Thanks to Randi for the very last minute corrections. She’s the best. All mistakes are hers. I never make any!
Christine Hamilton gazed at the passing scenery as the stagecoach bounced over the rough terrain. The differences between Nevada and Virginia were stark and had become more apparent with each passing day of her journey. Virginia had many more towns, homes and businesses along the more traveled roads, and far less dust. She hadn’t seen a single building in the entire five hours she’d traveled since leaving Carson City.
As she watched the sagebrush and colorful wildflowers glide across her view, she once again pondered the wisdom of her trip. Now that she was removed from her family, it had become obvious that her rather rash decision to travel to Bonnet, Nevada, was in large part, a result of her irritation at Will.
When her brother, Will, had turned twenty-one, her father had given him half ownership in a working gold mine. Three years later, Christine celebrated her twenty first birthday in anticipation of receiving something special, and rather expensive. That had been far from the case. She could still hear her brother’s raucous laughter as Christine’s face dropped when her father placed a deed in front of her at the dinner table.
“Now that you’re all grown up, I’m giving you a working cattle ranch in Nevada,” beamed her father as he smoothed out the document sitting in front of her. “The Bar M was given to your late mother by her father over twenty years ago. She’d be real happy to know that it’s remaining in the family. With the railroads expanding west, the value of the land and the cattle will only increase. You own a cattle ranch now!”
The gift would have been better received by Christine if the ranch hadn’t been the butt of more than a few jokes and sarcastic comments over the years. Everyone in the family knew that Molly Murphy Hamilton had found it necessary to inject money into the ranch, almost annually. The best she could ever recall her mother saying about the property was that it had broken even one year.
As those thoughts crossed her mind, Will was unable to contain his mirth any longer. “Yeah, Sis! You’ve got yourself a regular goldmine there. Oh, I’m sorry! I’ve got the gold mine. You’ve got some scrawny cattle and a few swaybacked horses. I’m sure it’ll become profitable pretty soon, just like you’ll be getting married pretty soon!”
Her brother’s hearty laugh accompanied his stinging remarks. Christine’s temper flared immediately. Her Irish heritage overruled the composure she normally maintained. Over the ensuing weeks, Christine would recall her exact words and marvel at the situation she had placed herself in because of a fit of pique.
“Listen to you! How many times have you been to your mine? You don’t even know where it is. Grandpa Murphy loved that ranch and I’m going to make it successful and give Grandpa and Mom up in heaven something to be proud of.
“I’ll probably settle down out there and raise a bunch of kids. They’ll be riding horses and working cattle, not sitting around waiting to turn twenty-one so they can retire!” blurted Christine before she gave any thought to her words.
Her brother only laughed harder. “You may be right! I’ve heard there’s a shortage of women out there. You should be able to collar some broken down lonesome cowpoke who would be willing to put up with a bossy stubborn man-hating woman so he can have a roof over his head. I can’t wait to meet this guy. I bet he’ll even have a few of his teeth left!”
It had always been that way between Christine and Will. They had spent much of their youth quarreling about anything and everything. He had teased her mercilessly at every opportunity. As they approached adulthood, Christine’s social life had become a favorite source of derision for Will.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t attractive. With her copper-colored hair, high cheek bones, flawless skin and noticeably female figure, Christine had grown into a beautiful young woman. Her stumbling block, socially, was her intolerance. When a young man would show some interest in her, she’d try very hard to curb her tongue and fiery temper. Her ability to control her unflattering comments normally lasted a few weeks at most. By then, her suitor would begin to slide from his best behavior and become more relaxed. Invariably, that would lead to Christine observing traits that she found unacceptable in a mate. The young man would end his courtship with his tail between his legs and an oath to never again set foot in the same room as Christine Hamilton.
