New Release!

 

Morning Dove is live!

 

Running to escape a life of servitude may have taken her out of a bad situation but being a Native woman means she can never escape the way people see her. The prejudice Morning Dove faces is a daily reminder that she doesn’t really belong with these people but one man makes her forget she’s an outsider. Looking at him, she longs for things she never thought to have and all she has to do is reach out and grab them … if she could only get over her fear of speaking to him.

Ben Atwater has more problems than any one man should and most of them he brought on by himself. The only bright spot in his life is a pretty Native girl who will barely look at him. Morning Dove is an enigma he wants to explore but his past has tainted his future. Will a woman like her want a man as miserable as him? And if so, can he keep her once he has her in his arms?

Read the first 2 chapters below.

 

Copyright ©2021 Lily Graison

Chapter One

Something wet hit her face. The spray was so shocking, Morning Dove froze. It only took a second to realize what happened and her face burned with humiliation as she wiped her cheek with the sleeve of her dress.

With a quick glance, she met the gaze of the man who spit on her as he walked past without a word. A tug at her shawl pulled it tighter around her shoulders as she crossed the rutted dirt road. She stepped back onto the sidewalk, sticking close to the buildings and avoiding the stares of those she passed.

It took only a few minutes to realize she picked the wrong day to come to town. People lingered on every doorstep, the sidewalks packed with townsfolk and the mass of bodies was hard to avoid. Stepping out of the path of an older woman giving her an unfriendly stare only caused her to bump into someone. She slammed into them with the whole of her body before stumbling away. “Sorry.”

Having them shove her out of their way was more shocking than being spit on. Stars flashed behind her eyelids when her head struck the wall. Pain traveled the length of her back, and she stood there still as a statue.

The man’s dark eyes bore into hers as he stared down at her, his anger telling. “You’ve got no business mixing with decent folk.”

The hissed words seemed so loud inside her head. She bit her lip to keep from saying something she would regret while struggling to hold his gaze. His mouth twisted into a snarl, and she stared at his discolored teeth as the tinny music from the saloon down the street, and the multitude of voices of those walking on the sidewalk, vanished. She could hear nothing other than the sound of her blood rushing through her ears.

The man stood too close, his fetid breath rancid as he said, “You need to watch where you’re going.” His voice rasped as if he smoked too much, and his pock-marked face drew into a sneer that grew when two other men walked into view and stopped behind him.

A short fellow with ears that looked two sizes too big for his head hissed, “Worthless injun,” under his breath while looking at her. Those hissed words told her the anger this man had for her bumping into him had very little to do with her actually touching him, and everything to do with what she was. A woman of Native descent—something she could not change.

The hatred burning in her chest at big ears’ slur must have shone in her eyes. The man she had bumped into shoved her again, her teeth sinking into her lip hard enough she tasted blood. She stumbled away to put some distance between them and pulled that invisible cloak she used against the discrimination she faced most days around her and lifted her head before saying, “Keep your hands off of me.”

Laughter from the two men behind the brute only made him madder.

Since the day she had arrived in Willow Creek, she had dealt with the prejudice some of the townsfolk had toward her. Most everyone looked down on her and made snide remarks as she walked past them. She was used to it and if it were not for the liquor she could smell on this one’s breath, she would say she already knew how this would play out, but the people who accosted her were not usually drunk. This guy was, which meant hateful words might not be the only thing he hurt her with.

She pushed past them but barely made two steps. He grabbed her in a painful grip before shoving her into the alley between the buildings. Her heart started pounding as he dragged her toward the clearing that sat behind the storefronts. She tripped over her feet trying to pull away and the only thing keeping her from hitting the ground was his beefy hand wrapped around her arm.

Morning Dove jerked against his hold again and slapped at his hand as he shoved her further into the alleyway. “Let go of me.”

All three of them laughed.

A sudden shadow blocked the light from the street. “Get your hands off of her!”

Morning Dove turned to the voice and her heart started pounding. It beat against her ribs so hard it was a wonder all of them did not hear it. She fixed her gaze on Ben Atwater as he stood in the mouth of the alley. His eyes were filled with a cold fury she had never seen before.

