Dare To Love by Catherine Stang by Catherine Stang - Read Online

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Summary

Jessica Monroe is up to her neck in problems when her father dies leaving her with a house full of orphans, a widow and her twins, an ex-madam, and a horse farm to run. She wants her brother, Caleb, to come home from the war to help her. She should have been careful what she wished for because Caleb didn't come back alone. He brought with him a band of raiders he'd been running with. Now they expect her to look the other way while they use the edge of her farm as a base to commit their crimes. Well, she won't do it. While trying to help a neighbor fend off the raiders, she ends up bringing home a wounded stranger who appeared out of nowhere to help them. Just her luck handsome, Tyler Beaumont, is a marshal intent on bringing down her brother and his outlaw friends.
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781603134569
List price: $3.99
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Dare To Love - Catherine Stang

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love.~~

Chapter 1

Kansas – Missouri border

1867

Look, Jessie! Sixteen-year-old Drew Sullivan pointed off at the distant horizon. Riders are coming.

Jessica Monroe dropped the clean sheet into the basket. Tucking a wayward strand of blonde hair behind her ear, she held a hand up to shield her eyes from the setting sun as she watched them head her direction. Being the best horse trainer in the area, she knew most everyone’s horse, but she didn’t recognize these. It was too late in the day for callers. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. These approaching men could mean one thing—trouble.

Heaven knows, living on the Kansas-Missouri border, they’d seen more than their share of trouble over the past few years. She couldn’t tell from this distance, but she guessed there were at least five of them.

She clapped her hands, hoping to gain the attention of three-year-old Faith and six-year-old twins Megan and Molly, who were happily chasing each other around the yard.

Just beyond them she could see eleven-year-old Kajika and nine-year-old Willy picking vegetables in the garden. They stood, watching her.

Take the others back up to the house, Drew. Go warn Stella. Help Harriet get the others upstairs out of sight, she ordered, trying to keep the fear out of her voice.

She groaned at the stubborn expression on his face. The boy had a protective streak that made him seem years older. Her father had brought him home after his parents and sister died from fever. Like all the others, Drew had become family. So, regardless of how much she protested otherwise, he steadfastly believed it was his job to be the man of the house after her father died, especially since she didn’t have a husband. Drew had taken to heart all her father’s lessons about protecting those weaker than you.

Please, just do it. She tried to sound firm, but knew it came out more like a desperate plea.

It was obvious by the determined set of his jaw that he was struggling to decide whether to obey her or not. His brows furrowed. Despite his youth, he towered over her, so if he chose to argue with her, there would be little hope of winning.

Since her father had died, they’d all been struggling to adjust to her new role as head of the family. Even though she’d taken care of most of the day-to-day things, they had still turned to her father as the final authority. He’d treated her as one of the older children, and so the others still saw her more as big sister than a mother figure. The younger ones weren’t so much of a problem, but even after three years, with the older boys, it was still a perception she was trying to overcome.

Drew, Jessie snapped. Her voice was sharper this time, but with anxiety. Go!

He gave the combination wave and whistle that was their family’s signal to stop what they were doing and come.

Being a military man, her father had instilled in all of them that there were times when you just had to obey.

The children froze, watching him. With a flick of his wrist, he sent the girls racing back to the house. Kajika and Willy came to see what she needed them to do.

She mentally thanked her father for being so insistent that they know the signals.

Now, if she could convince the boys to obey...

Kajika wasn’t as tall as Drew, but he considered himself a warrior. His late father had been Indian and he’d taught Kajika how to shoot and use a knife in ways that still made her shiver to think about. Like Drew, he saw himself as her protector. And Willy did whatever the other boys did.

I want you boys to go back to the house and watch after the others.

Kajika looked at her with that silent, assessing way of his before nodding. He turned, taking Willy with him back to the house.

Drew didn’t move.

I mean it, she said firmly, wishing she had the mother’s tone and look down as well as Stella.

He continued to stand there, watching the men ride closer to the yard.

I’ll go get them upstairs with Harriet, but then I’ll be back. I’m not hiding in the house like a baby.

He walked away without giving her a chance to respond, unless of course, she wanted to yell at him across the yard.

Drat the boy for being so stubborn. When he set his mind to something, he never gave an inch.

Pulling another sheet off the clothesline, she tried to remain calm as the riders entered her yard. It was times like this that she missed her father’s commanding presence. Being responsible for a house full of people he’d left behind wasn’t easy. Was she up to the task?

Merciful heaven, what a ragtag group they were. One rider broke off, heading straight toward her. As he came closer, her heart stopped. Out of uniform and filthy, but still undeniable. It couldn’t be, could it?