Christine firmly believed that her expectations regarding a mate were not unreasonable. A husband should possess certain traits, such as honestly, loyalty and confidence. He had to understand that Christine was not some kind of an ornament to hang from a man’s arm, but a partner, a friend and an equal. Most men whom she had met had more than a little trouble with that concept. Christine had begun to wonder if there even were such men, or if she’d have to settle for something less.
Will knew she had high standards and enjoyed teasing her. Even though they had argued and disagreed on almost everything during their youth, Christine was secure in the knowledge that her brother loved her. Just last Christmas Christine had attended a gala, along with Will and her younger sister, Becky. They represented the Hamilton family since their father had begged off with a bad cold. Shortly before the party was over, Christine was accosted by a rather drunk Alan Huffman.
“How about a kiss, you stuck-up little bitch,” snarled Huffman as he grabbed Christine’s wrist and pulled her to his chest. As he leaned in to kiss her lips, Christine lowered her head and struck Huffman’s nose with her skull. Since he was a large, ruggedly built man, the blow to his face simply served to enrage him. He again grabbed Christine’s wrist and pulled her closer as he pulled his other hand back. It was obvious to everyone watching that the man fully intended to backhand Christine. Just as Christine prepared herself for the impact, Huffman suddenly flew backward as a fist smashed into his already tender nose.
Christine turned to see Will rubbing his hand as he watched Huffman begin to regain his feet. “Once you’re back on your feet, you’d better use them to walk the hell out of here,” suggested a neatly dressed man with a star pinned to his chest. “If you’d managed to strike Miss Hamilton, I’d be trying to save you from a lynching about now. I strongly urge you to see what’s over the next hill. Your kind aren’t welcome in this town.”
The town marshal was not a large man, but the gun his hand rested on looked exceptionally big. Huffman first glared at Christine, and then at Will before stomping out of the building. That was the last time he was ever seen in Glenwood.
Christine’s musings ended as the stagecoach slowed to a stop in what appeared to be a very small town. The driver opened the door and spoke to Christine and the other passenger, a portly drummer.
“We’ll be here a couple of hours. There’s a pretty fair diner across the street and a saloon up the street, if you’re so inclined. Be back here and ready to leave at two PM sharp.
“Just watch your step on the planks everybody uses to cross the street where it’s muddy. More than one fella’s found himself sitting in the mud after his boots slipped on a slick board.”
Having nothing better to occupy her time, Christine carefully made her way to the dinner and took a seat at a table. An older woman appeared at her side a few minutes later, leaving a cup of coffee and taking her order back to the kitchen.
Christine noticed two slovenly dressed men wander into the diner as she waited for her food to be served. The men casually scanned the room until their eyes fell on her. The taller of the two showed a mouth full of yellowed teeth as he broke into a big grin and elbowed his companion. He nodded in Christine’s direction and sauntered over to her table.
“Ma’am, it just ain’t a good idea for a handsome woman like you to sit all alone. There are some hardcases around here that could cause you all kinds of problems. It’s lucky that Stan and me are here. We’ll just sit down and keep you safe from the dubious characters that are bound to try to bother a looker like you,” proclaimed the tall man as he pulled out a chair and sat across from Christine.
“I’m sure there are some rather undesirable characters nearby,” replied Christine with a frown as the shorter man dropped into the chair to her right. “I appreciate your offer, but I’ll take my chances. I’m having some difficulty believing that there could possibly be less scrupulous gentlemen in the immediately area.”
The man across from Christine considered her comment for a brief time before a frown crossed his brow. “Are you saying that Stan and me ain’t exactly model citizens? You Easterners think you can waltz in here and talk down to us locals? Stan and I sure don’t cotton to being insulted by some uppity acting b...”
“I hope I’m not too late!” broke in a pretty blonde girl dressed in western garb. “Are these gentlemen your friends? I was hoping we could have some privacy while we caught up on old times.”
As she stared at the strange girl, Christine caught a quick smile and a wink before the girl resumed her poker face and sat in the only remaining chair. Understanding washed over Christine as she formulated her response.