Like it did most days she saw him, her breath caught. She could not explain her reaction to him, but he made her knees weak with a single glance.

The man who still held her arm tightened his grip to the point of pain. She winced, the action enough to make Ben step into the narrow passage.

“I said, let her go.”

The expression, “things happened in a blink of the eye,” was as old as time and she had never thought much of it. Now she did. One moment she saw Ben charge into the alleyway, the next she was on her butt, watching in horror as Ben took on her three attackers, and time seemed to slow to a crawl as they dragged him into the clearing.

She sat in stunned silence, each smack of fist against flesh echoing through her head as Ben took on all three of them by himself.

He took a fist to the face, his head snapping back with the blow. She gasped, her hand flying to her mouth as blood flew from his nose. The sight was enough to clear the fog trying to take up residence inside her head. She jumped to her feet and screamed, “Stop it!”

No one acted as if they heard her.

Her heart pounded so hard watching them, she was sure it would burst from her chest at any moment. Fear that the three men beating Ben bloody would actually kill him snapped her out of her stunned stupor, and she ran to the street.

“I need help!” Everyone turned to look at her, but no one said a word. “Please.” She looked back to the alley. “They are killing him!”

For once, luck was on her side. She saw Marshal Avery step out of his office. Running in his direction, she hurried across the road. “Marshal! Marshal! They have Ben. They are going to kill him.”

“What?”

She did not wait for him to ask more questions, running back to the alleyway beside the mercantile instead while hoping he would follow her. When she stepped into the clearing, Ben was on the ground, the three who had shoved her off the sidewalk kicking him in turn.

A single shot fired from Marshal Avery’s pistol made everyone freeze. As fights went, this one was one-sided and unfair, but the men beating Ben had not come away unscathed. One’s nose was bleeding, another, a split lip. When they stepped away from Ben, she stared at his crumpled form, hesitating before dropping to her knees by his side as the Marshal and a few other men who had followed him into the clearing dealt with the three strangers.

Bits of grass and dirt clung to Ben’s disheveled hair. He was on his side, one arm flung over his head. “Ben.” The word came out in a harsh croak of a sound. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Are you all right?”

He groaned and rolled to his back. Morning Dove bit her tongue to keep from reacting. They beat his face bloody.

“I’m fine.”

He was also lying. “You do not look fine.” His eyes were bloodshot. The powerful scent of whiskey told her he had been in the saloon before coming to her rescue. “Can you sit up?”

She had never touched him. Not even to shake his hand, and the thought of doing so now made nervous butterflies dance in her stomach. She reached out, paused, then picked a few strands of grass from his face before sliding her arm under his shoulders and struggled to lift him.

It took a few tries but between the two of them, he was able to sit up. They sat so close, she could feel his breath against her face and leaned back, heat crawling up her neck.

Ben shifted when she did and winced before grabbing his ribs and taking several deep breaths. He blinked lazily at her, his tongue poking out to lick blood from his busted lips. The sight of it made her think things she should not.

Every time she saw him, she turned into a simpering idiot without him saying a single word to her. Even sitting here, his face a mass of bruises and bleeding, he seemed bigger than life. His broad shoulders looked strong enough to take on the world, and as much as she enjoyed being so near to him, instinct told her to run as fast as she could and never look back.

Pain shined in his eyes. He stared at her for a long moment before his attention turned to the three who had jumped him. He nodded in their direction. “What was that all about?”

Marshal Avery had them up against the back of the mercantile, his voice pitched too low to make out what he was saying, but the pock-marked one was staring at her. She looked away, focusing her attention on Ben. “I bumped into one of them and he did not like that very much.”

A crowd had gathered at the mouth of the alley. Marshal Avery turned and ushered the three men back toward the sidewalk with the help of a few others, but stopped and looked over at them. “You all right, Ben?”

Ben nodded, but said nothing.

“You don’t look it.” Morgan straightened. “Head over and see Doc Reid and have him check those ribs.” He met her gaze. “Are you all right, Morning Dove?”

