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A Heart that Needs Him More

A Heart That Needs Him More

 

 

 

By: Kay Edwards

Shakespir Edition

Copyright © 2017 By Kay Edwards

All Rights Reserved

 

 

About the Author

 

Kay Edwards loves Jesus. She has written three full series that show her love and dedication to her Savior. Born and raised in a small community in Pennsylvania’ Kay grew up in the church knowing and loving her Savior. As a survivor of abuse, she penned her first book A Prelude to a Dance as a way to deal with the darkness that comes with abuse. She also wrote it to give a voice to those still silent about their abuse. Bible scripture is all throughout Kay’s books. Her desire is for those reading her books to also read the passages from the Bible. Kay hopes that you will enjoy this next series and all the passages of scripture she has in them. Please, look them up. Her desire is to show people that God is never far away. We serve a Savior that knows us better than we know ourselves. Enjoy getting to know the first characters in Brides of the Southwest series. Kay hopes you are just as smitten with Dalia and Mack as she was when she dreamed them up in her mind.

 

 

 

 

Dedications and Recognitions

 

I would like to dedicate this book to a woman that has shown me your past doesn’t define your future when Christ comes into your life. Terry Ross has inspired me with her willingness to see God walking close to her even when she was not walking with Him. Since making this dedication, my heart has become heavy. Terry passed away of cancer. I’m grateful that Terry was able to see her dedication before Jesus took her into eternity with Him.

I would also like to thank my family for once again giving me space to be creative.

 

 

 

Prelude

 

September of 1869

 

Mack took his wife’s hand in his. He closed his eyes as he heard her breathing become extremely labored. When she gently squeezed his hand, he looked down into her pale face.

Alice loved this man. She was aware that her time on earth was almost up. Alice knew words still needed to be spoken to him. “Make sure you live. Have those babies you wanted. Find someone, Mack.”

Mack choked on his tears. His voice was hoarse when he spoke to the woman he had vowed to love until death they did part. “Don’t talk like that. Please, I can’t do this.”

Alice continued to gasp for breath. She smiled despite the pain racking her frail body. “I will see you again. Do not lose your faith in Jesus, Mack. He loves us. I don’t know why I’m leaving you, but He does. If I’m not here, I know God has someone for you. She needs you more than I do. You were made for a life of love. Find her, Mack, don’t let her down.”

Mack didn’t hide the tears. They streamed freely down his cheeks. He would not commit to what she wanted of him at that moment. Right now, he wanted her, and she was going away. “I love you, Alice. I’m here. I wish you could stay.”

Alice nodded. “I know you do, but I can’t. I’m tired. I can’t keep my eyes open much longer. I’m glad I will see you last here on earth. When I open my eyes again, I will see Jesus. I love you, Mack Shore. Please, find love. Love me by finding her. Find the one who needs you more.”

Mack watched his beautiful bride close her eyes. He held her hand as her breathing came to an end. His voice came out in a ragged sob. “Help me, Jesus! It hurts!”

 

Ten Miles Away the Same Night

 

Dalia glanced at the man that walked into her house. She knew why he was there. His very presence terrified her. Dalia walked to her room and closed the door and her eyes as she heard the man and her mother talk. Her brown eyes formed tears as she heard the words being said. She slowly made her way to her bed and sat down. Dalia heard the footsteps before she watched the door of her room open. She glanced around and then down at her hands not able to look at her mother.

Abby observed her daughter’s distress. Why her stepmom had brought Dalia back, Abby didn’t know. She actually didn’t care. Dalia was money in her purse and food on the table. She planned on making her daughter’s first count. A virgin went for a great deal of money. Make that virgin hard to get, and the price went up. Abby kept telling herself that was why she had not sold Dalia’s innocence yet. It had nothing to do with her motherly instincts. The nagging feeling that came into Abby’s heart was once again pushed aside. “He will be back for you on your eighteenth birthday. That gives you six months to come to terms with your new life. I can’t wait for that self-righteous smirk to be wiped off your face.”

Dalia wanted to vomit. She looked up at her mother after taking a deep breath. “I don’t hate you. You are my mom. I just want to show you, love. Why? Why are you doing this to me? I hear you cry at night. You don’t want this. Please…”

Abby regarded her daughter. There was not one part of her that believed this girl could love her. She snorted refusing to back down. Abby would never allow herself to be hurt again. It was a lesson she learned well at a young age. She hardened her heart toward her daughter. “I was selling myself at your age. You should be grateful I’m letting you turn eighteen.”

Dalia swallowed the lump in her throat. She nodded as she whispered something she didn’t feel. “Thank you.”

Abby nodded. “Your welcome.”

Dalia’s life had been turned upside down. Last year at this time she had lived on a ranch with her father. He had claimed her the second she was born. Her step-mom had never liked her. Two weeks ago, her father had died suddenly. Her step-mom had brought her here and left her. She thought of the life she had ahead of her and began to formulate a plan. She would not sell her body. Dalia would do everything she could to escape the future she had in her mother’s house.

 

Chapter One

 

April of 1870

 

Dalia turned eighteen in four days. She had been busy the last few months. She was able to obtain her teaching certificate, but no one would hire her because of who her mother was. She knew she had to leave but didn’t have the money to make it to another town. Taking a pair of scissors, she cut her hair. She spent the next twenty minutes turning herself into the other thing she knew how to be. Dalia knew how to be a cowboy. She honestly didn’t know what she was going to do if this didn’t work. She had to get away from this town. She shuddered at what would happen if she stayed.

Dalia whispered softly to herself after burning her hair so her mom wouldn’t know she cut it. “Now you have the hair done. Let’s see if we can get our chest under control.”

Dalia looked at her chest. She made a face. “I guess God wanted to make sure people knew I was female.” She was a pretty tiny person. Her chest didn’t get the message to stop growing. She grimaced as she took a deep breath. “This is going to hurt.”

Twenty minutes and a lot of pain later she looked at herself in the mirror. She looked like a young boy. She would see if one of the drives north needed an extra cowboy. She could rope, ride, and shoot thanks to her dad’s training. She prayed his lessons would serve her well. Dalia needed them now more than ever. If she didn’t get away from there, one of the vilest men she had ever met would find her. He made sure the last time he saw her that she got that message. He had told her there was no place she could run. He had told her he would find her if she did. When she turned eighteen, she would belong to him. Dalia desperately needed to prove him wrong.

Taking time to pack a bag with extra clothes, Dalia also made sure she grabbed two of her dresses. If her plan worked, she would need to be presentable for an interview. However, Dalia knew she also had to be careful of being found out. Both dresses and her shift were discreetly placed at the bottom of her bag. Taking a deep breath, Dalia made her way out of her mom’s house into an uncertain future.

 

Mack looked at the boys in front of him. He knew most were orphans. He had to pick four. He said a prayer asking for God’s guidance. It was something he did every time he was forced to do this. “Do any of you have experience?”

Dalia raised her hand. She remembered to drop her voice a few octaves when she spoke. “I can shoot, rope, and ride.”

Mack regarded the boy skeptically. The kid looked like he was at most twelve. He found it hard to believe that the boy could even stay on a horse. “Have you done a cattle drive before?”

Dalia nodded. She did her best not to lie. She wanted to be as honest as she could be. This was not about deceit this was about survival. “I did with my father before he died. I can show you if you want.”

Mack was going to move on, but something gave him pause. The boy’s eyes begged him to not to skip him. A desperation was held in his young eyes that Mack could not ignore. “Ok. You can rope my horse.”

Dalia looked at the horse. She glanced back at the man. This was not even a challenge. If this was all he asked, maybe he didn’t want to take her. She wanted a challenge but knew she had already pushed her luck. Her voice was diplomatic. “He isn’t even moving. Are you sure you don’t want something more?”

Mack chuckled at the boy’s confidence. He was curious to see if he could deliver. “I’m good go ahead.”

Dalia easily roped the horse. She looked at the man like she had just wasted his time. Her heart was begging God to help her get this position.

Mack nodded. That the boy found it easy was obvious. He took a deep breath knowing this kid was younger than they wanted. Those brown eyes were killing him though. “Ok. I’ll take you. What is your name?”

Dalia had already decided to use her first name. Even her mom was unaware that her given name was Ronnie Dalia Spencer. Her dad only ever called her Dalia. No one ever called her Ronnie. She really hoped she could remember to respond when it was used. If she didn’t, she was as good as discovered. “I’m Ronnie.”

Mack shook the young boy’s hand. The boy was obviously not afraid of work. He could feel the callouses on his hand. “Welcome aboard. Are you able to leave with us today?”

Dalia nodded. She had never been so relieved in her life. She was ready to leave the second she roped his horse. She prayed she didn’t sound too relieved or eager. “I am.”

Mack pointed to the back of the wagon. He watched the boy get into the back. Something was different about the boy. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Mack went back to picking the rest of the boys he would need. His mind, however, wondered about the brown-eyed boy in the wagon.

Dalia watched the other boys walk toward her. She was scared but did her best to hide it. If this man figured her out, she could end out on the trail somewhere abandoned and alone. The sad part of that was it would still be better than what waited for her if she stayed.

Mack took one more look at the first boy he hired. A part of him couldn’t help but wonder if he was running from something. When he made eye contact, he noticed the haunted look on the boy’s face before he looked down. The kid seemed too young to have that kind of fear.

Dalia glanced at her hands. She didn’t look up again until the boss was not looking at her. As the boys talked, she stayed quiet. A boy across from her looked at her close. She could see him trying to figure her out.

“Have you even shaved yet? You look young enough to still be in nappies.”

Dalia smiled. She kept her voice low. “I’m a late bloomer I guess. My name is Ronnie.”

The boy stuck out his hand. The smile on his face was genuine. “I’m Danny.”

Dalia shook his hand. She had purposely worked some calluses onto her hands in the last two months as a way to prove she was a hard worker. She was very glad she had. It seemed men did a lot of handshaking. Dalia knew her soft feminin hands would have given her away. She just had to remember to keep her voice low. A part of her was starting to believe she could do this. She prayed silently that she was right. Failure was not an option for her.

Another boy stuck out his hand. His eyes held a hint of curiosity. “I’m Alex.”

Dalia smiled at him. She had no intentions of satisfying that look. Her voice was low and cordial. “Nice to meet you.”

The last boy regarded her through narrow eyes. He seemed more curious than the other two. He held out his hand. “How old are you? You look awful young. I’m Darrel.”

Dalia avoided the question to avoid lying. She knew they thought she was closer to twelve than she was to eighteen. She needed desperately to keep it that way. “I’m old enough. I have done this before. I’m pretty confident I can do it again. It is either this or the streets.”

The rest of the boys nodded. They understood the streets. The thought of living there any longer didn’t set well with any of them.

Mack glanced at his foreman Albert. It didn’t go unnoticed to either of them that Ronnie had avoided the question. Mack was still given pause though. He felt in his gut that Ronnie was supposed to go with them. He would not question the boy anymore. He didn’t want to force him to lie. He had a feeling that if he did question him that is exactly what Ronnie would be forced to do. Mack was furious that circumstances had brought this about for the young kid. If he could help it, Ronnie and the others would never know the streets again.

Dalia dozed a little during the ride to the ranch. She knew if her eyes were closed she would not have to talk. She was afraid of being figured out. It was a solid hour and a half. She looked around her. Tears stung her eyes. Dalia wished she understood why her father died. She trusted God, but a part of her wondered at the ‘why’ of the matter. She glanced up just as the boss looked back. She lowered her eyes as she wiped a tear away. Dalia knew he saw it. She was glad he didn’t question it.

Mack wondered about the tears. He still kept silent choosing not to ask Ronnie about them. Seeing those tears tugged at his heart. That the boy was hurting was obvious. He decided that he would do his best to guide him. They would be spending at least twelve weeks together. It was time enough to help Ronne and gain his trust. At least he hoped it was.

 

Chapter Two

 

Dalia watched the ranch come into view. She took a deep breath wondering what the boss man’s wife was like or if he even had one. She prayed if he did that another woman’s eyes would not see her. Dalia knew that most women would be able to see through her getup. She turned her mind from negative thoughts. She glanced at Danny and smiled. “You look like you want to get out and run.”

Danny gave her a sheepish grin. He liked Ronnie. The boy was quiet but nice. The streets had not tainted him. “I’m ready to start this adventure.”

Mack watched the boys get out of the wagon. When Alex shoved Ronnie playfully, he couldn’t help but note the boy’s face. It was like he was trying to understand what the other boy was doing. He chuckled as Ronnie’s eyes narrowed and he playfully shoved the boy back.

Dalia looked up to see the boss’s eyes on them. She waited to see what the man would say. If she were lucky, the speech would be short and sweet. She was tired and hungry.

Mack cleared his throat as Albert stood beside him. “Here is the deal. We do the drive and do our best to get back here in one piece. This is dangerous. We may lose one or two of us on the way. If you are not sure about this, say so now. We can arrange a way for you to get back to town. Do we have anyone that wants to change their mind?”

No one said a word when Mack looked around, so he continued. “We usually keep you on once we get back here. You will have three square meals a day. I will also pay you eight dollars a week. Since the trail ride is more dangerous, as I said in town, you will get ten dollars a week when on the drive. Are there any questions?”

Albert looked at the crew. He was pleased they all wanted to stay. “All right boys follow me.”

Ronnie started to get nervous again as she realized where Albert was leading them. She had not really thought about the sleeping arrangements. She knew there would be men in the bunkhouse with the younger boys. She said a prayer that no one was indecent as they walked in and found their bunks.

Albert looked at the crew. “We have seven other guys in here with us. Ethan, Bart, James, Zack, Seth, Greg, and Marty have all been with us for a few years. They are older. Learn from them. The second bunkhouse is for those that are staying behind at the ranch. It is up to you if you want to introduce yourselves to them.”

Seth looked at Ronnie. He laughed as he walked over to the boy. “Is that one there off his mother’s breast yet? Look at him.”

Albert glanced at Ronnie. He chuckled. “He is our most promising one.”

Greg and Marty looked at each other. Marty spoke. “The youngest looking one is the most promising. We are going to be babysitting.”

Dalia glared at the men. She was used to being teased on drives, but these guys didn’t even know her. She kept her voice lower. “I’m not green. I may even be able to teach you a thing or two.”

James laughed. He had to appreciate the little guy’s gumption. “So, you know how this goes? You don’t mind if we put you last, so you don’t make a mistake.”

Dalia frowned. She knew what game he was playing. “I don’t want to be in the back of the herd. You end up picking dust out of your mouth for a week.”

