferred the freedom of movement afforded by boy's clothing, and her father indulged her. The britches and shirt she wore were the same as the type her brothers wore, and they made her look relatively shapeless rather than feminine. She had never given much thought to her figure. In fact, she was annoyed by the breasts that had appeared around age fifteen and grown substantially since then. When they grew too plump, she began binding them with a strip of linen so they wouldn't bounce uncomfortably while she was riding or running.
One early morning, a few months prior, Leslie had dressed hurriedly, forgetting to bind her breasts in her eagerness to leave the house early. She had heard Gabe tell her oldest cousin, Ian, that he intended to go fishing that morning, and she knew his favorite fishing spot. She was determined to spend some time with him, all to herself.
She had raced through the woods, arriving to find that Gabe was just settling down to fish. As she plopped down on the river bank beside Gabe, his eyes widened. She had noticed his gaze was glued to her chest, and when she looked down, she could see the prominent outline of her nipples and the curve of her breasts beneath her soft cotton shirt. She had blushed furiously and crossed her arms around her bent knees to hide them, but the mood between them had been oddly strained for the rest of the morning.
Nibbling her lower lip thoughtfully, Leslie pulled her shirt off and unwound the linen binding. Naked from the waist up, she took in her appearance. Her breasts were high and firm, lushly rounded and tipped with delicate pink nipples. She cupped them in her palms and frowned. Why were men so fascinated by breasts? They were just annoying mounds of flesh that tended to get in her way. She found them terribly inconvenient most of the time.
Leslie stripped off her britches and ran her hands down her sides and over her gently rounded hips. Her skin beneath her clothing was milky white and soft. She ran her fingers through the triangle of golden curls at the juncture of her thighs. She had become a stranger to her own body, and she wondered whether Gabe would find her attractive if she could just get him to see her as a woman rather than a girl.
She couldn't hope to be as pretty as Lena, but maybe Leslie could convince him that she would make a much better wife for him. She was a hard worker, and a farmer like Gabe would need that in a wife. Surely, Lena was too soft and too feminine to really be a helpmate. Besides, no one would ever love Gabe like Leslie did. She simply had to make him understand that.
Gabe treated her like a little sister, like a child, like the little wildcat her father teased her for being. She was an eighteen-year-old woman. Why couldn't Gabe see that? As she studied her reflection, the proof that she was anything but a child was right before her eyes. But how could she get him to see that she had grown up? For the past few months, he'd hardly given her more than a passing glance?
Her lips parted as she had a brilliantly wicked thought. Perhaps if she went to him and told him how she felt, he might take her more seriously. Maybe she could get him to kiss her. Maybe then, he would realize that she was the right woman for him, not Lena. At the very least, Leslie would be no worse off than she was now, with the exception of her wounded pride if he rejected her.
Filled with a sudden urgency, she donned her shirt, britches, and boots. She was in too much of a hurry to bind her breasts, and she didn't think about what a wanton picture she provided in just the thin cotton shirt. She twisted her hair into a loose bun and shoved her hat over it. Then, she slipped out through her bedroom window and made her way silently to the barn to saddle her horse.
It was a short ride to Gabe's farm, just a mile up the road. She took the familiar turn off and paused on a slight incline overlooking his homestead. It was much smaller than the McKenzie farm, but everything was meticulously maintained and neat.
Gabe's cabin, barn, and other outbuildings were all well-built and sturdy. His farm nestled in a hollow just downstream from her family's place. He had a few cows, hogs, horses, mules, and chickens, but most of his land was devoted to crops. Gabe had the finest orchard in the whole area, and he was famous for his apples, peaches, and pears. He raised other crops, too, including sweet corn, snap beans, and alfalfa. Leslie could easily picture herself as his wife, helping him build his farm and realize his dreams.
Her heart was pounding in her chest as she hesitated. It must be around midnight. Gabe was sure to be angry with her for disturbing his sleep. Maybe she should have waited until the following day to talk with him. But if she waited even one more day to speak with him, she risked having him propose to Lena. Leslie firmed her lips and nudged her horse forward. There was no way she could sleep until she told Gabe how she felt.
She dismounted and quietly led her horse into the dark barn. She took a few moments to let her eyes adjust to the dark. The full moon streaming through the open door gave her just enough light to see by, and she led her horse into an empty stall and began loosening the cinch on his saddle so he would be comfortable while he waited for her.