“These gentlemen were just leaving. They kindly offered to keep me company, but that was before they realized that I was meeting you here. They’ll be on their way now.”
“Just a minute! There’s two pretty women here and two pretty good lookin’ guys, so it’s just about perfect. You ladies can buy us some lunch and then Stan and I’ll show you a good time. This works out perfect for all of us.” The apparent leader of the ragged duo chuckled.
“Yeah, you’ve got a point. You two fellows do kind of stand out, and we’re definitely fine looking females,” replied the blonde girl. “The only problem I can possibly see with your suggestion is how mean Blue gets when we hang out with strange men. Or is he a friend of yours? That would save you a lot of grief when he gets here if you’re already friendly with him.”
“Blue?” asked the man with yellow teeth. “You’re not talking about Blue Rhone, are you?”
“So you are his friends? That’s great. He’ll be glad to see you fellows taking so much interest in us. I’ll tell him how you wanted to show us a good time,” continued the blonde. “He should be here any minute.”
“I just remembered that Stan and me have an appointment and we’re going to be late if we don’t get moving,” claimed the tall fellow as he quickly stood and motioned for his partner to do the same.
“Please tell me that the appointment is with a barber,” quipped Christine as the two men nervously headed for the door.
“I can’t believe you just said that!” laughed the blonde girl. “I’m June Lane, by the way. I saw those two morons bothering you and thought I’d help out. It never occurred to me that they’d think that we’d be interested in them!”
“Thanks, June. I’m Christine Hamilton. They were a bit disconcerting, but they seemed pretty harmless, as well as very unkempt.”
“Where in the East are you from?” asked June.
“Is it that obvious? I didn’t realize I stood out like that,” replied a surprised Christine.
“Are you kidding? You’re such a beautiful girl that people would have at least heard of you, if you lived around here. The fact that you’re so fashionably dressed and speak so precisely tells me you’re from somewhere back East,” observed June.
“You seem to be from around here, yet you’re prettier than any girl I’ve ever seen back East,” stated Christine. “Can I presume that you’re quite well known in these parts?”
“I guess I am, but that’s probably because my father’s the judge in this part of the Nevada Territory. Everyone knows Dad. I’m just his little girl to most of the locals.”
“I doubt that any of the men around here think of you as a little girl,” responded Christine. “Do you mind if I ask if you’re single?”
“I don’t mind at all. I’m twenty two and very single. There’s only one guy I’ve ever met that I’d even consider marrying, and he thinks of me like a sister,” admitted June. “How about you? Married? Any kids?”
“Not even close,” answered Christine. “I have an older brother that I think highly of, but I’ve yet to meet a man with the qualities I’d expect in a husband, other than my brother.”
“Maybe you should introduce me to your brother, and I’ll put in a good word for you with Blue,” offered June. “We’d almost be like sisters.”
“Will is a great guy, but he doesn’t seem interested in being tied down with one woman yet. Besides, he’s back in Virginia. He just finished law school so he’ll probably be working with some big firm around Washington or Richmond. He’s very handsome. If you ever meet him, you’ll see what I mean. He’s a really good brother.”
“He sounds like it. Let me tell you about Blue. However good looking you think your brother is, Blue is way better. He’s at least six inches taller than I am, but what you’ll first notice about him are his eyes. They’re as blue as the sky on a crisp cloudless afternoon. His smile will melt your heart and make you tingle down deep. He’s honest and very loyal to his friends.”
“Is that the same Blue that when you mentioned him to those gentlemen, they decided there was someplace else they needed to be?” asked Christine. “You told them he was mean. Now you talk like he’s the cat’s pajamas. Which is it?”
“For a beautiful girl like you, he’ll be the sweetest most honorable man you’ll ever meet. To a couple of yahoos harassing two young ladies, he’s Hell on wheels. If Blue ever thought they were being rude to me, or you, he’d run them out of town, at the very least.”