The men stopped laughing. Bart looked at the others. Ronnie did know something about driving cattle. “This one has done this before. I guess we will see.”

Albert regarded Ronnie again. There was something that didn’t quite fit. The boy looked twelve. He held himself like he was older. He had to agree with Mack. For some reason, he felt a bit protective of the boy. He had watched Mack grow into a man. Maybe that is what he was supposed to do with this one.

Dalia watched as some of the men started getting undressed. She turned and acted like she was making her bunk. She nibbled her bottom lip and grimaced as one of the men passed gas. A part of her felt horrible. If they ever figured out her secret, they may be a bit embarrassed with some of the things they were doing in front of her. Things like what one of the others did again. What was it with men and gas? They sure didn’t mind smelling.

Bart looked at Ronnie. He wanted to laugh. The boy was actually blushing. That he was hiding from them while they changed was obvious. “Are you going to stand there primping that bed all day?”

Dalia turned and promptly averted her eyes from his bared chest. She shook her head. “No.”

Greg chuckled. He couldn’t help but note the boy’s blush as well. “He does not seem comfortable with all of us men getting changed. If you take off your shirt, you will see we all kind of look the same.”

Zack laughed as he shoved Greg. “Well, we do have a bit more hair on our chests than the boys.”

Albert looked at Ronnie. The boy looked mortified with the conversation. It was apparent that Ronnie was not comfortable with any of the other men getting undressed. “Didn’t your dad ever get changed in front of you?”

Dalia was really hoping she could pull this off. She needed to get out of this area and find work. More importantly, she needed to get out of this area and find refuge. Valentino Nash would come for her if she stayed. She shook her head trying to find a calm she didn’t feel. “He was a bit on the modest side. I guess I inherited that from him. I can’t help it.”

Greg flung an arm around her shoulders. He still didn’t have a shirt on. “We will have you acting like one of us in no time.”

Dalia pasted a smile on her face. Good grief these men really needed to learn the facts on personal space… and shirts. Her voice held a bit of worry as she tried to make a joke. Of course, in reality, she was not joking. Her words were more than sincere. “I hope not.”

The men all laughed. Bart turned his attention to Danny. There were four more young pups to make fun of. Ronnie looked like he needed a break. There was something sad in the boy’s eyes that made him feel bad. He didn’t hesitate to give the boy a reprieve.

Dalia was relieved that she was forgotten. She was positive her blushing was going to give her away. Her stomach growled reminding her she had not eaten since breakfast. She really hoped they were getting ready to eat soon. When she did eat, she knew she would have to act like one of the men. She prayed these guys had better manners than her father’s men had. She glanced around before sitting on her bunk. Closing her eyes, she said a quick prayer. Her lips moved silently asking for Divine assistance. ‘Please, Jesus help me. I’m trying, to be honest. I just need Your help to get there.”

Albert smiled. He would have to tell Mack that Ronnie was a fellow Christian. He saw the boy’s lips move in silent prayer. He spoke to the group as he left. “Supper in ten. Don’t make Charlie wait.”

Dalia breathed a sigh of relief. She for one was not going to make Charlie wait. She didn’t know if the man could cook, but she was hungry.

 

Chapter Three

 

Charlie glanced up from the food he was making. He was new to being the cook on staff. Last year he had been with his best friend. There was no way he could stay at the ranch he was at last year. His friend was gone and that had changed everything. What his wife had done was unthinkable. He had been a foreman at that ranch. He knew he was getting too old for that. Their cook taught him how to keep a crew fed. He learned and brought his skills to this ranch in hopes of being hired. Mack’s reputation for being a fair boss was known well in that region.

Dalia glanced at the cook and stopped. Of all the people cooking, it had to be the Charlie she knew. She looked down and went to sit down hoping he would not see her until she was in line. She nibbled her bottom lip knowing he would recognize her. The man had cuffed her as often as her dad had. He was an honorary uncle to her and her brother. Dalia tried not to panic.

Charlie smiled at the crew. “All right line up.”

Dalia followed the others in line. She glanced up at Charlie as he put food in her plate. His eyes widened in surprise, but he kept his mouth shut. Her eyes thanked him. She sat down and ate her food but was no longer hungry. He was going to slap her for sure. She had to make him see she didn’t have another choice. Once he knew what her mother had planned, Dalia hoped she could count on him.

Albert and Mack watched as Ronnie bowed his head and prayed before he had started eating. Mack smiled. “You are right. He is a fellow believer. He looks worried again. I hope he opens up to us. He is a shy little guy.”

Albert nodded. “He hates getting changed in front of the others. He hates them getting changed in front of him. The others are going to be hard on him.”

Mack knew that. “I don’t know. This one is really tough for his age. I think he will be fine. I get the impression not much ruffles his feathers.”

Charlie looked at Mack. He had to get Dalia alone. He was going to beat that girl good. Charlie couldn’t imagine what she was thinking. “Hey, boss can I have an extra set of hands for clean up? We are pulling out tomorrow, and I still have some things to get done.”

Mack nodded. He looked at the group. “Any volunteers?”

Dalia raised her hand. She knew Charlie wanted to talk to her. The fact he was willing to hear her out was a plus. Of course, he could still want to cuff her. She prayed that he would listen either way. “I’ll do it.”

Charlie wanted to shake his head at her voice. He knew that girl’s voice was soft and sweet. He wondered again what she could possibly be thinking trying to pass herself off as a boy. He would find out before he busted her out. Charlie would hear her out before he gave her the whack she deserved too.

Dalia watched everyone leave. She glanced up as the last person left. Uncle Charlie’s eyes were furious. “You can’t tell them.”

Charlie shook his head. “I ought to bend you over my knee and spank you. What do you think you are doing, Dalia?”

Dalia covered her face with her hands. She tried not to cry but failed. “My mom wants to sell my body!” She looked up at him. “I got my teacher’s certificate, but you know who my mom is. They won’t even let me interview. There is a man that has already made it known he will pay big money for my innocence. He told me he would find me if I ran. Even if I were able to teach, I can’t stay. He will come for me the day I turn eighteen.”

Charlie glanced at her as he sat down on a bench. The last thing he had expected was that. There was no way he would allow Dalia to be violated. She was like a daughter to him. He took a deep breath. What a mess she was in and all because of Mable. “I’m sorry. I was furious your stepmom took you to her. I just don’t understand some things. Why the drive to get where your needing to go?”

Dalia’s voice was soft. “I need to go to a town that has no idea who I am. I need to go as a boy so no one can tell Mr. Nash they saw a girl traveling alone. Once I’m safe, I can teach. I have to get there to be safe, though.”

Charlie nodded in understanding. He had known this girl almost her entire life. His hand really had connected with her backside on more than one occasion. She meant the world to him. He would not abandon her in her time of need. Charlie already felt like he had abandoned her once when Mable had taken her away from the ranch. “I’ll keep your secret. I can help get you some privacy for baths, too.”

Dalia glanced up at him. “Thank you, Uncle Charlie. I will do my best to stay safe. I can’t do that in this area. I have to find my way so Mr. Nash can’t hurt me.”

Charlie watched her get up and start washing dishes. He regarded her protectively. “If he does come after you, I’ll protect you. I won’t let him hurt you. I like that you used your first name. You didn’t lie when you gave Mack your name. I’m proud of you for that. He is a good man. I don’t like the idea that we are deceiving him, but I see that we have little choice.”

Dalia glanced down at her hands. She let Charlie get a glimpse of her fear. “Now that I know you are here, I don’t feel so alone. Uncle Charlie, I’m scared.”

Charlie gave her a fatherly hug and then helped her clean up. He looked over at her. “You and I both know you are never alone. God has you. Don’t be afraid.”

Dalia glanced up at him. “I know. I have been praying since the day I had to start living with my mom. I even tried to show her Christ. In her mind, I’m being self-righteous.”

Charlie knew that was not true. Dalia had been devoted to Christ since she gave her life to Him as a child. He made sure she knew how special she was. “You are a good girl. If she had taken the time to look, she would have seen that you love her.”

Dalia nudged him with her hip. She blushed at his compliment. “You are biased.”

Charlie laughed his booming laugh. “You are right there.”

Dalia smiled up at him. She turned and picked more plates off the table. She giggled as she thought about the bunk house. She was not sure her uncle would really want to know but took a chance he wouldn’t swat her. “I am discovering men are quite gross.

Charlie’s laugh boomed again as the door opened. Dalia looked up as Mack walked in. He looked at her and then at Charlie. “I take it you two get on?”

Dalia nodded. Her eyes were bright with mischief. “We do.”

Charlie looked at Mack. He was careful how he spoke. He didn’t want to lie. “This one makes me laugh. Ronnie is a good pick.”

Mack sat at the table. He observed the two. Ronnie seemed very relaxed with the older man. “We always have at least two people that know how to cook. It is an extra measure should you get sick. Are you interested in taking him under your wing and teaching him?”

Charlie nodded. He was well aware that Dalia could cook. He loved her food on drives. “I wouldn’t mind. Ronnie seems to be quick.”

Mack nodded. He watched Ronnie continue to work as he talked to Charlie. The boy really was not afraid of doing chores. Mack turned his attention back to Charlie. He made sure all the provisions that were needed were packed and ready. After watching Ronnie stifle a yawn, he took his leave. It was time to finish the kitchen so they could all hit the hay early. It was going to be a long day tomorrow.

Charlie looked over at Dalia and smiled after Mack left. “I am going to have to watch my ‘he’ and ‘she.’”

Dalia giggled. “I was thinking the same thing. You called me by my first name a lot.”

The two finished dishes quickly. Dalia hugged Charlie before she left. “Have a good sleep. Uncle Charlie?”

Charlie looked at her and smiled. “Yes?”

Dalia looked at her hands. “Thanks for keeping me safe. I know that is the only reason you are doing this. You were the only other person I have ever had that was as dependable as my dad. I know my brother would be here for me now, but he is away and hasn’t answered my wires. When my dad died, and my brother was gone, I knew I was in trouble.”

Charlie smiled at her. His eyes held a fatherly gaze. “I watched you grow up Dalia. I would die to protect you. I’m just sorry I didn’t do that until now.”

Dalia smiled. She left him knowing that he had meant every word he had said. For the first time in a long time, she did not feel alone. She wanted to weep with joy. She talked to God instead. “Thank you, Father.” Her prayer was soft but from the heart.

 

Chapter Four

 

Two days later Dalia glared at Charlie as she rubbed her backside. The cuff her uncle gave her hurt. She didn’t argue with him though. She glanced behind her and grimaced. That Mack had seen her mistake was obvious. The look on the boss’s face said he was getting ready to hit her too. She grimaced knowing it was her own fault.

Charlie shook his head as he yelled at Dalia. “If I ever see you do something like that again, I’ll do more than swat your butt. Do you understand me?”

Dalia nodded. She glanced down showing him her respect. “I understand. I thought it would be fine.”

Mack was now standing in front of her. “You could have gotten Bart killed. I know you know a lot. You have proven that, but Charlie is right. You can’t do that again. You may have the experience, but you don’t have the strength yet.”

Dalia glanced at her hands again. She blushed when Mack looked at her hands. They were fine, but she had no intentions of arguing with him. The man seemed determined. “Yes, sir.”

Bart put an arm around Ronnie’s shoulders. He felt kind of bad for the boy. “My little Buddy didn’t know. He will do better next time. No harm done. After that whack Charlie gave him, he will never do it again.”

Dalia really wished these men learned the meaning of personal space. She was thankful that he was wearing a shirt though. After that first day, she avoided the men when they were changing. A girl could only take so much.

Charlie shook his head. He looked once more at Dalia before heading back to the chuck wagon. He chuckled knowing she was not happy that Bart’s arm was around her shoulders.

Dalia grimaced as Bart punched her arm. She was almost positive she had a bruise there already. What was it with men and hitting each other? She glanced up at Mack but soon looked back down. Her boss had a dimple that made her want to stare. If she started doing that, she would be busted for sure.

Mack looked at Ronnie. He wondered about the strange look in the boy’s eyes. That he was uncomfortable being yelled at was apparent. “You can stay with me today. Bart needs a break from babysitting.”

Dalia frowned up at him. She didn’t want to spend time with him. When he raised an eyebrow, she lowered her eyes. She had been taught to be respectful. To argue with him would be wrong. She wanted to kick herself for noticing Mack’s good looks. Her voice was less than enthusiastic as she agreed with Mack. “Yes, boss.”

Mack and Dalia guided their mounts to the front of the herd. Mack spoke to her. “You are a Christian. Am I right?”

Dalia nodded. She spoke without thinking. “I have been a Christian most of my life.”

Mack chuckled. “You are not that old. It sounds funny when you say that.”

Dalia glance at Mack. When he looked at her, she averted her eyes. She almost asked him how old he was but stopped herself.

Mack took a deep breath. The secrets in the boy’s eyes were evident. “I’m a Christian too.”

Dalia had known that bit of information because Charlie had told her. She nodded as she waited for him to get to his point. She could tell he had one.

Mack spoke gently. “What are you running from? Ronnie, you are safe here. I’m not sure what is going on, but maybe we can help.”

Dalia saw a cow stray. She didn’t answer him but went to get the cow back with the others. She took her time knowing she could not tell him who she was and why she was running. His arms looked like they would give very good hugs. Dalia’s brother often hugged her when she was distressed. Dalia shook her head clearing her wondering thoughts.

Mack knew he was being dismissed. He wished this kid would open up. It seemed like maybe Charlie was getting through to him. Mack would have to let that be enough.

Dalia kept her voice at a lower octave as she talked to her boss. She could see Charlie was right. Mack was a good man, but she had to keep her secret. “You know I’m a Christian. Some things I just can’t talk about yet. I don’t want to lie.”

Mack regarded the boy beside him. The fact he had said that was a breakthrough in his eyes. “I would say that is fair enough to know. Ronnie, if you ever need to talk, I’ll listen.”

Dalia nodded. She had to admit this man beside her was very nice. She wondered what he would be like if he realized she was not a he. She wondered if he would want to help her then. “I’ll think about it. I just don’t want to lie.”

Mack nodded. “That sounds fair enough. I suppose in this life there are things that are hard to talk about.”

Dalia swallowed hard. A part of her wanted to trust this man. A bigger part thought of another man that wanted to buy her body and hurt her. She was done talking. She was also done thinking her boss was good looking. He was a man. She knew she could not trust him. He may want to hurt her like Mr. Nash wanted to hurt her.

