Eliza O’Malley made her way through the crowds and wondered if her father and brothers had prepared the pens that would be needed to care for so many animals. Well, she would know soon. Her boot heels clicked on the boardwalk as she passed others by, intent on doing the necessary business so they could leave as soon as Papa showed up. After she passed a few shops she saw, just ahead, a building with a large sign that read BANK.
The crowd on the walk had stopped moving – they appeared to gather around something she couldn’t see, all gawking at whatever was at the center of the walk. Eliza gritted her teeth in irritation. She did not have time for this. She stepped off the wooden sidewalk and into the street to bypass them.
Eliza bit back a scream when the sudden sound of hoof beats and the thudding vibration on the hard packed earth beneath her feet alerted her she had made what could be a deadly misstep. So lost in her thoughts, she’d walked right into the path of a galloping horse.
Instinct took over and Eliza stretched out her hand and grasped the bridle, not even realizing there was a man on the horse’s back.
Her heart beat so hard she thought it may beat itself out of her chest. Eliza looked up to the rider. He was a mountain of a man. She couldn’t see his face clearly due to his wide rimmed hat, but his height and breadth blocked the sun and caused her heart to stutter and her breath to catch in her throat.
With a grace that belied his girth, the man leaped from the horse and yanked the bridle from her hand.
“And what do you think you are doing, grabbing my horse? Are ye daft, woman? I came close enough to running you down when I was in control of my horse.”
The adrenalin rush brought on by fear immediately turned to anger. Was this man implying that she was feeble minded?
She jerked her gaze up to meet his eyes. “I’ll have you know I had perfect control, sir.”
“A woman in control would not step in the path of a moving horse,” he scoffed. His voice was deep and rumbled out of his strong, broad chest, and despite her anger with him, his voice did strange things to her tummy, turning it all warm and jumpy.
She grit her teeth again, embarrassment now mixed with irritation, but she wasn’t backing down.
“The sun was in my eyes, sir. I didn’t see you at first.”
He glared down at her, looking for all the world like he might wrap those large hands around her neck, and her breath caught in her throat. Oh, my. She was being taken to task by the most beautiful man she had ever seen. His eyes were a deep, dark blue, almost midnight blue with flecks of green scattered in the depths. The sandy lashes that framed them were longer than any man had a right to sport. His hair, a dark copper color, curly and unruly, brushed his collar and framed a strong, square face. His lips, currently pressed together in annoyance, were full, and his complexion was deeply tanned with a slight ruddy cast.
Eliza stepped back from the sheer impact of his physical beauty and caught her heel on the raised sidewalk. With a quickness which belied his mass, he reached out and caught her by the arm before she fell backward.
He shook his head, the look he gave her one she was sure was reserved for those not quite in their right mind. “Lass!”
Her arm, where his hand steadied her, burned and tingled at the same time. She did not hear the lecture that spurted from his mouth. No, instead she busily cataloged every detail of this irate but handsome man. His tapered waist and strong, very long legs were impressive, as long, wide and sturdy as tree branches, and she gulped back a sigh. He released her arm and put one hand on his hip, while the other held the reins and bridle to his horse. A black and white sheep dog sat at his side and watched her intently. The dog stood and ambled closer, sniffed at her hand, then leaned in, pressing its body close to her. She gave it a pat and scratched behind its ears before she looked back at its stern owner. When she returned her gaze to his face, his lips were turned down in a stern frown. He raised an imploring hand.
“I could have killed you, lass. It is a rough and tumble town, Cheyenne. You’ll need to be more careful.”
“Yes, sir, I will.” She swallowed, more confused by her awareness of this man than the fact she had indeed almost been killed. “Thank you.” She began to step back onto the boardwalk, but once again he took her arm and held her in place.
“You’re new here.” It wasn’t a question.
She leaned her head to one side so she could look up at him again.
He blew out a resigned sigh. “Let me escort you. What is your destination?”
Eliza’s mouth went dry at the unexpected offer and she had trouble forming the words. She nodded the direction she’d been going. “The bank,” she finally squeaked out, “but you don’t have to.”
He gave his head another shake, his lips curled into a small half smile as he studied her. “Yes, Miss, I think I do.
The mountain of a man nodded and flipped the reins of his horse over a hitching rail before he assisted her with the step, then offered his arm and walked her into the bank.