“You make him sound like a regular knight of the round table,” chuckled Christine. “You won’t mind if I form my own opinion, if and when I meet him, will you?”
“Not in the least!” responded June. “I can’t wait to see your reaction when I introduce you to him. He’s in town today, so maybe we’ll run into him. I’ll be leaving on the stagecoach to Bonnet in a little while, so it may not be today. Are you going to be staying around here?”
“Actually, I’m taking the stagecoach to Bonnet, too. I have some business there. Can you recommend a good hotel? It doesn’t have to be too fancy, but it’s got to be clean.”
“Yeah, I know just the place! You can stay with Dad and me. We have lots of room and that way we can get to know each other better, unless I’m taking too much for granted.”
“You just want to meet my brother if he comes out to visit,” teased Christine. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I’d love to stay at your home. That’s so kind of you. We just met a few minutes ago and you’re offering to put me up.”
“You’ll find that’s one of the big differences between back East and out here. We make up our minds pretty quick and we pride ourselves on our hospitality. I just know we’re going to be great friends.”
The two women were still chatting fifteen minutes later as they made their way over the narrow planks that had been placed over the muddy street. June led the way as she scampered easily across the planks and stepped nimbly onto the boardwalk.
Christine moved a little faster than she normally would have in an attempt to keep pace with June. As she went to place her right foot onto the boardwalk, her left foot slid several inches and suddenly Christine found herself falling. When her foot slipped, she was turned to the left with her face rapidly approaching the muddy street. She barely managed a loud gasp as she extended her arms, preparing to catch herself before her face was plunged into the muck.
Just prior to her hands reaching the quagmire, Christine felt a strong hand slide under her torso and stop her plunge. Soon another hand was placed on her shoulder to balance her body as she was slowly lifted and placed on her feet on the boardwalk!
June had turned at the surprised cry that escaped Christine as she began to fall. She grinned as she saw Blue catch her new friend and gently place her back on the boardwalk without so much as a smudge on her expensive outfit. That was when Christine slapped Blue so hard that the crack of her hand on his cheek seemed to echo all the way from the mercantile at the end of the street!
Blue had caught sight of June leading what appeared to be a very attractive young woman across the street to the waiting stagecoach. He had planned on speaking to his friend before she left, and the sudden appearance of the beautiful woman at her side only served to increase his determination as he hurried to catch up with them.
Because of his desire to reach June and her attractive friend, Blue was a mere step behind Christine when her foot slipped and she pitched to the side and began her descent. He immediately reached to catch her arm, but the lovely copper haired woman extended her arms in front of her to brace for contact with the muddy street. That caused Blue to miss her arm as his hand slid under her upper torso.
As gently as he was able, Blue lifted the beautiful woman carefully and placed her feet on the boardwalk. The woman briefly looked into his face before turning her eyes down to his right hand. Blue followed the path of her eyes, and to his chagrin; his hand was still in contact with the young woman’s right breast! More accurately, his right hand clutched her breast firmly while his left rested on her back.
He saw the swing of her arm and could have easily blocked her hand before it reached his face, but in his embarrassment, he determined that she had just cause to slap his face. He never flinched when her palm came in contact with his cheek. He slowly withdrew his hand from the full, firm breast and reached for his hat.
“Ma’am, I can’t apologize enough for my behavior,” stuttered Blue as he looked into the woman’s green eyes. “It was unintentional, but completely unacceptable.”
“Blue! This is Christine Hamilton. She’s going to be staying with me for a while,” began June as she tried to calm her new friend. “You just saved her from a pretty messy fall. Once she realizes that you didn’t do that on purpose, I’m sure that she’ll be your friend, too. She’s kind of feisty, isn’t she?”
“Yeah, she’s a real handful,” replied Blue dryly as he regained his composure and attempted to lighten the situation with a joke.
Once again Christine’s hand came around, but Blue easily caught it before it found its target. Even in her anger, Christine marveled at the reflexes of the infuriating blue-eyed cowboy.