Mack watched Ronnie go wrangle in a few more cows. The fact was the boy was very good. If he had to be honest, he was even better than he thought. He had proven himself quite capable in the last two days. There was still something about him though that made Mack want to protect him. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. The emotions he saw in the boy’s eyes made him hurt for the child.

Dalia smiled as one of the cows tried to trick her. She grinned at Mack as she easily guessed what it was going to do. She got it back in the herd before going back to his side.

Mack chuckled. At least Ronnie knew he had some talent with the cattle. “You know you are good at that.”

Dalia nodded. “My father made sure I knew how to work with him.”

Mack was confused. Ronnie talked like his dad was a rancher. If his dad died, why didn’t he get the ranch? “What happened to the ranch?”

Dalia shrugged her shoulders. “My stepmom didn’t like me. When the ranch became hers, I was on my own.”

Mack shook his head. Ronnie was just a boy. What kind of creature throws a child out? “That is wrong. I’m sorry she did that.”

Dalia’s voice was a whisper. “You have no idea what she did.” Realizing she said too much Dalia went to wrangle in a few more strays.

Mack watched Ronnie move away again. A part of him felt ill with the boy’s confession. He didn’t understand anyone that would hurt a child. The more he watched Ronnie. The more he realized the woman had made a mistake. He would have been an asset to the ranch. His stepmom must not have had any children with Ronnie’s dad. That must be why she resented the boy. Why else would she hate a child?

Dalia had no desire to keep talking. She rode beside her boss. The silence was comfortable. When he kept glancing at her, she knew maybe it was too comfortable. A boy of twelve thirteen or fourteen probably had more to say. Dalia didn’t know how to fill in the gap.

Mack went and wrangled in a few strays. He took his time getting back to Ronnie. When he did, he spoke again. “Do you have any other siblings?”

Dalia nodded. “I have an older brother. He is at University right now.”

Mack was confused. A full brother would have taken Ronnie. He wanted to piece it together. He glanced at Ronnie. “Is he your full brother?”

Dalia actually loved her half-brother. When he was home, he treated her like a little sister. She ignored the question as she went to wrangle in a few more cows. How did you tell your boss your step-mom hates you because you remind her of her husband’s infidelity? Her dad had asked God to forgive him. She knew that. It didn’t change what she was though. Her dad had given her his last name. He had given her a home, but she was still the product of a man that had sought out the charms of a prostitute. How did you explain that your half-brother didn’t even return your wires? Deep down inside, Dalia knew her brother had never gotten them and that scared her. She hoped she had not lost him too.

Mack could see the emotions as they ran across the boy’s face. He took a guess. “He is your half. Isn’t he?”

Dalia waited for what came next. She didn’t look at the man beside her. She waited for the condemnation that came with the revelation surrounding her birth. Mack must not be as good of a man as Uncle Charlie thought.

Mack knew what Ronnie was waiting for. He was not going to make this boy feel bad about an act he had no control over. “Your dad stepped out on your stepmom. That is why she hates you. It is too bad she can’t see you were an innocent in it all.”

Dalia glanced at the man beside her. She was surprised. Ok, maybe Mack was a good man. “You don’t mind?”

Mack shook his head. Nothing would make him reject this kid. “It sounds like your dad knew he had done something stupid. You were not a mistake. You were him taking ownership of the sin he committed with another woman. He did the right thing claiming you. It’s too bad your stepmom couldn’t see you were just as much of a victim as she was.”

Dalia nibbled her bottom lip. A part of her wanted to come clean right there. She didn’t though. She could not risk being left abandon this soon on the trail. “Thank you for not judging me.”

Mack felt like he had made another breakthrough with the boy. He nodded. “It isn’t my place to judge. I mean what I said earlier. If you need to talk, you find me. I’ll listen.”

Dalia glanced at the man beside her. She turned eighteen-years-old tomorrow. She visibly shuddered as she remembered what was to be done to her. She wondered how far Mack’s lack of judgment would go if he realized he was talking to a young woman. Some things were best left alone. That was one of them. It was better he didn’t know. She nodded to let him know that she heard his offer. That was as far as she was willing to go. That was all she was willing to risk.

 

Valentino Nash looked at the man that rode up to him. He was furious his prey had run from him. “Any sign?”

Becker looked at his boss. “Not a sign. The only people we are finding are boys. Not one of them even resembles the girl.”

Valentino nudged his mount forward. “She had to be with one of these drives. I can’t see how else she got away. It is like she disappeared.”

Becker glanced at his boss. “If she is in any of them I will find her.”

Valentino nodded. He had to smile. If he found her on his own, he didn’t have to pay Dalia’s mother. He would be able to have his cake and eat it too. He grinned as he thought of the things he would do to the innocent woman. If her mom had just given her to him when he asked, this would not even be an issue. He knew she had done it to get more money. Too bad it didn’t work out that way for Abby. She was probably kicking herself right now for her mistake.

Becker looked at his boss. “We have at least two more in front of us. We also have one behind.”

Valentino looked at Becker. Did they go forward or hang back? “What ranches?”

Becker nodded to the front. “We have Davenports and Kriders in front. Mack Shore is in back.”

Valentino thought for a moment. “Shore hand picks his boys. He would not be fooled by a girl dressed in man’s garb. I say we look forward first. If we don’t find her, we can wait for Mack’s group to catch up.”

Becker nodded. He had to agree. He worked for Mack at one point in time. That man was good at picking out deceit which is how he ended up fired. “Good call.”

 

Chapter Five

 

Dalia sat up in her bedroll fast. She panted and covered her face. She knew it was after midnight. She knew she was eighteen. She wiped a tear away. Dalia tried to get her shaking in check. She couldn’t do it though. She knew he was coming for her. She could feel it inside her being. She glanced to the side and was surprised to see Bart looking at her.

Bart smiled. He really did feel protective of this little guy. “Don’t worry little Buddy. We all have secrets. Go back to sleep.”

Dalia nodded. She leaned back onto her bedroll again and closed her eyes. Putting her hat back on her face she tried to sleep. Instead, she found herself praying from her heart. ‘Please keep me safe. I’m scared. I know You say I shouldn’t worry but I am. Forgive me for my lack of faith in You.’

Mack looked at Ronnie. He had seen the fear on the young boy’s face. Whatever haunted him was pretty bad. He found himself saying a prayer for the boy before he went back to sleep.

Dalia lay in her bedroll a few more minutes. She knew she was not going back to sleep. Standing up she walked into the woods to go to the bathroom. It made sense to get at least that out of the way. If everyone was sleeping, there was no chance of being caught not standing. After she was done, she went to the side of the little stream and washed her hands and face. Looking at the water flowing by was relaxing. She took a breath and sat down. She let a few tears escape but only a few. Her heart started to beg God for His help.

Mack woke up again. He saw Ronnie’s bedroll was empty. Looking around, he spotted the boy by the stream. His heart was touched as he watched the boy pull his legs close to his chest. He stood and walked to the boy.

Dalia looked up at her boss. His hair was rumpled. She looked down at her hands and smiled. He was very nice to look at in the morning. She watched him sit beside her.

Mack regarded the boy beside him. He could tell Ronnie had been crying. “Bad dream?”

Dalia nodded. She didn’t tell him what it was about. How could she explain that she was terrified of being found by a man who wanted to take her innocence by force? She looked over at him. “I’ll live.”

Mack looked at the water. “Have you prayed about it?”

Dalia nodded. It never occurred to her to lie. “I asked God to forgive me for being scared. I asked Him to keep me safe.”

Mack’s eyes went back to the young boy’s profile. Ronnie had just revealed he was in danger. It was interesting when the boy talked. He talked so much older than he was. A part of Mack was sad that this child had to grow up so fast. “Your faith is sound. Why don’t you trust me?”

Dalia shook her head. She had no intentions of answering that. She shuddered as she thought about being left alone on the trail. She had to get away. She was not far enough from the man that sought her. A tear made its’ way down her cheek. She took a shaky breath as she wiped it away.

Mack glanced away. His heart was again touched by the pain this young boy was in. A part of him was angered at what kind of sin could cause this reaction. He tried not to think about it. He bowed his head and whispered softly. “Be with Ronnie Father. Help this fear ease.”

Dalia looked at the strong hands of the man beside her. His short and earnest prayer on her behalf touched her deep inside. She wanted to tell him. She was just afraid. “Thank you.”

Mack smiled. “You are welcome.”

Dalia watched Charlie as he walked toward them. She was relieved their time was up. She felt like her boss was getting too close to her secret. “I guess it is time to help with breakfast.”

Mack followed her gaze. “Your biscuits are worth you taking the later shift.”

Dalia grinned. “I told you. I went with my dad. I learned a little of everything.”

Mack watched Ronnie stand up. He laughed as the boy did an exaggerated stretch. That he and Charlie had a special bond was obvious. He was glad the boy seemed to trust someone.

Charlie looked at his boss. “You want the boy with me again for breakfast?”

Mack nodded. “I do. He has a real talent with the vittles.”

Charlie chuckled. “I’m sure Ronnie will not disappoint today.”

Mack watched the two walked away. His eyes narrowed slightly. He hoped the boy would learn to walk a bit better. He walked like a girl. No man wants to walk like a girl.

Dalia looked up at Charlie. “It feels like rain today.”

Charlie had to agree. “It does. That means at least three of you will be spending the night in the other wagon. Make sure you put your bedroll in early. It will be dry for you then.”

Dalia nodded as she went to roll up her gear. She looked up as Mack walked back toward the men. She kicked Bart as she walked away. “Time to wake up big Buddy.”

Bart laughed. “You are a cocky little pup. We may have to beat you yet.”

Dalia shook her head as she continued on her way. She put her bedroll in the back of one of the wagons. She walked toward Charlie. It was time to make some food.

Charlie gave Dalia specific instructions for some beans. If it rained, he wanted to make sure he could feed the crew. He then sent her to make the biscuits.

Dalia looked up as Albert crouched down beside her. She knew he was getting ready to tell her the instructions for the day.

Albert watched the boy make the dough. His hands seemed very tiny. He shook his head and spoke. “After breakfast is cleared, you will find Greg. Bart has Danny today. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake you did yesterday, or I’ll turn you over my knee.”

Dalia nodded. “I’m sorry I did that. It won’t happen again.”

Albert spoke once more. “Keep praying Ronnie, God is listening. I know He seems far from you right now, but He really does come through.”

Dalia looked into the older man’s kind eyes. “I will. I know He is with me.”

Albert nodded as he walked away.

Dalia knew it was going to be hard to keep her secret if her two bosses kept being so nice. A part of her knew she should tell them. She was just too afraid. If Mack didn’t let her finish the drive, she was too close to Valentino. He would get her.

Charlie watched Dalia finish the biscuits. He glanced at her. “I’m thinking we are wrong on the rain. It looks like it is going to be hot.”

Dalia agreed. She made a face. The lack of modesty was getting on her nerves. “The guys are going to be in the water tonight.”

Charlie nodded. He chuckled reading her mind. He knew she would need to get in the water though too. A hot day like this made even the ladies sweat. “I was thinking the same thing. Let me see if I can talk the boss into letting you come back to help with supper. You need to get wet too. You can take your bath before anyone sees you. Another thing, you are walking like a girl. You need to figure that out.”

Dalia giggled softly. “I am a girl. How do I stop walking like one?”

Charlie chuckled. “I’m not sure, but you need to figure it out. The boss was looking at you earlier. I think he is close to figuring you out.”

Dalia was alarmed. “We are only three days in. He can’t figure it out now.”

Charlie agreed. “Let me talk to him and see if I can get you here this afternoon. I may have to promise him some more biscuits.”

Dalia grinned. “I’m willing.”

Charlie looked at Dalia. “You know that means you’ll be riding alone when it’s time to come to me. Are you ok with that?”

Dalia nodded. “I’ll be fine. God has protected me so far.”

Charlie agreed with that. He couldn’t help but wonder if God didn’t have a plan for Dalia that was special. She was a sweet little thing and deserved to be happy. He watched as Mack walked toward them.

Mack smiled at Ronnie and Charlie. “Is it ready?”

Dalia nodded. “The biscuits are almost done. I just put the last of them on.”

Charlie cleared his throat. Now was the time to see if he could get his girl to him and bathed before the others made it to them. “I was wondering if I can have Ronnie back for the supper meal. It is going to be hot today. I may need some extra help.”

Mack could sense that Ronnie really wanted this. “You are ok finding him alone?”

Dalia nodded. “I will be fine.”

“Ok. I can see the wisdom in it. When the others get to camp, they are going to want to bathe and cool down. You will need to be done already.” Mack stood and walked away.

Dalia glanced at Charlie. “Your argument was great. I’m glad I get to bathe. I feel gross.”

Charlie laughed. “I bet you do.”

 

Chapter Six

 

Dalia found Greg. She gave him a cocky grin as she started to torment him. “I hear I’m stuck with you.”

Greg enjoyed how easily the boy could tease. He felt like Ronnie was a little brother. It bothered him to see fear in him. As many smiles as Ronnie caused, his smiles didn’t quite make it to his young eyes. That bothered Greg a great deal. He did his best to remedy that as he teased the young boy back. “Ronnie, you are a mouthy pup. We may have to slap you around a little.”

Dalia laughed. She made sure she kept her voice lower. “Bart said the same thing. Now, tell me what to do, Old Timer.”

Greg glanced down at the rascal and laughed. “Such a mouth on such a little man…”

Mack watched Greg shove Ronnie. He chuckled as the boy seemed to give as good as he got. He still wanted to make sure Ronnie knew his limits. After yesterday he was not taking any risks. Mack would bend him over his own knee if he saw Ronnie misbehave again.

Greg watched Ronnie do his job. When it was too big for him, he stepped in. The two of them were getting hotter and sweatier by the minute. He glanced up when he noticed Mack. “Looks like the boss is making sure I’m not mean to you.”

Dalia made a face. She knew why Mack was there. She frowned as she gave her opinion. “I’m thinking he is making sure I listen. My butt still hurts from Charlie’s whack yesterday.”

Greg laughed. “I heard you got cuffed. You seem to have learned your lesson. I’ll let Mack know.”

Mack rode up to the two. He spoke to Ronnie first. “Don’t forget you have to go to Charlie later.”

Dalia nodded. “I won’t forget Boss.”

Mack looked at Greg. He got to the real point of why he was there. “Ronnie is listening?”

Greg busted out laughing. “He said you were making sure he was listening. He is doing a great job. He is also starting to stink like a man. We may stink the boy out of him.”