“I am fine.”

“I need to know what happened to deal with these three. Do you want to press charges?”

Yes, but she was not stupid enough to do it. She bit her lip and shook her head. “No. I would like to go home. It was nothing more than a misunderstanding.”

The pock-marked one spit blood, his hate-filled eyes locked on her. She focused on the Marshal. His expression said he knew why she was not making more of a fuss and there was sympathy shining in his gaze. At least he was not as oblivious as most of the townsfolk acted.

“All right,” he said. “You take him over to Doc Reid’s. I’ll deal with these three.”

She watched him walk away, the men who started this complete mess grumbling the entire time. Focusing on Ben, the sight of his bleeding face brought on a wave of guilt. They had beaten him bloody because of her. “I am sorry, Ben.”

“For what?”

“For that,” she said, nodding to his face. “You did not have—“

“—Yes, I did.” He shifted and winced again. “I saw them shove you into the alley from across the street. I also saw no one stepping in to help you.”

Ben braced his hand on the ground and tried to get up. Morning Dove grabbed his free arm and helped best she could. “You should see Doctor Reid like Marshal Avery suggested.”

“I’ll be fine.”

She doubted it but did not say as much. Her basket and all its contents were scattered across the ground. She retrieved them, happy the jar of apple preserves had not busted. The bag Aaron’s coffee beans were in did though, a good portion of them littering the grass.

“Are you in town alone?”

Ben’s question brought her head up. “Yes.” She lifted the basket. “Betsey needed a few things, so I told her I would ride into town to get them since Samuel was having his nap.”

“Well, come on, I’ll escort you back home.”

Her girlish heart pounded at his words. “You do not have to do that.”

He lifted his arm and wiped his bleeding nose on his shirtsleeve. “I know I don’t but I’m going to do it anyway.”

The look on his face said he was not taking no for an answer. Morning Dove hooked her basket over her arm and tried to calm her racing pulse before nodding and heading back to the sidewalk.

They made the ride across the prairie in silence. Ben was in a lot of pain, regardless of what he said. Morning Dove could see it in his eyes, in the slow way he moved, and grimaced when he had settled on his horse’s saddle.

The day played out inside her head like moving pictures on the way home. The men she had run into were only three in a long line of people who pushed and shoved her around. Most everyone she knew in Willow Creek loved this town and were convinced the residents who lived here were, “the best bunch of folk you would ever meet.” She had never believed it. What most of her acquaintances did not know was that the people they thought were good and kind were cruel and had hearts as black as tar. There were the exceptions, though. Ben Atwater being one of them.

As bad as it was at times, she still preferred Willow Creek to her old life back in Silver Falls. Life there had been unbearable and as terrible as it could be here sometimes, at least there was no Walter Burns. There was no make-believe marriage she could tell anyone about. No beatings or constant yelling. No unwanted touches in the middle of the night or working herself weary every single day. Here, she had a proper home, one she worked hard to keep, so she said nothing about the occasional verbal abuse she took from the townsfolk.

Here, life was perfect compared to the hell it had been.

The day Aaron Hilam rescued her would forever be the most important of her life. He had saved her in more ways than one. He gave her a new home and he and his wife Betsey treated her as if she were a part of their family. She could never repay them for their kindness. She tried. Anything she could do to help them around their small farm, she did without complaint, and she would be forever grateful to them.

Ben made a noise beside her. He looked pale. His nose had stopped bleeding, but with every step the horse made, his jaw clenched. “You should have stayed and seen the doctor.”

He smiled. “You worried about me, Morning Dove?”

The way he said her name always caused her stomach to flutter. Betsey’s brother could turn her into a deaf-mute most days. It took nothing more than a glance from him to have her tongue-tied. After living in Willow Creek for endless months, she still found it hard to talk to him. He was too—overwhelming.

The first time they met, she could not do much more than stare at him. Now, it seemed every time she opened her mouth, she ended up rambling like an idiot, so she kept quiet to keep from looking foolish in front of him.