“You deliberately manhandled me! I thought Western men were supposed to treat women with respect. You took advantage of me when I slipped. That was a cowardly, despicable act!
“Then you had the nerve to call me a handful, as if I wouldn’t know exactly what you were saying. Gentlemen do not grab a lady’s breasts, and they certainly never refer to them as a handful! Do not ever come anywhere near me again or I’ll be forced to press charges against you,” promised Christine. “The only thing that’s stopping me right now is your friendship with June, although I’ll never know why she tolerates you!”
“I think she likes you, Blue,” laughed June, much to Christine’s annoyance. “It would probably be better if you left her alone until she realizes how she’s overreacted. I’ll see you back in Bonnet.”
“Let’s catch our ride,” insisted June to a still seething Christine. “We’ll have several hours to discuss your infatuation with Blue. You sure made an impression on him.”
Christine remained quiet until the stagecoach was well on the road to Bonnet. “I don’t know if I want to stay with you now. You saw what he did to me and you act like he was shaking my hand or something. I know he’s your friend, but grabbing a woman’s breast is a serious matter.”
“I really do like you, Christine, but this prissy attitude of yours is getting old fast,” stated June flatly. “He’d never touch a woman in any way without her permission, and most women would be only too happy to grant that request. You were about to go head first into that mud hole and he caught you. It’s that simple.”
“Are you telling me that you didn’t notice that he held my breast long after he placed me back on my feet? He was enjoying himself!” insisted Christine.
“You think so?” laughed June. “He’s a man, Christine! He had an incredibly beautiful woman’s boob in his hand. He showed a lot more self-control than most men would have managed.
“Don’t tell me that you didn’t get a little thrill when you saw what the guy looked like that was holding your breast so gently. I could see the sparks flying from ten feet away. I’m not going to let you pretend to be so upset over such a trivial thing.”
“Trivial?” repeated Christine. “I was practically molested by a complete stranger. That certainly doesn’t seem trivial to me.”
“Christine, you must know that he didn’t grab your boob on purpose. Yes, he did hold on a little longer than he should have, but did you see how he looked at you? He’s totally smitten. I’ve known him since we were kids and I’ve never seen that look on him before,” assured June.
“That still doesn’t give him the right to maul me. I will admit that he’s not bad looking, and I’ve never seen eyes like his before. I just can’t get over the lack of respect he showed. We’d never even met before,” added Christine.
“If it’s any consolation, Blue looked pretty unhappy about the way things went, at least he did once he released your breast,” teased June. “Let’s talk about other stuff. This thing will seem like nothing in a few days.”
Christine was pleasantly surprised as the stagecoach rolled into Bonnet. The town was larger and cleaner than she had anticipated. Businesses seemed to be prosperous and the citizens seemed cheerful and friendly.
She was even more surprised when she saw June’s home. It was a large two story structure with a long porch in front. Flowers added color to the walkway that led to the front steps.
“Dad, this is my new friend, Christine Hamilton. She’s visiting Bonnet and I’ve invited her to stay with us. Christine, meet my Dad, Judge Ben Lane,” introduced June.
“Please call me Ben,” greeted June’s father. “I’m glad that June managed to meet a young woman her age to be friends with. I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at teaching her how to be a lady.”
“I’ve got to disagree, Ben. Your daughter is very much a lady,” praised Christine. “You’ve done a great job.”
“I can’t take much credit for that, except for asking Rachel Rhone to take her under her wing after her mother passed away ten years ago,” replied June’s father. “If you stay here very long, you’ll probably meet Rachel and her son, Blue. They’re a fine family.”
“Christine already met Blue,” interjected June. “Her opinion of him is a bit lower than yours, Dad. He called her a handful and she tried to slap him, again!”
Christine’s face turned a dark red at June’s statement. Ben quickly picked up on her discomfort and changed the subject. “You should show Christine to her room. She’s probably exhausted after that long trip. She may want to rest, or freshen up.”