Dalia frowned at her partner for the shift. “We both are smelling rank. I can smell you from way over there.”

Greg shoved Ronnie playfully. “Ronnie your mouth is going to get you in trouble.”

Mack laughed as the two joked. “It is nice to see he is listening.”

Greg chuckled as he watched Ronnie go wrangle a few strays. “He says his backside still hurts from Charlie’s whack. I believe he learned his lesson.”

Mack laughed. He stopped joking and really looked at Ronnie’s abilities. “He really is very good. I’m surprised he has only been on one drive.”

Greg nodded. “He is only old enough to have been on one drive. I don’t think he has even shaved yet.”

Mack grinned at the remark. “He told Danny he was a late bloomer.”

Greg howled with laughter. “He says the craziest things. I like him. He’s a good worker and respectful.”

Dalia shook her head and frowned at the two men. It was obvious they were laughing at her. When Mack raised an eyebrow, she lost her attitude.

Mack chuckled. “You’re right on that, he is respectful.”

Greg nodded. He made sure he reassured his boss that all was okay. “I’ll keep an eye on him. I think we will be fine. He is a bit skittish though. I find myself a bit protective of him.”

Mack laughed. “You and me both.”

Greg nudged his mount. “It looks like the little buddy needs help.”

Mack left the two. When he glanced back, he saw Ronnie looking at him thoughtfully. Maybe the young boy would trust him after all?”

Greg watched Ronnie as he roped another stray. They had worked their tails off. They were both hot and sweaty. He knew the boy would want to get cool before he helped Charlie. “Are you ready to go?”

Dalia looked at Greg surprised. “I need to wait. Darrel isn’t here yet.”

Greg shook his head. “They are slowing down. I can handle them till he gets here. Go ahead.”

Dalia listened to him. “Thanks.”

Greg shook his head and watched him leave. “That boy is the politest cowboy I have ever met.”

Dalia rode toward Charlie. She glanced around making sure she was safe as she continued to move at a quick pace. She was relieved when an hour later she found him.

Charlie smiled as he watched Dalia ride up to the wagon. “Go get your bath. You never know who is right behind you.”

Dalia hugged him. “I love you, Uncle Charlie.”

Charlie chuckled. “I love you too. Now go. You smell like a guy.”

Dalia shucked out of her clothes as soon as she found a private spot. She washed her short hair. She smiled at how different it felt to wash. Her long hair had been a nightmare to keep clean. She was enjoying her bath when she looked up and saw Mack walking her way. She swam to the little bush she had put her fresh clothes under. She grabbed them and walked into the bushes. She had just enough time to wrap her chest and put her clothes on. Dalia kept her eyes on Mack as she dressed in record time. There were certain things she didn’t want to explain while blushing.

Mack looked at the water. He knew Ronnie was around here somewhere. He glanced to the side as the boy came out of the bushes. His hair was wet, and he was dressed in clean clothes. “I take it you enjoyed cooling down.”

Dalia nodded. She made sure she sounded like a guy. “I was minding my own smell.”

Mack laughed at the boy’s joke. “I think we all are today. It is really hot for April.”

Dalia heard Charlie call. “I guess he is ready for me. I have no desire to be slow enough for another whack. I’m still smarting from yesterday.”

Mack started unbuttoning his shirt. “You go ahead. It’s best to not keep Charlie waiting.”

Dalia grinned like she figured a young boy was supposed to and waved as she walked away. Mack being there early had been a close call. She didn’t want to repeat that one again.

Charlie was relieved when he saw Dalia walking toward him. “I thought for sure you were busted.”

Dalia made a face. “I almost was. I got dressed in some bushes. I just barely had time to wrap my chest.”

Charlie chuckled. “Those girly things would be a giveaway for sure. Now, let’s get some food ready and justify you being here early.”

Dalia worked beside him quietly. She glanced up at the sky. The feeling from earlier was back. “I don’t know. A part of me thinks it will storm.”

Charlie had to agree. He had noticed the change as well. “It goes from feeling like it is going to rain to feeling like it isn’t. April weather can be fickle.”

Dalia watched as Mack walked toward them. She turned around and averted her gaze. Her boss was way too good looking. When his shirt was off, it took her mind to a place she didn’t want it to go. She grumbled softly. “I really wish he would put his shirt on.”

Charlie chuckled. “I’m thinking he would if he knew you were a girl. Go get something out of the wagon. It will give him time to finish dressing.”

Mack watched Ronnie go to the wagon. He wanted to laugh at the boy’s hasty retreat. “He sure does mind seeing people without their shirts on.”

Charlie nodded. Dalia had been protected well on the drives they had done in the past. He knew he could speak and be honest. “I knew a child that acted like that once. It is the way some are raised.”

Mack nodded and put his fresh shirt on as he watched Ronnie walk back toward them. “I guess he didn’t find anything you needed.”

Charlie smiled knowingly. “I guess not.”

Dalia was relieved to see Mack had his shirt on. She grinned knowing she had been busted being modest. She spoke in her own defense. “I guess I’m not used to this.”

Mack knew Ronnie had been on a drive. He really did want to understand the boy. “You didn’t see this when you went on your last drive?”

Dalia shook her head. “My dad set the bar for the drives. It is the way he did things. He made sure his men were not rowdy in any way. He also expected them to be dressed in front of me since I was young.”

Mack looked at Ronnie’s hair. “Your hair curls when it is wet. You should get that taken care of. It makes you look ten.”

Charlie thought it made her look like the girl she was. He watched his boss’s eyes narrow a bit and knew he needed to act.

Mack looked at Ronnie again. It was the second time that day he thought the boy had some feminine looks.

Charlie drew Mack’s attention away from Dalia. This charade would come to an end now if he kept looking at Dalia the way he was. “It looks like rain. I was hoping I was wrong earlier.”

Mack glanced at the sky. His attention was diverted. “I have to agree. I guess we will figure out how we will be doing the wagons.”

Charlie nodded. “We can draw straws.”

Mack agreed. It was the way it was done on most drives. “The boys will be here within the hour. I guess I should let you get back to work.”

Dalia looked at Charlie. She had seen the look Mack was giving her. “He is getting close. I’m scared. Uncle Charlie, he can’t find out. I need to be further away.”

Charlie shook his head. He knew he needed to calm her down. “I won’t leave you even if he does figure it out. I’ll stay with you if he does decide to abandon you, but I can’t see Mack doing that. He is a good man. I think he would protect you.”

Dalia’s voice was soft. “I hope you’re right.”

The two worked side by side getting the food ready. When the men came, there was just enough time for them all to bathe and cool down before the food would be done.

Charlie looked at Dalia. He knew this would get tricky for her if she ended up in a wagon. “We are drawing straws later for the wagons. You may be sleeping with only one other person. As tempting as it is to give up your straw, don’t. It will give you away.”

Dalia nodded. “Let’s hope I’m sleeping in the rain.” She dished up a few plates as Charlie ordered the men to line up for grub. She helped serve before taking her own plate. As always, she bowed her head and prayed. Dalia thanked God for the food before asking for continued safety. She glanced up to find Mack looking at her.

Mack hoped he got a straw for the final wagon. He hoped Ronnie did too. He really wanted to get to know the boy. He just couldn’t help but feel he needed to help him.

Charlie watched Albert get the straws ready. He took a deep breath. “Here we go. Remember what I said.”

Dalia nodded. She had a feeling things were getting ready to get interesting.

 

Chapter Seven

 

Dalia was tired and ready to sleep. She glanced at Mack knowing he was just as tired as she was. She was glad it was still cool outside at night. That meant he would keep his shirt on. The idea of being alone with him was bad enough without him being shirtless. “I’m bushed.”

Mack chuckled. He wanted to laugh at Ronnie’s discomfort but knew it would hurt the boy’s feelings. “Me too.” He hesitated a moment. “Ronnie if you have a dream and need to talk let me know. I promise you I don’t mind.”

Dalia swallowed hard. She nodded. “I know.”

As the soft rain started outside the two blew out their light and went to sleep. They were both out fast. When morning came so did the revelation.

Dalia snuggled into the warmth. She was not sure she had ever felt so warm and safe. She wrapped her arms around the body beside hers as she cuddled closer. A part of her mind was screaming for her to get awake. Another part was too comfortable to understand what was going on.

Mack started to wake up. He was confused by the very soft body pressed against his. At first, he thought he was dreaming. He had no doubt the slim waist and soft hips belonged to a female. When the body snuggled into him, he opened his eyes. Ronnie’s arms went around his waist, and he heard a soft sigh. The soft look on Ronnie’s face could not conceal what she had been hiding. Mack knew this was not a boy he was holding but a woman. He didn’t pull away and wake her up. Mack simply held her close keeping her safe and watched her sleep. Her long lashes made him want to smile. When you looked at Ronnie as a girl, she was quite stunning.

Dalia opened her eyes. She whimpered as she realized she was too close to Mack. She tried to ease out of his arms. When his arms tightened around her, she started shaking. Her voice was strangled. She didn’t want him to hurt her like Mr. Nash was going to. “Please…”

Mack loosened his arms but didn’t let her go. He was surprised at her soft feminine voice. As she started to struggle again, Mack could almost taste her fear. He spoke softly hoping to ease her worry. “What are you doing here?”

Dalia shook her head. Tears started making their way down her cheeks. “Please, I’m scared.”

Mack spoke softly as he reassured her she was safe. “Do I seem like I’m going to hurt you? I’m a Christian. You are safe with me.”

Dalia didn’t know how to calm herself down. It didn’t help that Mack’s arms still held her. Deep down inside, she knew he would not harm her. She tried to focus on that.

Mack took a deep breath. He knew they needed to talk about more than her being a ‘her’. “I just slept with you the entire night. Did it occur to you how improper that was?”

Dalia cried softly. Her body was still shaking. She didn’t know how to explain to him what was going on. “You don’t understand. Please…”

Mack didn’t know why he still felt the need to protect her. Her pleas and tears did not go unnoticed. She had lied to him, but he knew she was afraid of something. “What is your name?”

Dalia whispered softly as she sniffled. “Ronnie Dalia Stewart”

Mack smiled. “It made it easy for you not to totally lie.”

Dalia really wished he would stop holding her. She was afraid and needed space. She took a deep breath and tried calmed down. It took her a few moments to calm. Her voice was calm now. She had to plead her case. She prayed Mack would listen. “Will you hear me out?”

Mack knew there was no time at the moment. “I will hear you out after breakfast. Put your hat on, or those curls will give you away.”

Dalia eased out of his arms. She glanced back at him before she left the wagon. “I’m sorry, Mack.”

Mack nodded. Her eyes told him she really meant it. “I know.”

Dalia got out of the wagon and started to help Charlie. She didn’t tell him Mack knew. She just worked beside him praying that Mack would help her. She walked away to wash a dish. She was so intent on her work she didn’t hear the two riders that came into their camp. She glanced up and froze in fear.

Valentino snickered. The object of his desire was standing very close to him. All he had to do was pluck her up. “Hello, Dalia.”

Dalia was farther away from the others. She knew Charlie and Mack saw her. She could tell by the look on Mack’s face they wouldn’t get to her in time. What she didn’t know was Greg and Bart were close behind her in the bushes.

Becker chuckled. He reached for Dalia as she turned and ran.

Dalia fell on her knees as Bart and Greg came out of the bushes with their guns drawn.

Bart looked at the men on the horses. He had heard the man call Ronnie by a different name. He knew they wanted the girl he had thought was a boy and that was not going to happen. “I think it is time for you to go. When I say that, I mean leave, now.”

Valentino glanced at Mack Shore as he came closer. “Are you sure you want this fight?”

Charlie was beside Dalia. He glanced at his boss as Dalia leaned into his arms.

Mack looked down at Dalia. Her fear made sense now. He nodded. “I’m sure. It is time for you to leave.” No one said a word until their new enemies were out of sight.

Dalia was in a panic. Her body shook knowing what Valentino wanted to do to her. “Uncle Charlie I have to run. He knows I’m here.”

Mack looked at Charlie surprised. “Uncle…”

Charlie glanced at the men. “I think it is time you all meet Ronnie Dalia Stewart. She is a rancher’s daughter not son. I call her Dalia. She is like a daughter to me, and she needs our help.”

Bart laughed now that the danger had left the camp. He wanted Dalia to know he harbored no ill will. “This explains why she runs every time one of us has our shirts off.”

Charlie looked at Mack. The man didn’t look surprised. “You knew.”

Mack nodded. He looked at Dalia as he spoke softly. “Most teenage boys don’t cuddle in their sleep. I may have lost my wife seven months ago, but I know what a female body feels like when it is against mine. She was going to tell me after breakfast what is going on. I guess we can all hear it over breakfast.”

Dalia looked at Charlie. Her voice was soft. Had she seen her face, she would have known her fear was bringing out every protective instinct in the men around her. “I want to run. We can’t stay here.”

Mack hunched down beside her. “You can’t. I have known Valentino Nash for years. He does not stop until he gets what he wants. I’m sorry Dalia, but the running has to end here.”

Dalia looked at Charlie. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “You can tell them. I don’t want to.”

Charlie frowned. He had to help Dalia get her fear in check. “Since when have you ever been a coward young lady?”

Dalia started shaking harder. Her teeth were chattering. Her voice was broken. “Please, I want to run.”

Mack’s heart broke a little. He realized how hard this was for Dalia. He took pity on her. “Maybe Dalia and I can talk. I’ll fill the others in.”

Dalia looked at him hopeful. Her big brown eyes were begging for understanding. The idea of telling a group of men what was planned for her was overwhelming.

Ethan shook his head. “I’m just glad she is a she. I was trying to figure out why I wanted to protect the boy so much.”

Greg laughed in understanding. “I was thinking the same thing.”

Mack stood and held his hand out to Dalia. “Take a walk. It is time to trust me.”

Dalia nodded. She let him help her up. She followed him to the water’s edge. She watched as Charlie went back to finishing breakfast. She nibbled her bottom lip as she tried to form the words.

Mack chuckled as he watched her teeth work her bottom lip. “That should have been my cue.”

Dalia looked up at him confused. “What?”

Mack grinned. He touched her hair as he spoke. “You always nibble your lip. That is a feminine thing to do. You walk like a girl and your hair curls like a girl. I’m trying to figure out how I missed the signs.”