Ben Atwater was everything Walter Burns was not. He was strong. Confident. Kind. And so handsome he was a walking dream come to life. She would happily sit and stare at him all day if she could, just to admire the way his blue eyes shined when he laughed, or to see how the sun turned his brown hair red when it hit at the right angle. He was loyal and brave and on the outside was the perfect man.

But his drinking problem told her he was not.

He was plagued in ways Betsey thought might kill him one day. She glanced his way again. If she had to guess, she would say his bloodshot eyes were the product of too much whiskey and not the brutal fight, and she had enough complications in her life without falling for a man who drank more often than not, which was why she avoided him at all costs. She barely escaped Walter, and she was not in any hurry to tie herself to someone who had as many problems as Walter did. Ben Atwater was off limits, regardless of how badly she wished he was not. He was Betsey’s brother, and that alone put him in the friend category. His drinking drove the fact home.

~*~

Fury chased away most of Ben’s pain. Morning Dove was silent at his side, and his anger built with every agonizing step Cash took. His horse was agitated underneath him, as if he could sense his mood.

He glanced over at Morning Dove again, taking in the long line of her neck. Her hair, which he knew was sleek and black as night, was pulled into a bun at the back of her head, much the same way Betsey wore hers. The calico dress she wore was more than likely Betsey’s as well and even though he’d never say it out loud, the look didn’t suit Morning Dove at all. It was too—plain. The woman at his side looked as wild and untamed as the west was wide and he preferred her that way. Putting on gingham dresses to blend in was almost criminal. He liked her in the buckskin dress she sometimes wore with her hair loose and shining in the noonday sun.

The morning replayed in his mind’s eye again. He’d caught sight of her the moment he stepped onto the sidewalk, and as he always did when seeing her, he watched her every step. Watching her bump into someone and that someone shove her out of his way as if she were nothing made something inside him snap. He was still furious about it. “Does that sort of thing happen often?”

“Does what happen often?”

She turned wide eyes to him and Ben was struck dumb when her black eyes locked on his own. He took in every lovely inch of her face and wondered for the millionth time what she’d do if he pulled her to him and kissed her like he’d wanted to do since the first day he saw her.

He blinked and cleared his throat. “Strangers accosting you?” Her looking away and not answering was all he needed to know the truth. “How long?”

She sighed and readjusted the reins in her hand. “Does it matter?”

“Of course it does.”

Morning Dove was an enigma. Since the moment he met her, she’d been quiet and reserved. She spoke very little, especially to him. Today was the most he’d heard her say in the past six months.

Her back was rigid and straight, her head held high. She looked proud as she sat on Betsey’s old horse Pansy, but all it took was one look into her eyes to know she held a lifetime of secrets she’d yet to talk about. Even Aaron, as close as he and Morning Dove were, knew very little about her and what he knew, he didn’t share, claiming it wasn’t his story to tell.

Aaron and Betsey’s farmhouse came into view long minutes later and Morning Dove physically relaxed. Her shoulders loosened, her posture not so rigid now, and he’d wondered more than once if he made her uncomfortable. With her rarely speaking to him—or looking at him, for that matter—he imagined he did. He didn’t have the slightest clue why, though.

Betsey stepped out of the house with a large basket under one arm. She headed toward the clothesline, but paused when she saw them, throwing her arm into the air to wave. Her smile was followed by growing horror when they were close enough for her to see him clearly.

“Ben!” She dropped her basket of clean laundry and hurried across the yard. “What happened?”

“Stop fretting, Betsey. It’s nothing.”

“That doesn’t look like nothing.”

Morning Dove stopped and dismounted. “He was in a fight.”

Betsey gave him a narrow-eyed look. “Please tell me you weren’t in the saloon again.”

The words hit home more than they should have. “No, I wasn’t in the saloon.” At least not during the fight.

Morning Dove glanced his way. “It is my fault.”

“No, it wasn’t.” He dismounted, every bone creaking as he did. He held onto the saddle and tried to catch his breath. “Three men were messing with her and I stepped in—”

“And got beat senseless for your trouble.”

Ben met Morning Dove’s gaze over his horse’s back and held it. “It was no trouble. I’d do it again.”

