The Cattle Baron's Reluctant Mistress by Lietha Wards - Read Online
The Cattle Baron's Reluctant Mistress
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Summary

Leah was trying her best to help her father's meagre ranch survive the drought, but without the neighbor's help it seemed impossible. She gathered her courage to ask him for aid, but his terms were impossible. It was either become his mistress or let her father go bankrupt. Maybe the decision would have been easier if he wasn't so drop dead gorgeous!

Published: Lietha Wards on
ISBN: 9781466059924
List price: $3.29
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The Cattle Baron's Reluctant Mistress - Lietha Wards

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Chapter One

Leah cursed to herself as she saw the break in the fence. Usually she kept a good eye on the fences for her father, but somehow she’d missed this one and a few of their herd had escaped onto the neighbor’s land. The fence was old and they didn’t have the money or the manpower to replace it. It was mostly held together by twenty-five-year-old weathered wood and rusty barbed wire. She probably spent more time during the day keeping an eye on it than she did anything else. She muttered another curse while looking up over the empty rise.

Cursing wasn’t like her, but she seemed to be doing it more often lately. She was worried about everything and this really didn’t help. Her cattle could have a few good hours’ head start on her and their neighbor’s spread was huge. Unfortunately, she’d already heard stories about the new owner of the Lazy ‘C’ and knew he was about as unforgiving as the old one—she needed to get their cattle back as soon as possible before her father had to deal with an angry neighbor. He had enough problems at the moment.

Leah hadn’t heard anything horrific like the neighbor tortured children or anything, just that he was wealthy, and that usually meant a lack of understanding when it came to people like her and her father—that is, people who worked mercilessly to earn a living. They put in eighteen-hour days if they were lucky and always seemed to go two steps forward and three back.

It wasn’t often that she put any faith in gossip, but they couldn’t take chances because what little money they had went to the ranch and they couldn’t risk damage to another rancher’s property. That meant a risk of losing their own spread through a lawsuit. Fortunately, she knew not many of their cattle could’ve made a break for it because the majority of their herd was down at the dry river bed that she’d just ridden by.

She was concerned about bringing dehydrated cattle back if they had a good lead on her, but she knew her father couldn’t afford to lose any more of his herd. Leah took a deep breath before nudging her horse, Rocket, through the opening in the fence, then urged him to a trot, hoping she could recover the cattle before the new owner was aware of them.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day and the sun seemed especially bright thanks to her anxiousness. She wished this hot spell would end because some rain would definitely be a blessing. One thing their ranch didn’t have right now was water. Every night when she went to bed, she prayed for it to rain because she knew her father couldn’t take much more stress. She worried about him, more than he knew.

Her father and their only ranch hand had been spending all day every day hauling water for the last month because the river had gone dry, so managing the fence line was now one of her jobs. Unfortunately, when cattle grew thirsty, they’d go through anything to get to water—and today was no exception.

It was hot. Really hot. Hotter than usual, it seemed. She couldn’t imagine what the cattle were enduring with those thick, furry hides. She slowed her horse and scanned the horizon, still not seeing them, but maybe they were over the rise further up. She hoped.

After about twenty minutes, Leah reined up to reach down and pull her shirt out of the waistband of her cut-offs, tying the edges up in a knot above her belly button. She was overheating under the sun. Then after glancing around, she undid the top two buttons of her shirt. She was usually quite modest, but she was too hot to care right now and there wasn’t another soul in sight. She usually didn’t wear cut-offs on horseback either because the leather of the saddle chafed the skin of her inner thighs, but the heat was awful. She grinned to herself, thinking that she’d be better off riding horseback naked if she wasn’t afraid of being seen, but then there’d be more things she’d have to worry about than being chafed. She laughed a little at that. She felt daring in a way because there was no possibility of ever being this bold in public.

She was a tomboy. Her best friend laughed at her about it constantly, but she didn’t mind and took the teasing well. It didn’t help that Kimmy was runway model material, and even though she’d received offers for that career, Kimmy had decided to get an education instead. Leah was proud of her for doing it. Kimmy said it was because she couldn’t deal with such grueling schedules or the dieting. She liked food too much.