Dalia regarded the man beside her. His touch was gentle. When he looked at her and waited, she spoke softly. “My mom was trying to sell my purity to Valentino. I had until my eighteenth birthday, and then he would come for me.” She paused and looked at the water. “I got my teacher’s certificate, but no one wants to hire the daughter of a prostitute. I never even lived with her until my dad died but that does not seem to matter to the upstanding citizens of Dallas. The day I was born he claimed me, but people choose not to see that.” She swallowed her fear again. “It doesn’t matter that no one would hire me now. Valentino told me he would come on my birthday and take…” She couldn’t finish. “I am a Christian. I promise you I didn’t lie about that.”

Mack took a deep breath and looked at her. He knew the best way to protect her. He also knew she would not like it. Why he wanted to do this, he chose not to evaluate at that time, but he knew he wanted what he was going to tell her. “There is nowhere to run now. You know that. It is why you had the nightmares. You knew he was coming. You know I’m right. There is no place to hide from him. He will find you again.”

Dalia nodded. “I know.”

Mack took her hand. He kept hold of it to keep her from running. What he said next was going to alarm her. “The best way to protect you is for me to give you my last name.”

Dalia shook her head and backed away. She tried to free her hand but couldn’t. Her eyes were wide in disbelief. “I… What?”

Mack glanced at her. He used the thumb of his hand to caress her palm. “Dalia, people get married for many reasons. There are mail order brides for pity’s sake. I can protect you, but you have to let me. You can’t stay on a drive as a single woman unless you are with family. You know this isn’t proper. You also know you just can’t leave. Let me do this. I want to do this.”

Dalia glanced down at her hand in his. She didn’t want this. She also knew she had very little choice. The thought of Nash getting her frightened her more than marriage to this man.

Mack watched the play of emotions on her face. “I know this is hard to take in, but it makes sense for us. You need to know that I would not expect you to let me touch you right away. But, you also would need to know that I would expect you to let me touch you later. If we do this, I want to work toward a marriage in every sense of the word. Marriage is forever. I don’t want to mock the sanctity of that. I really believe I will fall in love with you. I care for you a lot right now. I liked how you felt in my arms this morning. I want this.”

Dalia could not believe this is how her life would be. She covered her face and started sobbing.

Mack pulled her into his arms. He put his chin on top of her head. “Does it really sound that bad? I know you like how I look. I could see it in your eyes. I just didn’t know that is what it was I was seeing until I realized you were not a boy. Like I said, I know I liked waking up with you today.”

Dalia felt the comfort he was giving her. She had to admit it was nice waking up in his arms. She swallowed hard. Her voice was soft. It held a hint of resignation. “I’ll do it.”

Mack kissed her forehead. He wiped her tears away with his thumb. “I guess we tell your Uncle Charlie? I know you are scared, but please don’t be afraid of this. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Dalia sniffled. “I’m not afraid of you. I know you will not hurt me. Uncle Charlie may be a bit upset about this, though. He has given me more spankings in my life than my own father. When he saw me at your ranch, he told me he was going to again.”

Mack liked touching Dalia. He used his thumb to wipe away one more of her tears. “He heard your story and knew you needed to stay.”

Dalia nodded still feeling quite miserable. “He has been worried ever since, but he told me you were a good man. He said he couldn’t see you abandoning me along the way.”

Mack took her hand. “The thought of doing that brings me to tears. You are safe with me. Let’s go tell your uncle the plan.”

Dalia let him tug her along. She looked absolutely dejected with the plan but knew it was the only one that would work for her.

 

Chapter Eight

 

Mack did a double take. The look on Dalia’s face was alarming. He looked at the men around him. “What is Charlie doing?”

Albert was choking on his laughter. He took a deep breath so he could talk. “He told us he was going to go talk to your future bride about the ways of life.”

Greg started snorting. He held his middle as he continued to laugh. “She looks absolutely mortified. I’m almost positive any one of us could have done a better job.”

Danny looked at the men. His innocence on the subject was clearly written on his young face. “What is he saying?”

Mack looked down at the boy. “He is just talking to her is all.” He looked pointedly at the men. There was a reason they were not as embarrassed as they could have been when they found out Dalia was female. His policy on being vulgar was strict. He didn’t tolerate it in any shape or form.

Zack shook his head. He grimaced at the look on Dalia’s face. “He must be botching this up. She looks ready to run again. You may want to intervene.”

Mack had to agree. She was not looking happy at all. He looked at the men and knew he was going to need a moment with Dalia. He really hoped these guys would cooperate and let him have some privacy. “We still have work to do. I know it has been an enlightening morning, but the cattle won’t move themselves.”

Greg looked at Mack. He had no intentions of missing this. “Here she comes.”

Mack watched Dalia. When she walked up to him, he smiled. “Are you ok?”

Dalia looked at the man she was supposed to marry. She had two questions. She had all intentions of getting the answers to them now. She really hoped her uncle was wrong. “You were married before?”

Mack nodded a bit confused by her question. “I was.”

Dalia glanced over her shoulder at Charlie. She looked back up at Mack. Worry marred her brow. “Did your wife like being married?”

Mack wanted to slap Bart. The man was laughing like a loon. He nodded. “Yes, we were happy.”

Dalia rubbed her temples. She was getting a nice sized headache. “If that is the case, Uncle Charlie has to have this all wrong.”

Mack glared at Bart and Greg as he took Dalia’s hand. “Let’s talk just a few minutes before we start work.”

Dalia nodded. She frowned at the laughing men as well. Their laughing was not helping her pounding head.

Mack spoke when he was away from the others. “You know what I said about the intimate part of our marriage?”

Dalia blushed. Some things a person didn’t forget. That was one of them. “Yes. I remember.”

Mack glanced down at her. He smiled at her flushed cheeks. “Why don’t you ask me questions as we get more comfortable with each other? I know you will have some, but I’m thinking you will never let me touch you if Charlie is in charge of that part of your education.”

Dalia looked up at him. His concern for her comfort touched her. “You wouldn’t mind?”

Mack shook his head. “After seeing the look on your face, I’m thinking I really want this.”

Dalia breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m ok with doing that. Thank you.”

Mack chuckled as they headed back to the group. “You’re welcome. Now let’s get to work. You are with Albert and me today.”

Dalia smiled up at him. “I’m glad you are not going to insist I not work. I love driving cattle.”

Mack grinned. He almost had done just that but remembering the look on her face when she outfoxed the tricky cow changed his mind. “I know.”

Dalia stopped and looked up at him. She was blushing a little, but she wanted to do one thing before they started. “Can I go take my wrap off and put my shift on? It is kind of painful.”

Mack let go of her hand. He couldn’t imagine it would be that big of a deal. “Go ahead.”

Charlie watched Dalia go into the wagon. “She is going to give you fits. Are you okay with that?”

Mack’s eyes softened a little. “I think I’m ready for that.”

Charlie chuckled. “You are falling for her?”

Mack glanced at the man. “I am. She had my attention the first day I met her. I just didn’t understand why.”

Charlie smiled. “I’m glad you see how special she is.”

Mack started to say something when Dalia came back out of the wagon. He ran his hand on the back of his neck. “I didn’t think she would look that different.”

Charlie grinned. “She is a girl. That part of her being a girl has cost a few of her dad’s cowboys a cuffing.”

Mack knew they would be married at the next town. Right now, he couldn’t get there fast enough. The last thing he wanted to do was compromise his mind. He whispered a prayer and pasted on a smile.

Dalia walked up to the men. She felt so much better. “I’m ready.”

Mack smiled. “So am I.”

Dalia looked at Mack as he took her hand. He seemed strange to her now that he knew she was a girl. “What are you doing?”

Mack chuckled. “I’m holding your hand.”

Dalia glanced at her hand in his. “My hand looks really small compared to yours.”

Mack helped her up on her horse. His hands easily spanned her narrow waist. “Your hand is small compared to mine.”

Dalia looked at him. “You do know I’m able to get up here alone? I have always been female.”

Mack laughed. “Humor me.”

Dalia nibbled her bottom lip. She watched him get on his horse. She glanced around feeling insecure. Knowing how close Nash had come to getting her that day started to play with her thoughts.

Albert looked at Dalia. Her face showed her emotions. “He won’t get past us. We are not just herding cattle. You know as well as I do that we look for rustlers. This isn’t your first drive, Dalia.”

Mack watched Dalia nod her head. He glanced at Albert. “The chuck wagon is staying close today. I don’t plan on making his retaliation easy.”

Dalia glanced at the men. The chuck wagon usually went a bit ahead of the herd. It allowed the herd to go fast and slow as needed. “What are you saying when you say ‘retaliation’?”

Mack looked at Albert. He knew they needed to tell her what could happen. He knew it would bother her. “He won’t let this go. If he can hurt one of us, he will. Nash doesn’t play fair.”

Dalia swallowed her fear. She knew this is not how God wanted her to feel. She closed her eyes and said a prayer for safety. She refused to give Satan more than he already had. She asked God to take her fear away.

Mack smiled. Dalia’s quiet faith was hard to ignore. It had been that way before he realized that she was a female. “It helps knowing we can pray anyplace and anytime, doesn’t it?”

Dalia nodded. Her voice was thoughtful as they kept a slow pace with the herd. “It does. I have to remember I could have ended up on any cattle drive. I’m here though. I have to trust that God saw this day when my stepmom took me to my mother. I have to trust that you are the one He picked for a reason.”

Mack knew it was hard for her to say that. Their upcoming nuptials frightened her. He knew it must be hard for her to marry a stranger. “We all have to trust through the hard times. It can be easier said than done. I guess that is why we call it faith.”

Dalia smiled up at him. “I understand that. I have been praying since September. I heard my mom and him talking through my bedroom door.”

Mack looked at the woman thoughtfully. His mind went to something Alice had said on the night she passed away. He swallowed the lump in his throat. He would always miss Alice, and a part of him wished she were there. After waking up beside Dalia, another part of him was starting to care that she existed and was happy she was there. “It will be interesting getting to know you. I think I’m looking forward to it.”

Dalia glanced away from him. She saw the pain in his eyes, but she also saw something else. This man cared about her. She was not sure what to do with that. She nibbled her lip as she thought of her response. She wanted to be honest, so she was. “I’m not sure how I feel about it. I guess mostly scared, but that isn’t how God wants it to be. I have to do an awful lot of praying about fear.” She took a breath and finished. “I don’t know you, but I know enough about you. You won’t hurt me. You care enough about me to do this. I have to look at the fruit of who you are in Christ. Your bear the fruit of the Spirt in almost everything you do. I’m content that God is letting me see that.”

Mack was touched by her words. He could see she was sincere. “Thank you, Dalia.”

Dalia was feeling overwhelmed again. She nodded slightly before nudging her horse toward some strays.

Mack watched her go herd some cows back to the group. He watched as she did her job and did it well. He had to admit. She would be the perfect rancher’s wife. That was not what drew him though. It was her eyes. Even before he realized she was a she, he was drawn into those haunted brown pools. She was right. He did care. He glanced over at her when she came back. His voice was soft. “You are right. But you need to know I’m also drawn to you. I can see a future with you. I can see loving you.”

Dalia took a deep breath. She thought of his words. A part of her hoped he was right. Another part of her was afraid to believe. She voiced her deepest desire. A desire she had lived with her entire life. “I do want to be loved.”

Mack knew it was hard for her to admit that to him. He watched her guide her horse to intercept a cow. He said a silent pray. However, this prayer was different. It was a prayer he had never imagined praying. He thanked God for showing him the woman that would need him.

Dalia knew that they would reach the town by tomorrow evening. She felt tears stinging her eyes. Her heart prayed as she worked. ‘I know I need to trust but why? Why like this? You could have stopped him from finding me. Why didn’t You? I don’t understand. I knew what my lot was until this happened. I didn’t mind the idea of not being married. I knew my limits with who my mother was. Now I see a hope my heart is afraid to hold on to. Mack cares. I can see it in his eyes, and it scares me.’

Mack knew from her face she was talking to God. He glanced at Albert as they continued their pace. “She is having a harder time than she wants to admit.”

Albert nodded. His voice was thoughtful. “She is. Her brave face is only a front.”

Mack went and started to steer some strays back now too. He glanced over and saw Dalia looking at him. His heart hurt at the fear he saw in her eyes. He took a deep breath and continued to work. In the back of his mind, an idea was forming. He would ask her during lunch about her thoughts on what he was thinking. If it helped ease her fear, he prayed she would be receptive to it.

Albert watched the couple. He had to smile. In his eyes, these two souls were perfect for each other.

 

Chapter Nine

 

Dalia had never been flirted with in her life. She was trying to figure out exactly what her boss was doing. She looked at the flowers as she blushed. Her voice was hesitant. Suddenly shy, she looked up at Mack. “Thank you.”

Seth and Marty chuckled. They could tell this was something new for Dalia. Seth spoke softly. “She may not be green to a drive, but she sure is to courting. Look at her trying to understand what’s going on.”

Marty nodded. “It is kind of sweet.”

Bart looked at the men. He frowned as he shook his head. “We are guys, right? I mean I’m listening, and you both have the voices of men, but the conversation is not very manly.”

Albert chuckled. He elbowed the young man beside him. “She really does look a bit lost. I don’t care if we are men. It is interesting watching the two of them.”

Mack took one of the flowers and put it behind Dalia’s ear. The way her short hair curled was adorable. She looked like a little angel. He realized how much he wanted to kiss her. He smiled instead. “Hasn’t anyone ever picked you flowers before?”

Dalia shook her head. She had seen a look in Mack’s eyes she didn’t understand. Her voice was unsure. “No I… I never imagined…”

Mack took her hand. He could see the pain in her eyes. He knew for them to be together he would need to know about her pain. “What didn’t you imagine?”

Dalia looked down at her hand in his. His thumb caressed her palm. She was starting to feel cherished. She was starting to trust this man with the secrets of her heart, and that intrigued her and frightened her all at once. “I’m the daughter of a prostitute. I am also a Christian. I guess… I never thought a man of God would look twice. I assumed I would be single.”

Mack glanced down at her. His voice was thoughtful. “I’m looking more than twice. Your Father is the King of kings. His princess deserves to be happy and loved.”

Dalia bit her bottom lip. She took a deep breath. “You don’t love me. You are trying to keep me safe.”

Mack nodded. He wasn’t going to lie about that part of what he was doing. “I care. I have no doubt I will fall in love with you. I’m already in over my head. My heart is more engaged than you know, Dalia. If the danger passed, I think I would be disappointed we would not have to get married.”

Dalia looked into Mack’s eyes. She could see there that he was telling the truth. She looked at the flowers in her hand and smiled. Her voice was soft as her heart started to hope. “I do thank you for the flowers.”

