Cowboy for Annabelle
A sneak peek at married life with with the swoony Ethan Vasquez...
MAIL ORDER BRIDES ON THE RUN #1
One month later
Annabelle bent over her hoe in the morning sun, putting her back into turning the soil. It was discouraging how little progress she’d made on her tiered garden in the past month. She’d been hoping to impress her husband soon with several blooming patches of greenery stair-stepping their way down the side of the mountain they lived on.
A shiver of movement in a nearby patch of dry grass alerted her to the fact that she was being watched. She grew very still and waited for the creature to make its next move. It didn’t take long before the faces of not one, but two jackrabbits peeked out from behind the patch of knee-high scraggly grass.
Annabelle made a face at them. They looked adorably innocent with their tall, glossy ears and twitching noses, but she knew better. These were most likely the culprits she’d been seeking to identify — the dastardly little critters who ran through her vegetable patch whenever she returned inside the cabin to eat or rest. So far, they’d nibbled through every single plant she managed to coax into blooming.
“If there’s no harvest this year, it’s all your fault, you little varmints,” she seethed as she resumed her hoeing with extra vigor.
They continued to watch her, their brown eyes wide with curiosity. It was almost as if they were trying to gauge when she would take her next break.
“Go on and get out of here,” she ordered, lifting her hoe and waving it at them. She didn’t need them traipsing through her freshly turned soil to dig for what little remained of her last crop of bean and carrot sprouts.
They did not scamper off as she’d hoped. Instead, one of them turned his head to look directly at her. His movement caused the sun to shine directly through his veiny inner ears, turning them a velvety pink.
“I said scat!” She raised her voice a little louder this time, rapping her hoe sharply against the ground.
The jackrabbits didn’t so much as flinch. Both remained resting on their haunches no more than ten feet away from her. Though their boldness was exasperating, it wrang a bit of reluctant admiration from her. There was no limit, it seemed, to what these wild animals would risk for food.
“What’s it going to take for me to be rid of you?” she sighed. “If you don’t high-tail it out of here soon, I’m going to be sorely tempted to fetch my pistol. That means I’ll be plopping your ornery hides into a pot of stew later on, which will be the end of you.” She was in no mood to skin their carcasses, though. The very thought turned her stomach. Mercy! Everything turned her stomach these days now that she was in the family way.
She was carrying the babe of the most ruthless range rider in the west, a man who neither feared nor tolerated the acts of predators. She was most fortunate that his skills included guarding against the two-legged kind of predators. Usually, that entailed chasing off gangs of would-be cattle rustlers. In her case, it had entailed standing up against an entire army of mercenary bandits who’d been hired to steal her dowry — a railroad spur, of all things.
It belonged to Ethan now. And being the kindhearted husband that he was, he’d used his first royalty check to purchase her a glossy new pianoforte. He never tired of hearing her sing and play it, nor did he tire of showing his appreciation for her talents afterward.
The ensuing flush that rose to Annabelle’s cheeks had nothing to do with the sun that was pushing its way higher in the sky. She lifted her arm to shade her eyes so she could examine the craggy incline her fledgling garden rested on. If there were two jackrabbits, there were probably more. The little rodents were capable of spawning enough litters to fill the surrounding mountains.
A high-pitched scream made her jump and nearly lose her grip on her hoe. Whipping her head in both directions, she tried to determine the source of the sound.
“Who’s there?” she called nervously, wishing she’d listened to her husband’s urging to keep her pistol inside her pocket anytime she ventured outside. Having her farm tools close at hand had always felt like enough.
The next scream came from directly behind her.
Oh, dear heavens! Annabelle whirled around, knowing that whatever was making the horrifying sound was now between her and the cabin. The barn, too. There was no escape from it. Beyond the tiered garden plots was nothing more than a steep drop-off to the valley below.
“Mercy!” she whispered, scanning the patch of lawn between her and the back porch steps. It was roughly fifty yards in depth, mostly uphill. It was punctuated by rocks, tall tufts of grass, and Joshua trees. She shaded her eyes again. Who are you, and what do you want from me?
Since there were arrest warrants out for the father-son criminal ring who’d tried so hard to steal her dowry, it seemed unlikely that they would continue sending mercenaries her way. Not to mention, the investment in the rail spur had long since been transferred into her husband’s name. There was no getting it back.
A third scream made her insides tremble from the sheer fact that it didn’t sound human. She pressed a hand to her rapidly beating heart at the realization she was being stalked by a wild animal.
One of the branches of the Joshua tree up ahead snapped. A furry tail flicked into view. It was long and beige with a dark tip. Its ears appeared next above the branches of the short, squatty tree. They were much shorter than the jackrabbits’ ears, and they bristled with white fur.
A cat, maybe? Annabelle’s heart beat faster. If it was a cat, it was huge, from the looks of its tail and ears.
In the next moment, the creature sprang from its hiding place, arcing its body through the air and sailing directly for her. As she’d presumed, the creature was undeniably in the cat family, but it was nothing like the barn cats she’d been raised around. It was much bigger and infinitely more fierce looking.