Leah laughed as she remembered that conversation. Kimmy was one of those girls who could eat like a glutton and not gain a pound. As for college, Leah really would have liked to go too, but she’d never had the chance. They hadn’t had the money or relief to let her go. She was hoping for this fall because her father was insisting on it—more than likely because he felt guilty—but she knew that it wasn’t going to happen. The river might fill up with fresh mountain water again, but just like the past two years, it would run dry—and then she’d have to drop out in the middle of a semester.

Lord, it is hot.

Lifting her straw hat, Leah reached up to wipe her brow with the back of her arm, silently wishing again that the heat wave would end. When she dropped her arm, she spotted a lone rider on a buckskin coming over the crest of a dry, sunburned hill about a quarter mile off. With him were several cattle—three, to be exact. Forgetting how she was dressed, she replaced her hat and stood up in the stirrups, shading her eyes to get a better look at him.

The man definitely knew how to herd cattle, and his horse seemed specially trained to anticipate every move they made. Even at this distance, she could make out the rider’s strength and physique. He sat in the saddle with notable confidence, looking totally relaxed and completely attuned to his horse, which let her know that he was no stranger to the saddle. Leah found herself admiring his skill. Not many people rode that way anymore except for the most seasoned ranch hands and her own father.

She figured that he was herding her escapees back toward her and wondered if the new owner was already aware of them on his land. Hopefully, the cowboy had just decided to lead them back and not say anything. Sometimes the ranch hands understood each other better than the wealthy owners, and because of that, they’d remain a little more loyal to their own kind.

As the rider drew closer, she realized he was ruggedly handsome too. His Stetson was pulled low on his brow so it was difficult for her to see his eyes, but she didn’t miss the strong jaw with a day’s worth of dark stubble. His tan showed that he was no greenhorn on the range.

When he reined up next to her, he reached up lazily and tilted his Stetson back to reveal incredibly light hazel eyes loaded with intelligence. They dipped over her body with a calm superiority as though she was unwelcome but still worth a look. A corner of his mouth pulled up a little in an arrogant well-what-have-we-here look. He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the saddle horn and looking completely relaxed as he raised his eyes back to hers.

Unexpectedly, she felt her stomach flip as their eyes met. Leah had encountered many ranch hands in her life, but there was something enigmatically different about him. She couldn’t take her eyes off him—and oddly enough, she found herself at a loss for words. He was very handsome in a rugged way that appealed to women like her and it looked as though he was born on a horse by the way he handled the one he was riding. She found a man who knew how to handle horses and cattle like that to be incredibly attractive. It meant that he was tough, rawhide tough—which was a dying breed, according to her father.

Interestingly enough, multimillion-dollar spreads like this one tended to use machines more than horses nowadays to handle their livestock. It impressed her that this cattle baron employed cowboys to work for him when he could easily afford those off-road vehicles to round up his stock.

Her eyes drifted downwards. She noticed that perspiration had formed into droplets at his tanned throat, but barely dampened the vee in his Western-cut shirt. It was unfair. He’d barely broken into a sweat, unlike her, who’d grown up under the hot Arizona sun and was soaked in her own perspiration. Who was this guy?

Unable to help her curiosity, Leah’s eyes ran down his thick chest. It was obvious he was well-proportioned because the material of his shirt strained in all the right places. The top two buttons were undone and she saw a muscular, tanned chest with dark curly hair.

Catching herself ogling him, she wrenched her eyes back to meet his. She noticed that there was a bit of a glint there even though his expression gave nothing away. Without realizing it, she’d been staring at him like she’d never seen a man before in her life.

These yours? he asked in a tone of complete annoyance, bringing her attention back to the cattle.

Oh, yes. Leah struggled to form a complete sentence; she was still trying to recover from gaping at him. I’m sorry, they broke through the fence. The southern drawl he possessed took her completely by surprise. She already thought he was appealing and that accent tipped her over the edge.

Apparently, he agreed.

She blinked a couple of times. The man might be attractive and he had returned her cattle, but his unsympathetic tone and obvious irritation began to raise her own ire. It wasn’t deliberate, she defended, thinking he was almost accusing her of causing this. Everyone in town knew their ranch was hard up for water, but that was never a consideration. They were honest ranchers. Cattle can and do go through fences when they’re thirsty. Anyone who knows anything about cattle knows that.

Maybe she shouldn’t have been so touchy, but she was hot, tired, and cranky. This was just another thing that helped put her behind on the rest of her chores. Then she noticed his mouth twitch as though he was resisting a smile, but then he spoke and his tone hadn’t changed a whit.