Betsey sighed and came to his side, lifting his arm and draping it over her shoulder. “Come on. Let’s go get you cleaned up. Morning Dove, Aaron’s in the barn. Can you see to Ben’s horse?”

“Yes.”

Ben watched her gather his horse’s reins and lead Cash and Pansy to the barn. Betsey helped him into the house and to one of the chairs at the kitchen table.

“Don’t move.”

He laughed, then winced when something in his stomach pulled. “Believe me, that would be harder to do than I’d like to admit.”

She drew water into a basin and added a few washcloths to it before bringing it back to the table. “Tell me what happened.”

Betsey squeezed the water out of a washcloth and started cleaning the blood from his face as if he were a child. “I’m not really sure. I was across the street when I spotted Morning Dove. She bumped into someone and the asshole shoved her back into the wall.”

Betsey sat up. “He shoved her?”

“Yes. Pretty damn hard too, from what I saw.” She went back to cleaning his face. “I ran across the street and by the time I reached them, they were pushing her into the alley beside the mercantile. It all went tits up from there. I love a good fight but even I can’t take on three at one time and not mess up my pretty face.”

She scoffed and rinsed the washcloth. “Are you ever serious?”

“Only when I have to be.” He winced when she touched a cut under his eye.

“Not that I enjoy cleaning you up after a fight, at least this time it was over something more than a drunken brawl in the saloon.”

He looked away, knowing she was about to lecture him again about how much time he spent in the saloon. About how he knew what drinking caused. How their father had sullied the Atwater name by being the town drunk when he was alive and him following in his footsteps would only drag them down more.

She stopped talking, and he assumed she was finished. He met her gaze and could see the disappointment on her face. It mirrored his own. He knew he was a screw-up. Why Holden Avery kept him on at the ranch was a mystery only the man himself could answer. He’d gone to work more than once so drunk he could barely stand and all the man had done was pour black coffee down his throat and work him until he’d get sick enough to purge the liquor from his stomach.

“You’re not him, Ben.” She grabbed his hand. His knuckles were busted, dried blood caked around his fingers. “He was a drunk and a worthless excuse for a human. You’re better than that.”

The back door opened before she could say more, which he was thankful for. Her words bit deep, like they always did. She was wrong, though. He wasn’t any better. He was drunk more often than not lately, which was probably why his ass had been handed to him today. He was getting too slow to react.

Aaron’s face was red when he stepped into the kitchen. His friend since they were kids took one look at him and cursed under his breath. He turned to Morning Dove who entered the house behind him. “You’re not to go to town alone again.”

She pursed her lips. “I am not a child.”

“I know you’re not, but with all the newcomers moving in and around Willow Creek, it might be safer for someone to always accompany you.”

“I will not live in fear, itákkaa.”

“And I’m not asking you to.”

They argued back and forth until Morning Dove finally rolled her eyes and headed deeper into the house. He had to agree with Aaron on this one. Morning Dove wasn’t safe in town alone.

She hadn’t answered him as to whether the events of today had happened before, but something in her eyes told him it had. He’d seen the prejudice some folks had against her. Most people feared what they didn’t understand and tales of Indians had some people acting before thinking. The looks thrown Morning Dove’s way were filled with hate, but more often than not, it was fear he saw. With an Indian woman living amongst them, he imagined most folks were afraid more would come.

Aaron leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms over his chest. “Morning Dove told me what happened. I want to hear your side. I’m sure she didn’t tell me half of it.”

Ben repeated what he’d told Betsey earlier.

“Who were they?”

“No clue.”

Betsey stood and took the bowl of water to the door to toss out. Aaron took her vacated seat. “Drifters, you reckon?”

“More than likely. I’d never seen them before so if I had to guess, I’d say they were probably passing through.”

“What happened to them?”

“Don’t know. Morgan escorted them away.” He shrugged. “We didn’t hang around to find out what he did with them.”

Betsey came back inside and gave him a pointed look. “You’re staying here tonight.”

He laughed. “I have a home, you know.”

“Yes, but you’re hurt.”

“I’ll live.”