June showed Christine the bedroom she would be using and then left her to unpack and rest. After an hour nap, Christine heard voices and laughter drifting up the stairs, so she went down to investigate after freshening up and combing her hair. She followed the voices to the parlor. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the very attractive, dark haired, middle aged woman sitting on the sofa next to June. When she saw the older woman’s eyes, she knew without a doubt just who the lady had to be.
“Rachel, this is Christine, the woman I’ve been telling you about. Christine, I’d like you to meet Rachel Rhone. As you’ve obviously guessed, she’s Blue’s mother,” concluded June.
Christine remained in place as Rachel Rhone stood and approached her. The older woman looked her up and down before breaking into a big smile.
“My dear, I assure you that I will not be treating you as crudely as my son, although I have to admit I can see the reason for his reluctance to release your charms. You’re a remarkably lovely young woman. Would it be possible for us to be friends?” asked the older woman as she extended her hand.
Christine realized that she had been blushing from the moment she first saw Rachel Rhone and chastised herself for her lack of control. She took a deep breath and reached out to take Rachel’s hand in hers.
“I must be frank. Your son exhibited boorish behavior earlier today, and it it’s my belief that his actions reflect directly on his parents. I don’t wish to be a poor guest in Ben’s home, but it remains to be seen if we’ll be able to get past this afternoon’s incident.”
“You’re right, of course. Blue is a product of his heritage as well as the life’s lessons his father and I tried to teach him. I’ll be equally frank with you. I’ve never had reason to apologize for his behavior, especially with young ladies. While my son may have been guilty of lingering a second or two longer than necessary, it’s my belief that his intentions were honorable. I blame his slow response in releasing you on your refreshing beauty. My son is a man. As such, his failure to function properly around you is understandable. I’ll speak to him, but I fear he’ll continue to flounder whenever he’s in your presence.
“I did notice a slight bruise on his cheek this afternoon, but he assured me that he bumped into the saddle pommel as he placed it on his horse. Do you intend to hold the sins of my son against me, or can we attempt to be friends?” concluded Rachel Rhone.
Christine had expected the older woman to be flustered and apologetic when her son’s crude behavior was addressed. Rather than apologize, she insinuated that his actions were normal and Christine shouldn’t consider it such an affront.
“She’s a lot like my mother was,” thought Christine as she looked at the lady standing in front of her. “She might chew her son out in private, but she’s not going to admit anything damaging about him to others.”
Christine then considered her reason for visiting Bonnet. It occurred to her that June had mentioned that Rachel Rhone was a widow and that she and her son owned a large ranch in the area. Christine had told no one that she was now the owner of the Bar M ranch and decided to keep her secret a bit longer. Her interest in the politics and economy of the area would be considered idle curiosity. If she became known as the owner of the Bar M, it could be more difficult to get direct answers to her questions. It would be wise to be somewhat friendly with Rachel Rhone, a woman that possessed invaluable knowledge of ranching in the area.
Christine quickly made her decision. “Mrs. Rhone, I can see that you’re an accomplished woman and a very good mother. I think we can be great friends. I won’t mention your son’s transgressions again.”
“We’ll only be friends if you call me Rachel,” beamed the older woman. “I think we’ll get along very well. My son will have to make his own amends.”
“Now that we’ve taken care of that problem, let’s go have dinner at the hotel!” offered an obviously relieved Ben Lane.
Once again, Christine was pleasantly surprised as she sat with her group in the hotel dining room. The room, as well as the table settings, was clean and in good condition. The menu offered a surprising variety of entrees and the waitress was extremely accommodating.
Christine smiled to herself as two young women sitting at a table near the door seemed unable to stop staring at her. She understood the situation for what it was. They were looking at her as possible competition for the local male talent. The thought amused Christine, since it was so unlikely that there would be any men in Bonnet that could ever interest her.
