When Blade woke and opened one eye, the ranch house was oddly quiet. It was well past sunrise. By now, pots usually clanged in the kitchen, and the early risers talked in more than nods and one-word whispers. Stretching, he reached for Stormy.
She was gone, probably seeing to a personal need.
He couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt happier. Before he’d drifted off to sleep a few hours ago, she’d turned onto her side, back to his front, and he’d put his arm around her like a husband with his wife. Today, after he asked Zed, Brownie, and Running Bear for her hand, he’d have everything he’d given up— a home, a family, and a woman to love.
A simple letter to his family could share his good news and instruct Jared where to send his money. The first thing he’d do is pay off Stormy’s note to Vance—a surprise gift for his amorous bride-to-be and her fathers. Eager to find her, he dressed and walked downstairs.
The house was deserted. Stepping outside, he scanned the ranch yard. The buckboard wasn’t back.
Blade smiled. From what he’d seen at the dance, Zed was sweet on Ginny Dunn. Running Bear attracted lots of attention, and Brownie certainly deserved a sleep-in morning.
Stormy, bless her heart, was seeing to the morning chores. He’d ask her what she wanted for breakfast. Then with soft kisses on the side of her neck, he’d entice her back into bed. Practice making a Blade Junior or a sweet freckle-faced girl they could name Flora, after her mother.
He was about to enter the barn when he spotted the cow already grazing on the pasture. A quick check of the barn showed it was empty.
Shouting Stormy’s name, he ran to the outhouse. To Running Bear’s tipi. Back into the house, searching room by room for a note saying what she’d gone to do.
Zed, Brownie, and Running Bear had trusted him to take care of her. Once they learned he’d bedded Stormy, would they believe she’d slipped out while he was sleeping? Did she run off because he’d disappointed her last night? When he asked her to marry him, would she say no?
A worse thought struck him. The ranch was huge. If she broke a leg, or split open her head, it could take hours to find her.
Heart pounding, he whistled for Belinda.
His mare trotted up with the other ranch horses—except for Odin. The gelding’s leg was healing nicely, but…
Damn her! Stormy must have taken Odin out for a ride this morning.
Angry now, he saddled Belinda and galloped toward the big black walnut tree. As soon as he reached the top of the hill, he looked in every direction. When he saw nothing but hills and grass, he sat very still, hoping Belinda would sense something.
His mare sniffed the air. Her ears turned this way and that. Then she dropped her head and reached for a mouthful of grass.
His mind raced over his mental picture of the ranch, trying to fathom where Stormy might have ridden and why.
A high-pitched, mournful moo drifted in from the west.
Hair rose on the back of his neck. Brownie had mentioned broken wires in the west pasture.
Blade charged Belinda back to the yard, ran into Running Bear’s tipi, and found the big man’s carbine. Thank God it was loaded.
He sprinted back to his mare. With one toe on the stirrup, and fear constricting his chest, he shouted, “Run!”