She blew out a breath. “Humor me, all right? It’s not like I can’t see you’re holding your ribs. Are they broken or just bruised?”

“I can still move so bruised I’m guessing.”

“Well, stay for supper, at least. I’ll wrap your ribs and get a hot meal in you. I’ll feel better sending you home with at least that much done for you.”

Eating was something he could do. He nodded and glanced toward the hall Morning Dove had disappeared down. Staying for supper meant he got to spend more time in her presence, and that alone was reason enough to stay.

 

Chapter Two

 

She could not sleep. Morning Dove sighed and threw the blankets back while staring at the ceiling. The house was quiet, the only sound was the creaking of branches from the old tree outside her bedroom window.

The evening before replayed in her mind’s eye as she laid there. Ben had stayed through supper. The conversation around the dinner table had ranged from the almost attack on her to horses and back again. She had been exhausted by the time she excused herself and went to bed.

Aaron had been livid when she told him what had happened in town, even with her downplaying it. He had been a constant friend to her since the day he shot Walter for slapping her face so hard she had fallen.

Walter. The mere thought of him made her furious. He was the most jealous man she had ever known. Aaron had done nothing more than ask her a simple question—what town was he in—and her reply of Silver Falls had been enough to set Walter off. He had slapped her and when Aaron said something about it, the old fool had pulled his gun, but Aaron was faster. The only downside to the entire ordeal was that Walter had lived to complain about it.

It was not all bad. The shooting had set off a chain of events that turned her miserable existence into one she looked forward to everyday. She was free here. The townsfolk may look at her as if she was something foul on the bottom of their shoes, but she would take their fear and scorn of her over Walter’s overbearing presence any day of the week.

Getting up, she dressed in her own clothes, the worn buckskin more comfortable than the long dresses Betsey gave her to wear. They thought by dressing her up like the other women in town, people would forget who she was, but all it did was make them think she was trying to hide in plain sight and she supposed she was. It never worked, though.

After brushing and braiding her hair into two long tails, she headed for the kitchen. It was still dark out, but the sky over the mountain was turning purple, signaling the arrival of the sun. The full moon lit the prairie beyond the house all the way to Willow Creek and she stared out at the world until a noise at her back made her jump.

Ben stood in the doorway to the kitchen, one arm around his middle. Betsey had wrapped his ribs the night before. She had insisted on trying to wash the blood from his shirt and ended up giving him one of Aaron’s instead. He was not wearing it now.

She tried not to stare at his naked chest, or the dark patch of hair that covered it and trailed down to his flat belly. Tried not to notice the hard play of muscles that lay beneath his flesh or how bronzed his skin was from working outdoors.

“I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“You did not,” she lied, tearing her gaze from his exposed chest to his face. “I did not know you were still here.”

He grinned, the whites of his teeth shining. “Betsey’s as stubborn as the day is long. She refused to let me leave once it got dark.” He motioned into the living room with a tilt of his head. “I stretched out on the couch, not that it did much good. I’m not sure I got an hour’s sleep all night.”

Me either.

Ben pushed away from the doorframe he was leaning against and sauntered into the room. Morning Dove grabbed the coffee pot and filled it with water as he pulled a chair out from the table, the legs scraping against the floor loud in the stillness.

As usual when around Ben, she found it hard to look at him. She stayed at the stove, taking her time lighting it and getting the coffee ready to brew.

“Why don’t you ever talk to me?”

The sound of Ben’s voice made her entire body jolt. She glanced at him over her shoulder. He was leaned back in his chair, his legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles. “I do talk to you.”

“Only when I speak to you first.”

She turned away and shrugged a shoulder, ignoring the way her pulse was racing. “I did not know you wished for me to speak to you.”

“That’s what friends do when they see each other.”

Friends? “Is that what we are?”

“What? Friends?”

She met his gaze again and nodded her head. “Yes.”

He studied her face, his eyes flicking over every inch before they settled on her mouth. Her pulse leapt at the heated look that filled his eyes.

“I’d like to think so.”