Mack touched her cheek. When she closed her eyes and leaned into his touch, he smiled. “You are welcome. Can I run something by you?”

Dalia nodded against his hand. Her voice was soft as she answered him. “Sure.”

“What do you think about the idea of us praying together at night before we turn in and in the morning when we wake up?” He could see she was thinking about his words. Her eyes were still closed. He watched as she slowly opened them to answer him. He moved his hand from her cheek to her hand.

“I think it would be a good thing. God is our Center. If we keep Him there, that can’t be bad.” She gave him her honest thoughts on it as she watched him take her hand again. The gentle way he touched her was affecting her heart. She refused to let fear take this moment from her.

“Ok what about talking about verses we know? What are your thoughts? We can talk about them at night before we pray together.” He had never done anything like this with Alice. The idea of doing this with Dalia brought a different sense of intimacy to their relationship.

Dalia giggled. If she had turned around, she would have seen all the men smiling. They had never heard her giggle. It was charming. “I have quite a few verses memorized. I’m ashamed that most of them are about not being afraid. I think it would be interesting to hear what you think about the ones I have hidden in my heart. I know I would be interested in the ones you have hidden in yours.”

Mack smiled at her. After she giggled, he wanted to give her a hug. She really was adorable. He took a breath and reminded himself he had to wait. He gave her a hopeful look. “We can start tonight?”

Dalia grinned. She didn’t feel as vulnerable when he left things up to her. “We start tonight. Now we should get back to work.”

Mack winked at her. “Whatever you say, Boss.”

Dalia stumbled a bit when Mack winked at her. He really was very nice to look at. She shook her head and laughed as he helped her back on her horse. “I keep telling you I can get up here alone.”

Mack chuckled. “I keep telling you to humor me. I like helping you up.”

Ethan grinned at Danny. “It is kind of interesting like Albert said. Bart is a bit more interested than he is letting on.”

Danny followed Ethan’s gaze and chuckled. Bart was smiling at the couple too. “Bart sure is.” Danny voiced his other thoughts. “I’m glad Ronnie is Dalia. I was concerned at how alone he seemed. I was a bit worried that such a young kid was on the streets. I’m glad he is a she and is not that young.”

Ethan looked down at Danny. In his opinion, Danny was not much older than the twelve they had thought Ronnie was. “How old are you?”

Danny grimaced and looked away. “I’m thirteen. I know we were supposed to be older, but I’m big for my age. Mack didn’t even ask.”

Dalia heard Danny talk. She shook her head. “You accused me of being in nappies. You are a young pup.”

Mack looked at Danny. “We will talk about this. I won’t turn you out, but you will need to go to school.”

Danny nodded. That bit of news was thrilling for him. “I like learning. The only reason I ran away from the orphanage is that there were too many mouths to feed. I knew a younger kid could do with my portion.”

Mack looked at Darrel and Alex. “Are you two just as young?”

Alex flushed. “I’m only fourteen. I’m big for my age too.”

Darrel smiled. He was glad he was older. He had never enjoyed school. He knew just enough to read write and do simple math. “I’m seventeen like I said.”

Mack glanced at the younger two boys. “We usually do pick you young. Usually not as young as this group but we do try to stick with fourteen and fifteen-year-olds. It gives us an idea about how we can help. If it is feeding you for a few years while you finish school we are ok with that.”

Albert nodded. “We have a few cowboys that have gotten their education after doing a drive with us. Like he said we won’t turn you out.”

Dalia had a new respect for Mack. That he cared about the kids was obvious. “Why did you hire me? If you don’t know I’m a girl, I look like a twelve-year-old boy.”

Mack was honest. “I felt like I should. I almost didn’t, but I couldn’t shake the feeling you were supposed to be with us.”

Danny grinned. “She was supposed to be with us.”

The group separated as they each went back to the area of the herd they were driving. Mack looked at Dalia. His voice was soft. “You were supposed to be with me. Even with the drawing of the straw. I have no doubt that God’s hand has been here with us the entire time.”

Dalia looked at Mack. The way he was looking at her made her warm inside. “I think I’m starting to believe that.”

Mack touched her hand. “I’m glad because it is true. I believe a few things in my life pointed me in your direction. I’m finding I want to find out why.”

Dalia smiled at him. “I think I would like to find out why too. Now I see a few strays that need our attention.”

Mack chuckled. “Yes, Ma’am.”

The two worked side by side until supper. The fact they worked well together did not go unnoticed. Albert smiled to himself a few times. These two really were fun to watch even with the danger that lurked.

 

Chapter Ten

 

Mack and Dalia sat side by side that night. Their legs were barely touching, but the two were laughing at a story Charlie was telling.

Mack shook his head. He was trying to figure out how his soon-to-be wife had made it to her eighteenth birthday. “I would have whacked you too.”

Dalia grimaced. She was wondering if Mack was getting an idea of what he was getting into. “Uncle Charlie and Daddy were always hitting me. You would have thought I would have learned to stay out of trouble.”

Mack made a face. “I can’t imagine you were that bad.”

Charlie spoke before he realized the story he was telling. “She brought a coyote pup home once.”

Dalia paled as she remembered the punishment. She looked at Charlie. Her voice was soft. “I really did think he was a dog.”

Charlie nodded. He could see the color had drained from her face. He was kicking himself for saying anything. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think before I spoke.”

Greg looked at Dalia. That something was very wrong was written all over her face. “What happened? You can tell us.”

Charlie glanced at Dalia. He knew she didn’t want these men to know, but he also knew she didn’t want him to lie. “We learned it wasn’t safe to leave her with her stepmom.”

Danny looked at Dalia. He questioned her softly. “The spanking was that bad?”

Dalia bit the inside of her cheek. She didn’t say anything. Her stomach always got upset when she thought about that day. She swallowed trying not to be sick.

Charlie shook his head. That it still upset the man to think about was obvious in his choked voice. “I have never seen so much blood come out of a little girl. We thought you were dead.”

Dalia shrugged her shoulders. She leaned against Mack still unwilling to speak. She swallowed again to keep from being ill.

Mack frowned. He could feel her shaking. He was humbled that she sought his touch for comfort. “How old was she?”

Charlie wiped a tear from his eye. His voice was still choked. “She was only five. Her little nose and mouth were bleeding. The woman knocked three of her baby teeth out. She was knocked unconscious the hits were so brutal. When we got there, she was laying on her back choking on her own blood. If we hadn’t gotten to her in time…”

Dalia was not sure how she felt about this group knowing this about her. She wished her uncle had not said anything. She pulled her knees against her chest as she leaned more fully against Mack.

Knowing she was seeking more comfort, Mack put his arm around her. He was furious anyone would mistreat a child like that. He looked at Charlie. “How did her dad do the drives after that?”

Dalia found a smile in the middle of the bad memory. Her soon-to-be-husband was going to find out why she was so good at cattle driving. “I may have held back the entire truth when I insinuated this was my second drive.”

Charlie chuckled. He had to find a smile too. “She has probably seen more drives than most of the men here. Two a year from the time she was six. She just turned eighteen, and she is on another drive.”

Mack glanced at Dalia. “You have seen more than me. I was only allowed to go once I turned sixteen. I’ve only been doing this for nine years.”

Dalia smiled at him. “That makes you twenty-five.”

Mack grinned. “I just turned twenty-five in January.”

Greg shook his head. He was furious a child was exposed to a cattle drive. This one was going pretty smooth. Most didn’t. “That is a tough life for a little girl. Why did your dad tolerate her treating you like that?”

Dalia shrugged her shoulders. She knew her dad loved her but never enough to send Mable away. “He felt he was to blame.”

Bart was furious. “I don’t care if she was a woman. I would hit any adult hurting a child.”

Dalia closed her eyes as she listened to the men discuss what they would and would not do. She smiled as Mack rubbed her shoulder.

Mack leaned down and whispered softly. “I’m sorry she did that to you.”

Dalia’s voice was soft. “I forgave her. I forgave her again when she took me to my mom’s and put me in this position.”

Mack kissed the side of her head. “You are a pretty special woman.”

Dalia opened her eyes and looked at him. “I’m a sinner saved by grace. I choose to show grace because it was shown to me. If I am special, it is because Christ made me that way.”

Mack nodded his head. “You are right, but you also have to see that you make a choice to let Christ be seen in you. That is what makes you special.”

Dalia shook her head. She teased him. “You really like to be right! What a bossy man you are!”

Mack chuckled. “I do like to be right. Now tell me one of the Bible verses you have memorized and what it means to you.”

Dalia thought for a moment. She went with Psalm chapter one-hundred and eighteen verse six. After she recited it, she glanced at Mack. “I have that committed to my heart but have a hard time believing it. Valentino is a mortal. I’m terrified of the plans he has for me. I can’t even sleep without having nightmares.”

Mack thought of the verse she said. He had never realized that one existed. He had a thought on it. “It asks what mortals can do to you. I’m not seeing that it says we will be spared from what they can do to us. I often wonder if God uses verses like these to remind us that in the end, we are His. This world is not our home. No one can take heaven from us. Mortals can only harm us here. They have no power to take our salvation.”

Dalia thought for a moment. She had an honest question. Maybe Mack could help her understand some things. “But there are so many verses that say He will help us. Why have those verses?”

Mack agreed. “You are right but help us with what? Help us to withstand the pain of life. Help us to see Him in the middle of a storm. He helps us but with what exactly?”

Dalia had not looked at the verses like that. She nibbled her lip as she thought about his point of view on them. She looked at Mack. “Nash may still get me. I just have to trust that no matter what, God will see me through it. Even if I’m physically harmed, He will help me survive and then thrive.”

Mack nodded. “I don’t like the idea of him getting you, but that is what I mean. No matter what happens God will hold us through it. I know He did when I lost Alice.”

Dalia sat quietly as she contemplated the verse. She was glad for a new interpretation of it. She leaned against Mack again. “I think what you said helps. I’m afraid of what can be. I’m losing focus that God won’t leave me even if bad things happen to me. Now, what is your verse?”

Mack recited John chapter three verse seventeen. He glanced at Dalia. “I know most of us know the sixteenth verse of this chapter. I like the seventeenth one too. There will be a judgment day. I have no doubt. I am taken with the idea that God really doesn’t want to have to do that. He gave us a way out. Jesus didn’t come to point out sin. He came so we can be saved from it.”

Dalia nodded. “We still have to recognize it. It is a fine line. He wants us to be free of it. I can tell people what sin is, but ultimately that is between them and God. The gift of Christ didn’t take away the recognition of sin. It gave us a way to heaven in spite of it. It gave us a way to ask for forgiveness and receive it. Christ didn’t come here to condemn us because condemnation was already here.”

Mack was interested on that line of thinking. “I guess you are right. The condemnation was already there. It still is. He came to free us from it.”

Dalia glanced at him. Mack was a very smart man. She was enjoying this time with him. “I like this. It is interesting hearing and seeing what others think.”

Bart looked at the couple. “Not to interrupt but what does that mean? The condemnation thing…”

Mack spoke truthfully. “We all have a date with hell. Jesus came to help us not keep that date. He came to free us from the condemnation our sins had in our lives.”

Bart sat back and thought about what they were saying. He usually didn’t listen to religious stuff, but this seemed different. He glanced at Mack. “So, you are saying that I am heading toward hell. As you put it, I have a date with it.”

Mack shook his head. “I’m not saying just you, Bart. I’m saying we all have the problem of going to hell. There is a way to not go, though.”

Bart leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees. He looked at Dalia. “Do you believe your mom and stepmom are able to have this gift?”

“I do.” Dalia’s response was fast and sure. Her face held her conviction.

Mack watched the play of emotions not just on Bart’s face but on the others’ faces as well. It had never occurred to him that speaking to Dalia in front of them would give them an opportunity to see Christ. He was glad they were doing this.

Dalia looked at the men. “If you confess that you are a sinner in need of Christ and ask Him to be a part of your life, you have taken the gift. There are no fancy words. There is nothing you can do other than ask Him to be your God. The ticket away from hell can’t be earned. It can only be accepted and embraced.”

Greg glanced at Mack. “You believe this?”

Mack nodded. “With every fiber of my being…”

Charlie spoke seeing the opportunity to witness. “Dalia’s father cheated on his wife. She was a result of that sin. He asked for forgiveness and received it. I have no doubt her father is in heaven. Jesus wants to forgive us. The verse says it all. He didn’t come to condemn but to save.”

Danny spoke from where he was sitting. “I want that. I want to have what you have.”

Albert smiled at the boy. “Then ask Him. Take the gift. He is listening.”

Danny had seen Mack pray. He had seen Dalia bow her head and thank God for the food. He bowed his head and spoke. “I believe Jesus can save me. I’m asking Him to do that now. I want Him to be my God and save me from my date with hell. Amen.”

Dalia smiled at the boy. She knew he felt his choice. “When I made this choice, I can’t say I felt different. I just had a peace. I can see you feel the difference, Danny.”

Danny nodded. “I do.”

Bart spoke too. “He is right. I do too.”

Mack knew not everyone would make the choice to follow Christ. He could see that Bart and Danny were not the only two that did, though. He looked at Dalia. “Do you want to pray alone or here?”

Dalia smiled. It suddenly dawned on her how nice his eyes were. She realized she could end up falling for her future husband. She shook her thoughts out of her head and focused on answering. “I am good here.”

Mack glanced at her. His voice softened at the look he had seen fleetingly in her eyes. “Out loud or silent…?”

Dalia grinned. He was considerate too. “I’m ok with either.”

Mack looked at her. He was mesmerized when he saw her eyes soften. “First or last…?”

Dalia giggled. She smiled and bowed her head. “Jesus, I am here to talk to You again. I know I do an awful lot of that during the day, but I also know You don’t mind. I’m sure before the end of this prayer I will tell You how to get things done, I apologize ahead of time.” She took a deep breath. Her voice was soft. “To be honest, I’m really scared right now. It would be so nice if You could just send a little lightning to take care of the problem, but that would be me telling You how to deal with this. I’m frustrated. I can’t see what is going to happen and I mind that. I’m asking You to keep us all safe. I’m asking You to give me peace. Please help me know that whatever happens You are there. Please send Your angels to guard us through the night as well as the day. I pray this all in Your name, Jesus. Amen”

Mack took Dalia’s hand as he started his prayer. “Dear Heavenly Father. I know things are out of our control right now. Please help me to know You are still there. I have lost before. I admit I am terrified of losing again. I know fear is not of You. Please give me peace as well. Help me to see You in the storm we are facing right now. Thank You for having Bart and Greg at the right place today to help. I pray that You will hold all of us in Your hand at this time. I pray that You will keep us safe. I ask this in Jesus name. Amen.”