Overcome with terror, she sank to her knees, knowing there was nowhere to run. She braced herself for the ensuing slam of a furry body into her, but it never came. Instead, it flew over her head and landed with a thud behind her.
Twisting around, she watched weakly as the mountain lion captured one of the hapless jackrabbits in its powerful jaws. The other jackrabbit shot across the mountainside as fast as a bullet.
A lone tear streaked down Annabelle’s cheek as the mountain lion made quick work of its prey. With each bite of the fresh meat he consumed, she wondered if she would be next.
Glancing back toward the cabin, she weighed her chances of making a run for it while the creature was busy filling his belly. Before she could summon the strength to rise, however, the cat whirled around to pin her with its gold stare.
“Please don’t,” she pleaded in a voice barely above a whisper. “I’m carrying a babe.”
The magnificent beast snuffled along the ground, filling his nostrils with her scent. As he paced closer in all of his sleek and sinewy glory, a scripture popped into her mind. Her lips moved as she formed the words in a whisper.
Oh, Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom, You have made them all.
The earth is full of Your possessions —
This great and wide sea,
In which are innumerable teaming things,
Living things both great and small.
Though it made no logical sense, the scripture brought an inexplicable sense of peace to her heart. The big cat reached her and stopped short. Annabelle held deathly still, her knuckles turning white from the grip she still had on her hoe. The animal ducked its head closer, sniffing at her ankles first, then working its way up her skirt toward her belly. Then it grew very still.
That’s right, you big, beautiful beast. I’m carrying a babe, so leave us be. Annabelle held her breath as the mountain lion snuffled from one side of her midsection to the other. In the process, she caught a side glimpse of its underside and discerned that she was in the presence of a female mountain lion, not a male as she’d originally presumed.
“From woman to woman,” she pleaded softly. Sure, it was every shade of foolish to negotiate with a wild animal, but what did she have to lose? “I’m begging you to let us live.”
At long last, the cat raised its head to meet her gaze. It felt like its golden orbs were piercing straight through to her soul.
They stared at each other for one heart-stopping moment that felt like half of eternity. Then the creature gave another one of its high-pitched screams and pivoted away to face the direction the second jackrabbit had fled.
With the air seeping out of her, Annabelle watched it spring into motion. Its paws only seemed to touch the ground every twenty feet or so. What a strong and powerful creature!
She watched until she could no longer see it. Then the hoe slid from her grasp. She fell forward on her hands, panting as if she’d just finished running a mile.
“Annabelle, honey?” Her husband’s voice wafted her way from a great distance.
At first, she thought she had dreamed it. Then she heard it again.
“Annabelle!” His voice grew louder and more frantic. She could hear the sound of his footfalls inside the cabin. Heavy, clomping noises that told her he hadn’t bothered removing his boots at the front door.
The urgency in his voice finally jolted her from her daze. “Ethan!” she called. Her voice didn’t come out nearly as loudly as she wanted it to. “Ethan, I’m outside!”
And then he was there, skidding down the mountainside in her direction. As he moved past the place where the mountain lion had been hiding while stalking the rabbits, she couldn’t help thinking he was as wildly beautiful and majestic as the other creature had been.
His dark Hispanic features were twisted with concern for her, his brown gaze never leaving hers as he made a beeline to reach her. The wind caught his hair, thrashing the black locks this way and that against his neck.
His broad shoulders hovered protectively over her as his scarred hands reached for her. “What happened?” He tossed aside the hoe to run his long fingers up and down her arms. “You’re shaking all over.”
“It was a mountain lion,” she panted. “She came right up to me.”
Ethan paled and cupped her face in his hands. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” She shook her head helplessly. “I know it makes no sense, but all she did was sniff at my belly. Then she ran away.”
Ethan’s breath came out in an alarmed huff. He gathered her close and buried his face against the side of her neck. “It’s a miracle you’re alive.”
“I think she was a mother, herself,” Annabelle mused shakily. Perhaps even wild animals respected the sanctity of motherhood. She replayed the tense encounter inside her head, picking out details she’d missed during the horror of the moment.
“Perhaps.” Ethan’s voice was dry as he lifted his head to pin her with a fierce look.
Her heart shuddered beneath her rib cage, knowing a well-deserved admonition was coming.
“I’m not even going to bother asking where your pistol is,” he growled.
“I’m so sorry.” She bit her lower lip. “You have every right to be angry with me.”
“I’m not angry.”
Her eyes widened at the harshness of his voice. He sure sounded angry. Come to think of it, why was he even home? She wasn’t accustomed to seeing him this time of day. Normally, he was still out riding the range and tending the herds.
“I was afraid for you, Annabelle. When a few of our junior riders mentioned spotting a mountain lion while out on patrol, I couldn’t ride home fast enough.”