Because Christine was facing the doorway, she noticed Blue Rhone as soon as he entered the room. It gave her more than a little satisfaction when he suddenly altered his course away from her table. He was obviously planning on dining with his mother and the Lanes, but her presence had caused him to quickly change his plans.
What did not please Christine was how effortlessly he moved to the table with the two young women that had been staring at her so intently and joined them. Her irritation only increased when they directed huge smiles at Blue as he took a seat with his back to her.
Part way through their meal, June studied Christine’s face before commenting. “It looks like something’s bothering you. Are you disappointed in the food, or the seating?”
“No! Everything’s really quite good,” assured Christine. “I must be a little tired from the long trip. I’ll try to be better company.”
“It doesn’t have anything with Blue sitting across the room, does it?” wondered Rachel. “I could ask him to leave if he’s upsetting you.”
June looked over her shoulder and located Blue immediately. “I didn’t realize he was here. He usually sits with us when he’s in town. I guess he’s respecting Christine’s warning that she’d have him arrested if he ever came near her again. It looks like Bea and Jane don’t mind his company. They look radiant.”
“You threatened Blue with arrest?” questioned Judge Lane while Rachel arched her eyebrows at that bit of information.
“I was upset. I just wanted to be certain that he left me alone. He’s probably been bragging to his friends about how he got his hands on me,” suggested Christine. “I simply didn’t want anyone to get the impression that we were friendly in any way.”
“You really don’t know my son at all,” observed Rachel. “He may have accidently placed his hand in an area he shouldn’t have, but he’d never malign a lady for any reason. Of that, I’m certain.”
“I don’t know what kind of men you have in Virginia, but that sort of thing simply isn’t done by any self-respecting cowboy in Nevada,” declared June. “The good men around here would never damage a woman’s reputation for any reason, and Blue is the best of the lot!”
Christine couldn’t help but notice the passion with which June defended Blue. It was apparent that she considered him more than a friend. Looking at June’s face as she regained her composure, Christine had a sudden epiphany.
“You’re in love with him!” blurted Christine without thinking about how her words would affect June.
June suddenly burst into tears, stood and tossed her napkin on the table before fleeing the room. Christine sat in stunned silence. She was considering following her new friend and apologizing until she saw Blue stand, place some money on the table by his plate, and hurry out the door.
“I guess I don’t have to point out that you hurt her feelings,” observed Rachel. “Everyone knows how Rachel feels about Blue. It’s no secret, but no one ever throws it in her face like that. I love her like a daughter. She’s a wonderful young woman.
“The problem is that Blue loves her like a sister. They’ve been best friends since they were kids. He respects her way too much to take advantage of her feelings. He’s never done anything to cause her to think that he’s interested romantically, but it still hurts.”
“It didn’t take me long to overstay my welcome,” stated Christine contritely. “I think it would be better for all concerned if I took a room here at the hotel. June must hate me.”
“Don’t be too hasty,” cautioned Ben Lane. “June likes you. She’ll be okay in a little while. You didn’t reveal any big secret or anything. It’s just that she always thought that she’d kept her feelings about Blue private. No one’s ever pointed out the obvious to her before.”
“I feel really bad,” admitted Christine. “I accused the guy she loves of practically molesting me, and then I ruined her dinner with my big mouth. I know better than to tell another woman that she’s in love, especially if she hasn’t already admitted it. I don’t know why I ever said that.”
The three continued their meal, although there was much less conversation. As they were being served dessert, June returned to the table and took her seat. Christine was surprised at how composed she appeared.
“June, I’m so sorry I said that! It wasn’t the time or the place, and it certainly wasn’t my intention to cause you pain. I just went stupid,” apologized Christine.
“That’s what Blue told me,” revealed June. “He told me that you’ve had some problems with men in the past and you try to maintain a tough front to keep men from hurting you again. Blue thinks you’d be the best friend I could ever imagine if I can manage to break through your barriers.”