His voice was pitched low, his gaze still on her mouth. Her tripping pulse quickened as he sat there staring, and a crazy notion he wanted to kiss her popped into her head.

Do not be silly. Ben does not think of you in that way.

Did he?

She looked away, licking her lips now that her back was to him. The sound of shuffling feet saved her from having to examine things too closely as Betsey walked into the room. She stopped when she saw them.

“Why are you two sitting in the dark?”

Morning Dove glanced at the lamp on the table. Neither of them had bothered to light it. Betsey lit it while giving them suspicious glances. Morning Dove supposed it did look odd for them to be sitting in the dark.

Light filled the room moments later and chased away the shadows. Betsey slipped into the pantry and Morning Dove tried not to think about the fact Ben was watching her every move. Had he always paid such close attention to her, or was it all in her head?

The sun was peeking over the mountain by the time Betsey had breakfast started. She helped as always but ended up doing most of the work when Samuel started crying.

Once Aaron woke and they were all seated, the conversation centered around the Avery Ranch and the big party they were planning. The patriarch of the family was celebrating a birthday and at his age, it deserved special recognition.

Morning Dove listened to Aaron and Ben and kept her head down until she heard her name. Everyone was staring at her when she looked up. “What?”

Ben smiled, one corner of his mouth tilting up. He had not shaved in a while, his jaw darkened by a few days worth of stubble, and his hair was sticking up at odd angles from where he had run his fingers through the thick strands. That heated look she noticed in his eyes earlier was still there.

Aaron reached for another biscuit, the motion pulling her gaze from Ben.

“Told you she wasn’t listening,” Aaron said.

Betsey gave her husband a look before turning to her. “Aaron volunteered you to make your Rhubarb cookies for the party and Ben thinks he should get the entire batch since he fought off three attackers for you.”

He wanted her to bake for him?

“Come on, Morning Dove.” Ben’s smile turned into a full-blown grin. “Those saddle bums messed up my pretty face. Making me a whole mess of those cookies is the least you could do.”

Aaron snorted a laugh.

Morning Dove bit back a pleased grin and said, “I could have let them beat you silly instead of going after help, but I did not.”

He laughed, the sound rich and husky. “No, you didn’t. And for that, I’m eternally thankful.”

Morning Dove noticed Betsey out of the corner of her eye. She was giving her a peculiar look, one eyebrow raised as she looked between the two of them. Her face was no doubt red. She could feel heat crawling up her neck, more so when she glanced at Ben. He had both arms crossed in front of him on the table as he leaned toward her. She supposed it did look suspiciously—familiar.

She picked up her plate and carried it to the sink. The sound of chair legs scraping across the floor filled the silence.

“I’ll take care of the dishes, Morning Dove.”

“I do not mind doing them.”

“I know you don’t.” Betsey bumped her hip with hers and gently pushed her out of the way. “But you cooked most of it. The least I can do is clean the mess.” She looked back over her shoulder at the table. “Besides, Aaron is going to help me.”

He lifted his head. “I am?”

Betsey smirked before nodding to Samuel where he sat in his chair. “After you change your son, you are.”

Aaron blew out a breath and leaned down to be eye level with Samuel. “Don’t let a woman manipulate you like I let your ma do to me.”

Betsey laughed. “And don’t grow into the type of man so easily manipulated by a woman, Samuel.”

Morning Dove eased out the side door as they bantered back and forth. When she shut the screen behind her and looked back inside, Ben was still watching her.

~*~

The morning sun was bright when Ben stepped out of the house. He’d left Aaron and Betsey to clean up the dishes, insisting he had to go. It wasn’t a complete lie. He did need to show up for work. He wasn’t sure how much he could do with his ribs aching the way they did but Holden didn’t appreciate being left wondering where any of them were when they were supposed to be working, so he was going even though he knew he had to look like hell. His face hurt this morning, and all the smiling and laughing he’d done over breakfast hadn’t helped. He’d do it all again, though.

Most mornings, he woke and sat in the dark, drinking his coffee while staring across the room at nothing. The silence brought home the fact that he was alone and had been his entire adult life, which is probably why he found himself in the saloon so often. There, he had someone to talk to and occasionally—when he was too drunk to care—had a woman’s soft lips to kiss away his troubles.