She tipped her face up to his, drinking in his rugged features. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Me, too, but I’m not finished.” He reached up to touch her cheek. “Not too long ago, you rightfully informed me that I needed to be more careful while out on the range. You reminded me that it was my job to stand between you and the outlaws trying to harm you, and you were right. Well, now it’s your turn to be careful. You, my precious wife, are all that stands between our unborn babe and harm.”
Her eyes grew damp at his words. “I will carry my pistol every time I step outside from now on.”
“Thank you.” He bent to brush his mouth tenderly over hers. “You are irreplaceable, Annabelle.”
She leaned into his kiss. After such a harrowing encounter, she was craving the reassurance of his love and strength. “Upon reflection, I am not convinced the mountain lion intended to harm me,” she murmured against his lips. Warming to the topic, she leaned back in his arms, gripping his shoulders in her animation. “If she comes back, maybe I could try to tame her.”
“Absolutely not!” He looked horrified. “Wild animals are unpredictable at best.”
“Maybe so.” She made a face at him.
“There’s no maybe about it, darlin’. Though the good Lord saw fit to spare you today, feral creatures aren’t to be trifled with.”
“Oh, give way, Ethan!” she sighed. “I was just thinking how wonderful it would be to have a creature like her to help me keep the jackrabbits out of our garden. I want to succeed in making something grow before we’re both old and gray.”
“Then I’ll get you a dog,” he retorted, standing and tugging her to her feet.
“Maybe you should get me two dogs,” she wheedled, stepping closer to him. “One would be no match for a mountain lion, but two might make her think twice about returning to our garden.”
“Fine. Two dogs. Is there anything else you want of me, Mrs. Vasquez?” His voice was teasing as he dipped his head over hers.
“Another kiss.” She stood on her tiptoes to initiate it.
He eagerly accepted her peace offering, deepening their kiss and leaving her with no doubt as to how concerned he’d been for her safety earlier.
“And maybe a few barn cats,” she said softly when he raised his head to gaze down at her in satisfaction.
“So long as you promise me I won’t have to stand in line for your attention amidst such a menagerie.”
“I promise.” She smiled her thanks to him.
“I love you so much, Annabelle.” He traced the curve of her lips with his thumb. “I think we both know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”
His words reminded her of something else that had been eating away at her for the past few weeks. “I hope that means you finally found the time to speak with the Fords about Penelope?” According to the first and only letter she’d received so far from her friends back in Atlanta, Penelope was in urgent need of leaving town. For all Annabelle knew, her dearest friend in the world was already on a train headed west. She desperately wanted her destination to be El Vaquero.
“I did.” Her husband looked amused.
He sobered. “Jameson agreed to throw his hat in the ring for her hand, but he didn’t strike me as all that excited about acquiring a bride.”
“Oh.” Her face fell. “I am sorry to hear it.” Somehow, the thought of the stunning Penelope reigning as queen over Ford Ranch had seemed right — at least, inside her head.
“It’s not that he’s opposed to getting married.” He shook his head, his brow wrinkled in thought. “On the contrary, he feels compelled to marry. Says it’s part of his duty in settling this town.”
“Duty? Oh, dear!” With each word her husband spoke, Annabelle’s heart sank. Penelope deserved so much better than that. She was vibrant and alive, a spectacular woman on the inside and outside. She deserved a man who was tender and attentive, one who might actually stand a chance of coming to care for her someday.
“I wouldn’t lose all hope for him just yet, darlin’.” Ethan made a rueful face. “Not too long ago, I wasn’t overly fond of the idea of putting my own heart on the line again and look at how we turned out.”
She smiled faintly. “You sure stole my heart in record time, cowboy.”
“You stole mine first,” he accused, lightly tapping her nose.
She pretended to swat his hand away. “We might as well take this argument inside and finish it over a glass of lemonade.”
“I have to return to work, darlin’.”
“And you will,” she assured, fluttering her lashes at him. “After a glass of lemonade and a proper goodbye kiss.” Leaving the hoe on the ground, she tugged his hand, encouraging him to follow her up the hill.
“I see. Was the last one not proper enough for my favorite southern belle?” he drawled, falling into step beside her.
“It was borderline scandalous,” she confessed a trifle breathlessly.
“Are you suggesting I need more practice, Mrs. Vasquez?” His grin was devilish. “Because that can be arranged.”
“We-e-ell,” she teased as they reached the back porch steps.
Without warning, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her up the steps.
“What are you doing?” she squealed, sliding her arms around his neck and knocking his hat askew.
“Practicing.” He waggled his dark eyebrows at her. “It was your idea, darlin’, and I aim to please.”
It was a long time before he set her down to open the back door. The glass of lemonade, mountain lion, and Penelope’s woes were temporarily forgotten as they celebrated the beauty and wonder of everything they’d found together.
“I love you, Ethan.” She tangled her fingers in the hair dragging his collar, knowing she would never tire of being in his arms and never tire of kissing him. He was, quite simply, a man worthy of every ounce of her affections.
“I love you, too, Annabelle. Today, tomorrow, and always.” He tipped his forehead against hers, kissing her again to seal the promise. It was one she knew he would keep.