Bart grinned. He had thoroughly enjoyed listening to Dalia pray. It was simple and honest. “So, this prayer stuff all you do is talk.”

Dalia chuckled. “Yup, I do it all day long. Not because I have to but because I have an awful lot on my mind. Sometimes God is the only One there to listen. Of course, there are times I really do have to, but mostly that isn’t the reason.”

The group laughed at Dalia’s confession. Not long after everyone rolled out their beds and went to sleep. Dalia slept in the wagon. This time she was alone.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Dalia’s scream pierced the night air. It did not come from the wagon she was sleeping in. It came from east of the camp. The men and boys were up and running toward her scream with their guns drawn to defend her.

Valentino’s fist came down hard on Dalia’s face. He cursed at her as he tried to drag her onto his horse. He wrapped his hand in her hair and forced her head back with the intent of hitting her again.

Dalia clawed at the man’s face as she struggled to get free. She felt her nails connect with his skin and dug into him harder. She finally wiggled out of his grip and fell hard off the man’s horse. She heard the others running toward her and started for them but fell. Her hands were bloody from the fall off of Valentino’s horse. She whimpered in pain as they hit the ground again.

Valentino hissed at Dalia as he guided his horse away from her. This battle would have to wait. “You win today but tomorrow you will not. You will belong to me, Dalia.”

Dalia heard his horse leave. She looked down at her ripped gown. Her shoulders and chest were barely covered. She pulled the tattered ends around herself. Dalia pushed herself to her feet and tried to walk but fell again as she tripped on her gown. A yelp escaped her as her knees hit the ground. She closed her eyes trying to focus. Valentino’s fist had rattled her. She just wanted to move but was having difficulty accomplishing the task.

The men watched Dalia try to stand. Mack walked toward her. He took off his shirt and put it over her gown when he saw her exposed flesh.

Dalia was trying to keep her eyes open. Her head hurt. She hoped it cleared up soon. She looked up at Mack. Her voice was pitiful when she spoke. “My feet don’t work.”

Mack nodded. She took another piece of his heart with her quiet confession. “I know. Let me help you.”

When he picked her up, she closed her eyes and leaned her head against his chest. She felt safe but sleepy. “Mack I’m tired.”

Mack held her closer. He closed his eyes and tried not to think about the fact she was almost taken. “You had a pretty good hit.”

Bart looked at Dalia’s face and grimaced. Her cheek was swollen, and her lip was split open. He glanced at Mack. “Do you want us to see if we can get him?”

Mack shook his head. They needed to focus on Dalia. “He will expect that. We need to do the unexpected. Let’s just get her taken care of.”

Greg ran his hand through his hair. His frustration was clear. “How did he get her? She was sleeping less than twenty feet from us.”

Mack took a deep breath. He had been wondering the same thing. “I guess evil finds a way.”

Dalia whimpered as a throb started in her hands. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Mack I’m hurt.”

Mack’s voice was gentle. He could feel the blood from her back on his arms. “I know. Let’s get you back to camp.”

Ethan rode up on his horse. He, James, Seth, and Marty had been the night watch. He shoved a man onto the ground in front of the others. “There were three of them. They created a nice distraction so Nash could slip by.”

The man rolled up onto his knees. He glared at the group. “She was born to be what her mother is. Why are you protecting her? Just let Nash have her.”

Dalia looked at the man. When he looked at her and spit, she spoke softly. Her voice held a hint of the tears she allowed to flow freely down her cheeks. “I forgive you.” She turned and buried her head in Mack’s chest.

The man’s eyes held surprise as he watched the girl turn away and sob. He looked at her tattered gown and the blood on her shoulder. He swallowed realizing she was hurt because of his distraction. She knew that and had still forgiven him. A wave of real regret hit him.

Mack looked at Ethan. “Let him go. He is forgiven. What he chooses to do with that is now up to him.”

Ethan nodded. He got off his horse and untied the man.

Mack looked at the man. “If we had hung you, there would not be one lawman that would have questioned it. Don’t forget the grace you were shown here.”

The man watched as Mack turned with the woman in his arms and walked away. His voice was strong. “My name is Grady. I’m going back. I’ll do what I can to keep her safe from there.”

Mack turned and looked at him again. He could see the regret and truth in the man’s eyes. “Thank you, Grady.”

Grady watched as one of the men brought his horse to him. He looked at the man. “I was wrong.”

Bart nodded. He was angry but tried to show the same grace Dalia had showen. “You were.”

Grady got up on his horse and looked at the three still there. He could see they were struggling with their anger toward him. He knew Dalia’s soft words had saved his life. “I will do what I said. Not that it means much, but you have my word.”

Bart and Ethan watched him leave. The men turned and followed the others back to camp. Their concern for Dalia was written on their faces.

Bart grimaced as he watched Mack put Dalia on his bedroll. He knew she was in pain. He could see it on her face as he walked up to them.

Dalia whimpered in pain as Mack put her down on his bedroll. She looked up as he pulled his shirt off her shoulder.

Mack took a cloth that was handed to him. He started to wipe the blood off of her. He grimaced at the black and blue mark that was forming around the wound. “Can you tell me where you hurt?”

Dalia held out her hands. She wanted to cover herself but couldn’t. She closed her eyes and bit her cheek as he started cleaning them.

Mack was frustrated. Dalia needed help, and she was not his wife yet. His shirt had to come all the way off, and he needed to examine her body for injuries. He looked up at Charlie. “How do we help her?”

Charlie shook his head. He knew Dalia was embarrassed. She was being exposed to a group of men. There was only one logical solution. “I know you are not happy about it, but you have to do what needs to be done. You are the one that is getting married to her. It should be you.”

Albert agreed. Right now, some things just could not be avoided. “We can put a lantern inside the wagon. I’ll stand outside to make sure it stays proper, but she needs to be looked at.”

Dalia knew what they were saying. She closed her eyes and put her head to the side and tried to pretend this was a nightmare. She felt Mack pick her up. She whimpered softly as she started to tremble. “I don’t want to do this, Mack.”

Mack whispered softly. “I’m sorry. You know I have to, right?”

Dalia nodded. She swallowed her fear. She opened her eyes as she watched Danny put a bucket of water inside the wagon flap. She turned her face into Mack’s chest.

Mack put Dalia in the wagon and crawled in after her. He closed his eyes and said a prayer. When he opened them, Dalia was looking at him.

Dalia saw him pray. She had to ask herself why she was afraid. Mack would never hurt her. When he looked at her, she turned her back to him and took off the shirt and then held it over her chest. She knew he would be gentle. She knew Mack would not take liberties he had no right to take. “I’m ok.”

Mack pushed her gown off her shoulder all the way. He wiped the area totally clean. He saw her elbows were bleeding and pushed the sleeve all the way down. He grimaced. “You have a rock in this one. It is going to hurt a little when I take it out.”

Dalia nodded. His hands were so gentle. The more he cleaned her wounds. The calmer she became. “My head hurts so much. My elbow won’t bother me.”

Mack took the rock out and cleaned the area. He wiped an area that was bleeding on her back. “Once I have all your cuts cleaned back here, you can put my shirt on.”

Dalia helped him push her gown down to her waist. She swallowed hard knowing her entire back was exposed. Dalia knew Mack wouldn’t hurt her, but it still felt strange having him touch her. She felt him clean two more areas of her back.

Mack finished her back thankful the wounds seemed superficial there. His voice was soft. “Hand me my shirt.”

Dalia handed his shirt back to him. She put her arms in it as he helped her get it on. She tried to button it, but her hands were too sore.

Mack spoke gently. He knew she was uncomfortable again. “Hold it together, and I’ll button you.”

Dalia did as he said. She watched his big hand gently help her cover herself. She was not as embarrassed as she had been.

Mack finished and took her hands again. He knew he had to do a better job than he had outside. He could still see dirt. “I’ll clean these then we will go to your knees.”

Dalia nodded but kept silent. She watched him clean her hands with the cloth. When he took her hands and dipped them in the bucket, she gasped softly.

Mack’s voice stayed calm and soothing. “I’m sorry. It needed to be done.”

Dalia whispered softly. “I know.”

Mack spent another fifteen minutes cleaning her wounds. He grimaced as he ended with her lip. “That must hurt.”

Dalia glanced up at him. Her lip hurt a little but not too much. “I’ll live.”

Mack handed Dalia her pants. “Can you wear these over the scrapes on your knees?”

Dalia was not sure. “I think so.” She put them on as Mack turned and gave her privacy. She blushed as he helped her button them.

Mack handed Dalia’s bedroll out to Albert when Dalia was finished dressing. He knew she would not sleep in the wagon even if he insisted on it.

Dalia spoke as she moved her legs in the pants slowly. “My knees seem to be fine.”

Mack turned. He reached into his bag and grabbed one of his spare shirts. He put it on and buttoned it up and then reached for Dalia.

Dalia put her head against Mack’s chest as he carried her to the others. She yawned and closed her eyes. “I really am tired.”

Mack gently put her on her bedroll. He watched her crawl carefully into it. He could tell she didn’t want to hurt her cuts and bruises. He grimaced as a soft whimper escaped her mouth. “I hope you are able to sleep. Is your pain easing?”

“I feel less pain. I should be ok. I’ll heal.” Her voice was soft as she answered him.

Dalia waited until Mack got into his bedroll. She scooted herself against him. When his arm went around her waist, she closed her eyes and slept.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Dalia’s face was mutinous. She was feeling helpless and hated it. “I am not a doll. I can do this myself.”

Charlie laughed. “I just bet you can. Go ahead. Show me.”

Mack shook his head as he walked over to the two. He watched her struggle. Mack knew she was embarrassed and feeling vulnerable. He tried to put her at ease by giving her a choice. “Let’s do it like we did last night. How does that sound?”

Dalia nodded as she held the front of her dress together. She blushed as Mack buttoned her up. She looked up at him as he finished the last one. “Thank you.”

Mack smiled and tweaked her nose. “It was no problem.”

Dalia looked at Charlie. “I’m sorry for being mean.”

Charlie winked at her. “You have a right to be a bit ornery today. You have had quite a night.”

Ethan and James rode into camp. They would get a few hours of shut-eye before heading out to herd. James looked at Dalia. “You sure do not look like a boy in that thing.”

Dalia gave him a small smile. “I’m thinking you would still look like one in it though.”

James howled with laughter. “I do not plan on finding out.”

Mack looked down at Dalia. When she made eye contact with him, he gave her a grin. “Are you still ok about tonight?”

Dalia nodded. “I’m finding it more appealing than not. I have to say. You are an excellent source of heat. I kind of like waking up beside you.”

Mack chuckled at her honesty. He knew that may change once they are back at the ranch. She may find a bed a little too close. He decided to take advantage of it while he could. “I’ll make sure you stay warm.”

Dalia moved slowly over to the others. She stretched her arms and legs as she walked trying to loosen them up. “I feel like I’ve been under a stampede.”

Mack helped her sit down. “I bet you do. Your cheek is really bruised. Your lip looks better though.”

Ethan had to agree. He looked up from his plate. “You were a bloody mess last night. You look much better.”

Dalia giggled. “You men sure do know how to make a gal’s heart go pitter patter. I bet those flowery words make all the ladies turn their heads.”

Mack handed her a plate of food. “What can we say? It is a gift. Should be outlawed the way we sweet-talk you ladies.”

Dalia grinned. “It really should be.”

Ethan finished his food and stretched. “I’m going to head into the wagon. I’m ready for some sleep.”

Mack kissed the side of Dalia’s head. “I need to get to work. Stay safe.”

Dalia smiled at him. “You stay safe too.”

Mack looked at Dalia. “You look like you are going to do something.”

Dalia made a face. She was obviously surprised. “You can see that?”

Mack raised an eyebrow. “I’m right?”

Dalia nibbled her lip. She glanced up at him. “I can still get my clothes on and ride. If I wear gloves, I can help.”

Mack shook his head. “You are hurt. You need to rest.”

Dalia rolled her eyes. “I rested fine. You had to shake me awake this morning I rested so well.”

Mack frowned at her. He didn’t want her to get hurt. “You are going to stay here. Are we clear on that?”

Dalia nodded. She looked up at him with a look of defeat. “We are clear.”

Mack could see the tears in her eyes. He suddenly felt like a jerk. “Dalia, I don’t want to make you cry.”

Dalia decided, to be honest with him. “I don’t feel safe if you aren’t near me. Mack, I know I’m not supposed to feel like this. I am always talking to God about my lack of faith, but I’m so scared. He came right into the wagon and took me.”

Bart was standing off to the side. He watched the couple. He had to admit he would feel better knowing she was with the boss. “I have a pair of gloves that will fit loose on her.”

Mack wrapped one of her curls around his finger. “Would you be willing to simply ride? Even with gloves, your hands are going to hurt if you rope. I also think you need to keep your dress on. Your knees were sticking to your pants today. You have to let yourself heal.”

Dalia nodded. “I would be willing to ride.” Her eyes were hopeful as she looked up into the face of the man who would be her husband.

Mack glanced at Bart. “She does make it hard for a man to say ‘no.’”

Dalia wrapped her arms around his waist. She felt his arms go around her and sighed. “So, is that a yes? I can go with you.”

Mack kissed the top of her head. “It is a yes. I’ll go talk to Charlie. He is going to have fits if he thinks I’m letting you work.”

Dalia watched him walk away. She smiled. If she had to be honest, she really was quite drawn to the man she would be married to that night. She glanced at Bart who looked very amused. “He is going to be my husband.”

Bart laughed as he started walking away. “That he is. I’ll see you later.”

Dalia waved at him as she observed her soon to be husband walk back toward her. She smiled up at him. “Did it go well? He understands I’m just riding?”

Mack nodded. “It went fine. I gave him my word you would be fine with me.”

Dalia stopped walking with him. She looked up at him as she started to nibble her bottom lip. She was surprising even herself with her thoughts. “Mack, I’m ok if we don’t wait.”

Mack glanced down at her. He was not sure what she meant. “If we don’t wait to what…?”

Dalia started blushing. She looked away and then back up at him. Her eyes never left his as she spoke again. “I’m ok being your wife. I think I want to. I don’t believe mail order brides wait. I don’t think I want to. I would rather go into the unknown with you sooner not later.”