The barn was lit in streaks of light when he walked inside to saddle his horse. Cash greeted him at the stall door, his head bobbing up and down when he saw him. “Eager to run this morning?”

Cash snorted. He’d take that as a yes. Getting him saddled was harder than it should have been. Every move pulled some muscle he wasn’t aware he had the day before and he was sweating by the time he led Cash out of the barn.

He grabbed the pommel and was about to pull up when he heard soft humming. He looked around the yard and guided Cash to the edge of the barn. Morning Dove was near the chicken coop, tossing down feed.

“Morning.” She startled. That’s the second time today he’d scared her.

She gave him a quick glance before tossing out more feed for the chickens. “Leaving?”

“Yeah. I need to get to work.”

Upending the near empty pan she held, she stared across the valley toward the mountains. “I did not say it yesterday but I am grateful for what you did.” She turned and looked at him. Her gaze darted across his face, stopping on the bruises he knew were there. She sighed and shook her head. “I am sorry for that.” She nodded toward him, referring to his bruises if he had to guess. “But had you not intervened…”

She left the sentence hanging. He knew what she wasn’t saying. Had he not been there, things would have turned out differently. He was still mad as hell no one had stepped in to help her. That he’d had to cross the road to get to her while others watched those bastards herd her into the alley, knowing full well they weren’t doing so to have a polite conversation with her.

He gathered Cash’s reins and wrapped them around the pommel. “You didn’t answer me yesterday when I asked, but does that sort of thing happen often?”

“What? Being pushed around and threatened?” She gave him the saddest smile he’d ever seen. “No. That was a first but…”

“But what?” he prompted when she stopped talking.

She looked toward the mountains again. “But at times, people are cruel.”

“How so?”

“Nothing harmful. Just harsh words.”

“Words can be harmful, Morning Dove. I know from experience. My father flung them around like a weapon most days, so I know the impact they have. They burrow in deep and stay with you every second of the day.”

She nodded and stared across the valley for long moments before crossing the distance between them. “They are nothing I have not heard before nor anything I will not hear again in the future.” She rubbed Cash’s head before softly saying, “Thank you for saving me, Ben.”

He watched her as she ran her hand over Cash’s head. So many emotions crossed her face, but it was her eyes that told of her sadness. “You don’t have to thank me, Morning Dove. I’ll be your hero anytime you wish me to be.”

Her cheeks darkened and the tiniest smile curved her lips. “I am not sure my life is exciting enough to need a full time hero.”

“A man can dream, can’t he?” Lord knew he dreamed plenty about her. He wondered what she’d say if she knew half the things that went through his mind.

“He is beautiful.”

It took him a moment to realize she was talking about Cash. “He is.” Cash’s light gray coat shined in the morning sun. His mane was longer than most and he was as ornery as he was beautiful.

“Does he have a name?”

“Cash.” He patted the horse’s neck. “Holden Avery has the best horses in Montana as far as I’m concerned, and Cash is the finest he’s ever bred. He cost me a small fortune too, hence his name.”

She smiled. “I am sure he is worth every penny you paid for him.”

“He is.” She said nothing else and looked toward the house. He took that as a sign their conversation was over. “Well, I guess I better head home and get cleaned up. Holden’s probably wondering where I am.”

The climb into Cash’s saddle hurt like hell, but he managed to do it without groaning in pain in front of her. “So, I’ll see you at the Avery’s party?”

“Aaron and Betsey will insist I go so, yes, I suppose you will.”

“Good.” He clicked his tongue to get Cash moving. “Don’t forget to bring my cookies.”

Her growing smile chased him out of the barnyard.

End of excerpt…

 


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About Lily Graison

Lily Graison is a USA TODAY bestselling author of historical western romances. She also writes a variety of genres under the name L. R. Grasion. Most all of her stories lean heavily to the spicy side with strong female leads and heroes who tend to always get what they want. She writes full time and lives in Hickory, NC with her husband and a house full of Yorkies

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