Staring boldly back at her from astride his Paint horse was her older brother, Caleb. Her relief at seeing him alive and well quickly evaporated, replaced by unease. Gone was the timid boy who’d left in a fit of anger after their father died. Before her was a stranger. One she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

Don’t you recognize me, Jessie? His tone held a mocking quality that set her teeth on edge.

Looking him over, she tried to find a flicker of the brother she had once known, but little remained. His hair had lightened to an ash blond. The dirty beard did nothing to hide his weathered face. Gone were the teasing eyes and laugh lines. They’d been replaced by a coldness that made her shiver.

Flustered, she tried to speak. Of course I do. At least I thought I did.

He glared back at her with eyes so hard she wondered if any of the boy she’d played with and loved even still existed.

Composing herself, she moved closer to him, lowering her voice to a husky whisper. What are you doing with these men? Can’t you see they’re up to no good?

Caleb squared his shoulders, making himself appear taller in the saddle. You’d do well to keep your opinions to yourself, Jessie. I see time hasn’t tamed your unruly tongue.

And it hasn’t made me blind either.

* * * *

Caleb would have laughed if Jessica wasn’t purposely trying to irritate him. His sister was feisty to the end.

Damn, he shouldn’t have come back here. How could he expect his family to just accept what he’d done and who he’d become?

But it was too late now. Gil and Kurt and the others would see leaving as a retreat. If he gave any hint of caring, they’d think him weak. Showing weakness was a good way to get them all killed.

The look on his sister’s face told him that she had no intention of giving an inch, either.

He snorted. For a woman raised around military men, she didn’t take orders very well.

She wanted a fight. He’d give her one and hope to hell she didn’t push him beyond his limits of control. Or they’d all be sorry.

Well now, who is this pretty lady?

He stiffened at Gil’s raspy voice. Damn, he’d been so caught up in fighting with his sister that he’d let the man sneak up on him. Gil knew damn well who she was, so he was poking him and doing a damn good job of it. How could he introduce his sister to these men like he expected them to be friends?

On second thought, maybe she’d be more cooperative if he did. This is Kurt, who was my captain during the war, Gil, Wolf and Adam.

She didn’t acknowledge the introduction, just continued to glare at him as though he lost his mind.

This is my younger sister, Jessica, Caleb continued, ignoring her defiant behavior.

Ma’am. Wolf tipped his hat.

Kurt nodded his greeting. Their leader was never much for words. Instead, he tended to sit back and watch the others, only interfering when necessary. A habit that was fast becoming annoying.

Adam just stared at her, as if the boy had no idea what to say to a woman.

Pleased to meet you. Gil’s gaze roamed rudely over her. Oh, yeah, mighty pleased to meet you.

The thought of this man with untamed brown hair and beady eyes even being near his sister sent chills through him. What the hell had been thinking? He hadn’t. It was the whiskey bragging that night.

Ah...Gil, Kurt and I spent time during the war together.

The look on her face made him wonder if she suspected just exactly how they’d spent their time together. His face heated at the thought.

Damn. He never should have come back here.

* * * *

Jessica couldn’t believe that her brother was actually introducing her to this bunch of riff raff and expecting her to... What?

Instead of a polite greeting, all she could muster was a curt nod. There is water over there.

She went back to taking down clothes, hoping they’d get the hint and ride off.

Thought you said she’d feed us, Gil grumbled.

Jessica shot her brother a glower. How dare he put me in this position?

Caleb swung down from his horse. Moving toward Jessica in one long stride, he tossed a careless arm around her shoulder.

How she wanted to slap him.

My little sister talks big, but she knows who’s boss. Ain’t that right, Jessie? The look in his eyes dared her to defy him.

Her face burned with fury. She took a deep breath, struggling to control her temper.

She’s just overcome by surprise at seeing me. Why don’t you run along and fix us some chow? He playfully swatted her shoulder.

She stiffened. He thought to tease her into acting like nothing had changed? Well, he was in for a rude awakening.

She don’t look too happy to see you, Gil said.

That’s an understatement. And here she’d been praying for him to come home. What had she been thinking?

I’d say, another one hollered.

A few catcalls and laughter erupted from the men. Jessica tensed, but fought back the urge to say anything to them. Instead, she shot her brother another frosty glare and she pulled a sheet off the line.

He didn’t respond. Just kept watching her.

When she made no move to do what he wanted, he stepped between the sheets.

What the hell is wrong with you? Just do it. Papa would...

Oh, no. She gave the sheet an angry toss into the basket. Papa wouldn’t... He’d never let these...these...