“He said that about me! He doesn’t even know me,” stated Christine irately. “I don’t care what you think of him, he’s an opinionated ass.”
Realizing Blue’s mother was sitting across from her, Christine turned to face her, expecting to see an angry woman. Her surprise was complete when Rachel broke into a hearty laugh.
“Things are about to get really interesting around here,” managed Rachel between rounds of laughter. “That opinionated ass has no idea what he’s in for.”
“Actually he does, Rachel, because I told him,” gloated June. “I told him his punishment for not loving me the way I love him will be for Christine to break his heart so he can learn how it feels.”
“Does he even have a heart?” joked Christine.
She was greatly relieved that June wasn’t upset with her and felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. In the short time that she had known June, Christine had become quite fond of her. She realized that while she had no close friends back in Virginia, she felt a strong kinship with the blonde Western girl.
“Not as far as I’m concerned,” retorted June with a grin. “He’s absolutely heartless.”
Concerned about how Rachel would react to the verbal beating her son was receiving; Ben glanced at her to gauge her response. To his relief, she was laughing along with the two girls.
The next week saw Christine spend a lot of time visiting the various businesses in Bonnet and chatting with owners and patrons. She tried her very best to be friendly and courteous, without appearing overly inquisitive. June often walked with her and introduced her to the folks they encountered.
The two young women were leaving the local mercantile when they almost bumped into a tall young man as he hurried into the store. His haste was quickly forgotten when his eyes fell on June and her attractive friend.
“Luke Winters, meet Christine Hamilton. She’s visiting me for a few weeks. Luke works on one of the local ranches,” added June.
Christine realized that she had just been introduced to the son of the man that managed her ranch. It was an opportunity she couldn’t ignore.
“Actually, my father and I are probably going to own the ranch pretty soon,” revealed the man as he swept his hat off his head and extended his hand to Christine.
As she took the man’s hand in hers and firmly shook it, she began her questioning. “Aren’t ranches awfully expensive? Your family must be rather well off to afford a working cattle ranch.”
“You’re right about that,” agreed Luke Winters. “Dad’s been managing the ranch for over twenty years. I grew up on it. We’ve worked hard and saved our money. We’re just entering into negotiations for the spread, but the owners are Easterners and don’t have any interest in it. They’ll jump at our offer.”
Christine managed to conceal her surprise at the man’s stated intentions. She had received no indication that Bar M’s long time manager was considering tendering an offer. If the offer were reasonable, she might even consider it. Wouldn’t her brother be surprised if she managed to turn a losing proposition into cold, hard cash?
“Let me the first to congratulate you,” offered Christine.
“Are you really thinking about buying Bar M with the water issue looming over the property?” asked June.
“We expect to get that settled pretty soon,” replied Luke. “Those damn Rhones don’t control the streams. Bar M range always went to the western edge of Jennings Creek. When the stream moved, so did the boundary.”
“Blue and his mother don’t see it that way,” countered June. “They’ll never let you take hundreds of acres of their best grazing land without a fight.”
“Well, I never said there wouldn’t be a fight,” retorted Luke. “I’m just saying that our cattle will be grazing right up to Jennings Creek’s western bank, regardless of where it may be.”
Once Christine and June were well out of Luke’s hearing, Christine asked for more information on Luke Winters’ statements about Jennings Creek. “What’s the big issue about that creek? Are the Rhones trying to steal Bar M range?”
“We’ve been getting along really well. If you want to keep it that way, don’t ever let me hear you suggest that Blue and Rachel ever stole anything!” insisted June. “It seems to me like you’ve been here long enough to know that they don’t steal. You’ve asked every person in town about the ranches, their owners, their cash flow and their value.
“You’ve been pretty closed mouth about your intentions, but it looks to me like your rich family is thinking about buying a ranch or something in the area. The one thing you must have heard from every single person, except Luke Winters, is how much people respect the Rhone family.”