I didn’t say that you did this purposely. That is your assumption, he said apathetically, allowing his hazel eyes to dip over her again.

Her eyes widened. It was bold of him to be so rude but still think she was worth a look of interest, especially when he sounded so condescending. He didn’t even try to hide his perusal of her body. It was hard not to say anything to him, but somehow she managed. She wanted to say, stare much? But he had returned her stray cattle and she was grateful for it.

Okay, well, thanks for getting our cattle back, Leah said, dismissing him. She knew it wasn’t worth arguing with the man. By the arrogant tilt of his chin, he looked like someone who was used to winning arguments. He seemed to have an air about him that made him seem right all the time and not very forgiving. Resolving to ignore him, she turned her horse and started to guide her cattle back toward the hole in the fence.

Make sure you mend your fence. Good stock like that need to be looked after, he called after her.

I will, she shot back over her shoulder, no longer allowing her tone to be polite. What a jerk, she thought, but she supposed that a man that handsome probably got away with that kind of behavior. She wondered if his boss knew how rude he was. It was obvious that he knew how to ride since he was such a natural on a horse, he might be a really exceptional ranch hand as well. Maybe that’s why he got away with his behavior—or maybe he never showed that side to his boss. Regardless, Leah had already made up her mind that the man was too darn arrogant to spend another moment talking to, no matter how nice he looked.

She wiped her brow again with her forearm, looking down at herself, and then she stifled a gasp. To her complete horror, she’d forgotten her state of dress—or undress. Then she shot a look over her shoulder to see him still sitting there, watching her.

Oh lord! No wonder he was staring so boldly and acting like he had the right to do so. She was practically advertising herself, dressed like a stripper on horseback! What kind of image did that give off? He must’ve thought she was some sort of wanton woman. How embarrassing! She covered her face with her hand and nearly wanted to weep. What a display she’d given him! No man had ever seen so much of her before.

Then she got angry.

It was his fault! If he wasn’t so distracting, she would have remembered that she was only half-dressed. After a moment, Leah lifted her head, thinking that she might not run into him again. After all, it wasn’t like Galesville was a small town. It was large enough to have its own college. Maybe he wouldn’t remember her, either. With those thoughts repeating hopefully in her mind, she herded the cattle back toward their land.

Behind her, the cowboy sat straight in the saddle, pushed his Stetson further up his brow, and watched her ride off with appreciation. The view from the back was just as delicious as the front—almost. Not bad, not bad at all, he said to himself out loud, causing his horse to swing his ears back his way. He chuckled and patted his neck.

The woman obviously didn’t like him staring at her like that, but she’d practically given him an open invitation wearing that getup. It had been a long time since he’d seen a little morsel that appealing. He’d had had his pick of women and found that most who had a body like that would use it to get attention, but this little gal seemed to be offended by it. Hell, if she didn’t want him looking at her, she shouldn’t have shown so much skin—and what nice skin she had. It was smooth and creamy without as much as one blemish. Slightly darkened by the sun, it made those large lovely eyes of hers stand out even more.

She was a pretty little thing with auburn hair, large blue eyes, and an appealing, pouty mouth. The shirt she wore was tied up between her breasts, cupping them ever so nicely so he could easily guess her bra size—it was around a thirty-six C. Then there was that tiny little waist. He could practically span it with his large hands. She also had long, flawless legs that would look wonderful wrapped around him in a moment of passion. Smiling at the image, he spun his horse around and nudged into a steady trot. He’d run into her again. He’d make sure of it.

***

The next day, Leah had too much work to do and not enough time to do it in—just like the day before. From the moment she got up that morning, she was on the go. It was a good thing, though, because visions from the day before lingered stubbornly in her mind. Memories of a strong, handsome cowboy.

Last night, after she’d brought the stray cattle to the water trough that her father had just filled, she managed to go back and finish mending the fence, but it was just a patch job. It wouldn’t take much for a thirsty cow to charge through the fence again so she saddled up her horse and headed out to finish the job today. However, she found herself wasting time looking around for the cowboy and harshly chastised herself for doing something so stupid. He’d acted as though he didn’t even like her, for heaven’s sake, and she was looking for him.

Leah told herself that it was the heat talking—she wasn’t in the right frame of mind because it had baked the brain