He raised his hand to hit her, but a gunshot behind them caused him to pause, his hand in the air. The look in Caleb’s eyes told her that his actions stunned him almost as much as it did her.

She turned to find Drew holding a smoking rifle aimed at the sky as he glared at Caleb. Try to touch her again and I make the next one count.

The click of the revolvers cocking reverberated through the tense silence.

I’d forget that idea or they’ll be picking up pieces of you all over the yard, boy. Gil sneered.

Don’t, Drew. It’s Caleb.

She moved in front of Drew, hoping they would hesitate to shoot a woman, but she wasn’t counting on it. She penned Drew with a look that used to make him squirm when he was younger.

I can see that. Drew’s expression hardened. What makes him think he can show up here and start giving orders?

I have every right. Pa left the farm to me, Caleb snapped as he stepped around her to glare at Drew.

With the assumption you’d take care of it. I don’t see you helping out. Drew stepped forward, showing no sign of backing down.

Well, at least I belong here, which is more than you do.

Drew’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

Enough. She pushed between the two angry men.

Even though they both towered over her, Drew and Caleb grew quiet.

Still caring for Pa’s strays I see. Caleb folded his arms over his chest, giving her a look that dared her to deny it. Funny how you’ll protect them, but won’t feed your own brother.

I never said I wouldn’t feed you, she hissed under breath. It’s your friends I object to.

Anger flared in Caleb’s eyes again. Her heart leapt in her throat as she knew, with absolute certainty, that he was capable of hurting her this time if she pushed him too far. Whatever had happened to him while he’d been gone had left very little of the boy she remembered.

I don’t need protection, Drew growled. And I’ll be damned if I’ll eat a meal with a bunch of—

I said that’s enough. She shoved Drew, trying to grab the rifle, but he refused to let go.

You going to let that boy talk to you that way, Monroe? Gil taunted as he got off his horse. I’d say he needs a lesson in manners.

Panic welled up inside her. If these men decided to hurt Drew there’d be little she could to do to stop them. Unless...

Before Drew could react she stepped hard on his foot, wrestling the gun from him. The men hooted with laughter, but stopped when she cocked it.

I’m a crack shot. Just ask my brother. She pointed her gun directly at grimy Gil.

Jessie... Caleb protested, reaching for her gun, but she stepped back out of his reach, still keeping the gun leveled on Gil.

You going to let him hurt us? she said to Caleb, without taking her eyes off the other man.

Hellfire, Jessie...

You’re better off shooting your brother than me. The look on Gil’s face said he knew she’d do neither.

He could think what he liked, but she wasn’t backing down. At this moment she’d be more that happy to take them all down.

Look, ma’am, a large man astride a black horse said, we don’t need any extra trouble, do we, Kurt? All we want is to water our horses and ourselves, eat and bed down for the night.

He’s right, Jessie, Caleb said quietly. We’ll be on our way in the morning.

Knowing she couldn’t really fight them all, she let out a harsh breath, slowly lowering her weapon. Although she didn’t want to give in and feed them, she realized she had little choice. If she wanted to keep the others safe, she needed to cooperate.

She cleared her throat. I have stew on right now. I’ll make corn bread if you’d like. Her voice sounded toneless.

Without a word, she turned and walked away. Behind her she could hear Gil making crude comments. She tried not to look back.

Drew walked stiffly in front of her.

Caleb’s eyes searched hers as he pushed past her into the house, but he had the good sense not to provoke her further.

Before she could get into the kitchen, a hand caught her arm, spinning her around. She defiantly stared back into Gil’s cold gray eyes, wondering if she could actually shoot him.

Tell anyone about this visit, and I’ll be back. None of you will be safe. You and that boy are no match for me. He laughed harshly. You think they’d let you shoot me? His fingers cut into her arm.

Do you really want to find out? Jessie held his gaze with a defiant one of her own.

He watched for a long tense moment before a mirthless smile spread across face. I believe you might just do that. But what about the others?

She stiffened.

Or your brother? He cocked his head, seeming to enjoy her reaction. Or are you going to pretend that you don’t care about him?

At the moment she could kill her brother just as easily as she could Gil.

Jessie.

Gil released her arm at the sound of Caleb’s voice behind them.

I was just giving her a warning.

She knows to be quiet, Caleb said without looking back at her.

She didn’t answer, just turned her back on Gil and brushed past Caleb. She’d keep her silence. He’d given her little choice.

* * * *

What’s the matter, Jessica? Stella watched her usually unflappable best friend enter the kitchen looking pale and shaken.

I don’t trust these men...

"Harriet took the children upstairs. I wasn’t sure she’d get the boys to go. Kajika and Willy agreed because Drew planned to