The civil war was over, but the town of Esser Crossing ebbed closer to a slow death, while Jodi Parker and Hunter Johnson fought desperately with one last chance to save the town and themselves. They were two unlikely people who came together against their own will and struggled to carve a new empire out of the cattle business.
Swollen rivers and Jayhawkers were the least of their problems, when both of them carried the burden of personal secrets between them. Raped by the town bully, Jodi sought her own brand of justice, but could she live with her actions? Hunter had been branded the coward of Esser Crossing, coming back from the war before it was over. Only he knew the truth, a truth that still haunted him.
A cruel destiny brought them together, a stranger fate bound them, but only a true love would help them survive.
But he caught up to her as she entered the saloon to get back to the main street, and he whirled her around and shook his head. He glanced about the saloon, pulled her by the arm all the way back to a table, and practically threw her in a chair. Then he turned a chair around and straddled it as he watched her disbelievingly.
Others stared their way, but no one said a word,
Smoke billowed in the air, stifling her.
"What the heck you want to drag yourself through unsettling territory with a bunch of rangy men for? You know you don't look like a whore." His eyes held no humor.
She flinched, but she swallowed her pride.
"I got people depending on me. They trusted me with that herd. You understand that. They worked and scrimped for those cows. Been most the late winter and early spring rounding them up and putting road brands on them. We even got them inspected. There's a market—a good market now—if we can get them there. I'm not going to let some low-down scum steal them away from me. The cattle belong to me, and I'm taking them to Abilene."
He stared, his brows knitting in anger, mixed with a new understanding. His expressions kept changing. "You really got me bumfuzzled, lady. I gotta admire your guts and determination, but the boots you are tryin' to fill are pretty dang big. This is most definitely a man's job. Women don't belong on a cattle drive. Never have and never will. Especially innocent, unmarried ones. Now if you were a little older, more seasoned, I'd have some faith in you getting through. But do you honestly know what you have to face out there? Do you know about swollen rivers, Jayhawkers, cattle thieves, stampedes, and mean weather? Have you ever been on a drive?"
"No, but I'll be going on this one."
"Like I said, you're no whore, but do you realize how rangy men get out of the plains with nothing but the butt of a cow to look at for months on end?"
She opened her mouth, but he shook his head once more and stared at her intently.
Suddenly, he nodded and with cool indifference, muttered. "Okay, on one condition."
"I'm listening." She couldn't hold the contempt from her voice.
"We'll get married."
Never in all her twenty years had anyone said such a thing to her. But for it to come from this man's mouth seemed intolerable. A man who lived in a shed like an animal, who left the war before it ended, who…
Her mind warred with her patience. She hated the horrid-smelling saloon, but to show her disgust would put her at the same level as all the other ladies in town. She had to prove she could hold up, even if the contempt for the saloon and its drunks and the painted ladies made her want to vomit.
"I loathe you, sir." Her voice became a low whisper, her glance taking in the saloon and its audience.
He sneered. "I can see that."
"I got my reasons."
"Would you mind sharing them with me, because I see no point to this kind of talk."
"No. But it's the only way I'll take that herd through with you in the saddle."
She stood up again, scraping the floor with her chair and shaking her head. "Surely you are jesting?"
"On the contrary, I just asked you to marry. That's not jesting." The laughter in his voice surprised her again.
Angered by his nonsense, she turned to leave. She straightened her shoulders, held her head high, and walked out the door. This time, silence followed.
Once clear of the vermin inside, she felt herself weaken and nearly fall. She needed to throw up but kept moving—momentarily, at least. Then she paused and leaned against the side of the building, feeling a roaring in her stomach. She pitched her dinner on the side of the road, wiped her mouth, and checked the street. She had only a small audience that snickered but said nothing when she glared at them.
She wanted to scream her annoyance of the man. Married! Was he insane? She could never marry someone like him. Never. Her cousin Susan had portrayed the man correctly. He made no sense to her at all. Why, they were strangers.