Mack was surprised. He was not sure what to say. His voice was thoughtful. He didn’t want her to say this now without understanding it was ok to change her mind later. “I haven’t even kissed you.”

Dalia blushed. Her voice was soft. “You can if you want. I think…”

Mack had no intentions of letting her finish. He leaned down and kissed her softly. He deepened the kiss slightly when her arms went around his neck.

Dalia sighed as Mack eased his lips away from hers. She looked up into his face. Her voice was confident and soft. “I don’t want to wait. You’ll keep me safe.”

Mack kissed her forehead. The kiss was not inappropriate, but even Mack could see it was going to go that way. “I don’t think I do either.”

Dalia let Mack help her up onto her horse. She touched his face. “I’m feeling more blessed than anything right now. I’m falling for you, Boss.”

Mack grinned up at her. “I’m glad I’m not alone.”

Dalia watched Mack get onto his horse. He really was a handsome man but more than that he was kind and gentle. Dalia was aware that what was most important was his love of God. She nudged her horse to follow his as she prayed. ‘Thank You for giving me this man. I love You first, and so does he. You really do want me to be loved here on earth.’

Mack looked at Dalia. He could see she was thinking hard on something. “Penny for your thoughts.”

Dalia smiled at him. “I talk to God all day long. I was thanking Him for you. Mack, we sat at a campfire last night and talked openly and unashamed about our faith in Christ. At least two people are Christians now. I love being a part of us.”

Mack shook his head. He was humbled by the fact she would be his wife. “How did I end up being the one He trusted with you? I feel like He is giving me a glimpse of Who He is by letting me protect and fall in love with you. A part of me feels unworthy.”

Dalia blushed at his words. “That could not be farther from the truth.”

The two worked side by side. Mack chuckled as Dalia maneuvered her horse to keep a few of the cattle from leaving the herd. “You are not supposed to be working.”

Dalia grinned. “I’m not. I’m simply riding.”

Mack shook his head. “I’ll be sure to tell Charlie that. I’m almost positive I’m not too old to whack in his eyes.”

Dalia laughed. “He does not hold back at all. I do not like getting cuffed by him.”

Mack grinned. “I know Ronnie didn’t like his swat.”

Dalia giggled. “I am Ronnie. I asked my dad once why he gave me that first name. He told me he had a feeling I would need it someday.”

Mack started away from her to wrangle some strays. He spoke over his shoulder. “I sure am glad Ronnie drew the straw I wanted him to. I certainly enjoyed waking up next to Dalia.”

Dalia nudged her horse to intercept a few more of the cattle. She looked up at him as she spoke. “I am too. I like not hiding from you. You were so nice that I almost spilled the beans a few times.”

Mack could see she was holding something back. “Why didn’t you?”

Dalia nibbled her bottom lip. She stopped knowing what she should tell Mack, but she was nervous. She had tears in her eyes. “I was scared you would hurt me like Nash wanted to. When I realized that would not happen, I was afraid of being left. I’m sorry for judging you that way. It wasn’t fair.”

Mack glanced at her and saw her torment. “Dalia, as much as I talked about my faith, you were in a very scary situation. You still are. I don’t hold that against you. Anyone would find it difficult to trust. There is nothing to forgive.”

Dalia nodded. “Thank you for understanding me.”

Mack shook his head. His voice was thoughtful. “Dalia, I like understanding you.”

Dalia blushed as she watched him go wrangle a few more cows back to the herd. She took a deep breath before she helped.

The day was getting hot. Mack and Dalia continued to work until lunch. When they rode into camp, Mack helped Dalia down from her horse. He leaned down and brushed her lips with his. The two headed toward the chuck wagon hand in hand. It was apparent the two were falling in love.

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

“I ought to kick you out on your ear! You had no right to do that! What were you thinking?!” Foster Stewart glared at his mother. His roar was just as fierce as his glare. He ran his hand through his hair attempting to calm himself. The desire to hit the vile woman standing in front of him was great.

Mable looked at her son. Her face held hateful contempt for the woman they spoke of. “She does not belong here. You know that. She is the daughter of that whore. Your father should have left her there to do what she was born to do.”

Foster looked at his mom in disgust. His voice shook in anger. “It is no wonder dad stepped out on you. You are so insecure you beat a child almost to death. Now that dad is gone, you send his daughter away like she is nothing more than garbage. To do what you deem she was born to do. Guess what?! That girl is my sister. She shares my blood. I claim her! I love her, and I will protect her!”

Mable screamed as she charged her son. Her face was contorted with the rage and hate she harbored deep inside her soul. “She will be a whore like her mother! I will not stop until she knows her place!”

Foster easily caught his mother’s attack. He was done with her hate. He held her wrists to keep her from hitting him, but he knew it was time to make a change. The ranch was his. It did not belong to her like she had told everyone after his father’s death. He was getting rid of the poison that should have been taken care of years ago. He would do what his father would not do. He would protect his sister no matter what. “You have one week to leave. I will pay for you to go back east if you want, but you are no longer welcome here. When you are gone, do not look back. I want nothing to do with you. My future children’s grandparents are both dead.”

Mable lashed out at him almost making contact with his face this time. “I will kill her if I see her again. Do you hear me? I will never let her come back here. She has turned all of you against me.”

Foster shook his head. He was truly confused with his mother’s convictions. “Don’t you see? If you had just chosen to see this child as the victim she was, you would not be in this mess. Even if you had chosen to be indifferent, that would have been better. But you didn’t do that. You punished a child for the sin of her father and mother. Her father was your husband. She is a part of him too. She is not just a part of the woman who gave birth to her. She holds half of one parent as all children do. Why couldn’t you embrace Dad’s half? Anyone could see she would have accepted your love. It was all she wanted from you.”

Mable spit on the ground. Her voice was filled with hatred. “Dalia is a product of sin. That makes her a sinful human that can never be anything but hell bound.”

Foster shook his head. This was his mom, but he was done. He knew unless she changed he had to wipe his hands of her. “What God do you serve? That is not how Jesus is. I’m done with you. You are no longer a part of who I am. I mean it. You have a week to get out of my house.”

Mable slapped at him. Her fury was barely contained. Spittle came out of her mouth as she screeched her vile words. “You are all going to hell for accepting her. When she comes back, I’ll send her there myself. All of you are going to hell. Your father is there now.”

Foster knew he could not reason with the hate his mother had. He also knew his mom would come back for Dalia. He looked at his foreman Ryan. “If she does not leave by the end of the week, shoot her for trespassing. I’m going after my sister.”

Ryan nodded. He was still seething at the fact Mable had taken Dalia away. “You know I will not have a problem with that. What she did to Dalia was disgusting.”

Mable knew her time was up. As much as she wanted to see the little whore’s daughter dead she was not willing to die to see it done. She would have to come up with a different plan. Her voice held anger as she accepted the earlier proposal. “I’ll take the trip back east. I’ll be ready to leave by tomorrow.”

Foster didn’t even glance at her as he spoke to Ryan. He had already told the man his plan. Ryan would put her on the stage if that is what she chose. He would also watch every stage after that. They both knew she was coming back. Her unreasonable hate demanded Dalia’s death. “See her there. If she doesn’t get on the stage, alert the authorities of her plan to kill my sister.”

Elam watched his boss come down the stairs. He had heard the screaming from inside the house where he stood at the porch stairs. All of the men had wanted to stop Mable from taking Dalia away. She, however, was the boss at that time. They didn’t have a choice but to watch her leave. “Are we going for her?”

Foster nodded. He knew Elam had known his answer before he had asked the question. “We are. I can’t believe her mother promised her to Nash. I’m just glad she ended up in Mack Shore’s drive. We should catch up to them in three days if we ride hard.”

Elam looked at Jasper. “I’m glad you saw her go with them.”

Jasper shook his head. He still regretted not going over to Dalia and demanding she come with him. “I wish I could have gotten her on our crew, but she stayed well away from us.”

Foster listened to his men talk as they started packing food for the trail. He wanted to weep for his sister. He had loved her the moment he saw her little face. He may have only been four at the time, but she had his heart from the second he saw her. He would die to protect her.

The men set out on their journey as the sun started to dip in the sky. They still had a solid four hours of daylight left. They would use them all.

 

Charlie looked at Dalia. He whacked her back as he hugged her. Tears misted the old man’s eyes. “Do you remember our talk?”

Dalia shuddered as she eased out of his arms. “Unfortunately, yes. I’m good Uncle Charlie. I promise. Mack will take care of me.”

Charlie’s arms encompassed her again as he roughly patted her back again. “I just care about you, Girl. You are the daughter I never had. Your dad would be proud of how strong you are being right now. He would have approved of Mack.”

Dalia winced as her Uncle Charlie hugged her again. If she had to guess this was the eighteenth or nineteenth time he had embraced her. She looked at her husband’s laughing eyes and smiled.

Mack grimaced as Charlie hugged Dalia again. He knew the wounds on her back were not bad but still pretty tender. Her uncle was unknowingly hurting her. He glanced at Bart. “He looks like he is getting ready to cry like an old woman. I’m afraid to rescue her.”

Bart laughed. The look on Dalia’s face was hysterical. “I have this. You just swoop in and save your wife.”

Dalia watched Bart walk toward them. She grinned at her husband as he indicated that she needed to be ready to run. “I love you, Uncle Charlie.”

Charlie wiped a tear from his eye. His voice was full of emotion. “I love you too.”

Bart put his arm around Charlie’s shoulders. He tried to sound serious. What he wanted to do was laugh. “I have a question for you. Do you have some time?”

Dalia took her husband’s hand when he reached for her. She giggled as he tugged her toward the little wooded area outside their camp. “Uncle Charlie seems very distressed about this.”

Mack laughed. “He sure does.” He stopped and looked down at her. “How are you feeling? I am good with whatever you want. We can go back to the original plan.”

Dalia was honest. “I am a bit nervous but other than that I’m ready to be your wife. I like your kisses. I’m sure I’ll like your touch.”

Mack was humbled by her faith in him. He pulled her into the clearing that had their bedrolls laid out in. He kissed her softly before he spoke to her again. “I know you had some questions. Do you still have them?”

Dalia thought for a moment. She knew she would probably start blushing, but she wanted, to be honest. “I’m not quite sure how this works. If there is anything, you know I need to be aware of I would like you to tell me.”

Mack sat down and tugged her into his lap. He thought for a moment wanting to have the right words. He gently explained to her how their bodies worked and what that would entail. When he finished, he waited to see what Dalia wanted to do.

Dalia held her husband’s hand on her lap. She smiled up at him. When he leaned down and kissed her, she went willingly into his arms.

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Valentino killed the man in front of him. He choked him until his last breath was gone. His body shook with rage. The girl’s innocence was supposed to be his, and now, she was married. She and Mack would pay for this. He glanced up at the rest of his men. “You will bring her to me now. When I have my fill of her, I will make sure she is available to all of you.”

A lot of the men were now uncomfortable with the idea of taking Dalia. It was one thing stealing a prostitute’s kid. It was another thing taking Mack Shore’s wife. Doing that could get them killed. None of them wanted to die for this man’s obsession.

Grady made eye contact with five of the men he knew were not willing to do this. He was well aware that it was time for them to leave the madman in front of them. Everyone could see Nash’s sanity slipping away. As they walked toward their horses, he spoke to them. “We ride away now or not at all.”

Troy spoke for them all. He was disgusted with what he had just witnessed. “We ride away now. I’m through with Nash.”

Valentino had no idea the majority of his men were deserting him. In his sick and twisted mind, they were all running to do his bidding. He kicked dust on the man he just killed unaware the man’s brother was riding for the closest lawman.

“Your time with me is coming fast Dalia. I’m not giving you up.” He hissed as he turned and mounted his horse.

 

The men heard the riders approaching. It was lunch, and the majority of the crew was eating. It didn’t take long for everyone to have their guns drawn. It took even less time for them to surround Dalia.

Grady looked at the group as they rode up to them. He was aware of who they surrounded. He also knew they recognized him. Grady wanted to make himself clear. “We don’t come as enemies.”

Dalia peeked out from behind her husband. She had been told to stay behind him, but the man’s words made her curious.

Grady smiled surprised as he watched Dalia smile and wave at him. He shook his head as he waved back. The glimpse of her gave him some insight. Grady grimaced realizing what he may be signing up for. “She really must be hard to protect.”

Mack rolled his eyes. He knew these men did not present a danger to his wife. She, however, proved to be a danger to herself. She really had a problem listening. He turned and frowned at his wife. “I told you to stay behind me.”

Dalia whispered loudly. “I was behind you, but you turned around to fuss at me. It isn’t my fault I’m in front of you now.”

Troy laughed as he heard her loud whisper. He got a good look at her face when Mack stood aside a little bit. His laughter died as he realized he helped put the fading bruises on her face. He spoke to the group. “I’m sorry for my part in the distraction the other night.”

Dalia peeped out at the men causing Mack to frown again. She waved and smiled at the man that had just spoken. “All is forgiven.”

Troy looked at the group. He was serious now. “We have a problem. All of us are willing to help if we can, but either way, we want you to know what is going on.”

Mack could hear the urgency in the man’s voice. He glanced down at Dalia. Mack knew she would be difficult about this, but he had a gut feeling she should not hear what was going to be said. “Go to Charlie.”

Dalia glanced at the men. Her husband’s voice held a gentle tone she had not heard before. She started to nibble her bottom lip again. Tears formed in her eyes. “It is going to be bad?”

Mack hated the fear he saw in her eyes. He pulled her close. “I just need you to trust me. Can you do that? I know this is hard, Dalia. I’m sorry about that. I need you to go to Charlie.”

Dalia glanced at the men. Their sympathetic looks didn’t help her fear. She looked back up at Mack and sniffled softly. “I trust you.”

Bart looked at Mack. If someone attacked her over there, he knew they were too far away to help. “You can fill me in later. I’ll stay close to her. She’s too far away to help if she’s with Charlie.”

Mack nodded his consent. After the other morning, he knew how fast things could go south. “Thanks.”

Bart grinned. “She is my little Buddy. I can’t let her get hurt.”

Grady watched Mack’s face. He knew the man was in love. Grady wondered if Mack realized it yet. “You fell for her.”

Mack glanced back at Dalia. She was fussing at Charlie about something. “I did. She is stubborn though.”

Troy felt a deep sense of regret. “You being married to her doesn’t change who she is. I’m ashamed I was a part of trying to take her. She is not a thing like her mother. And even if she were, no one deserves to be forced.”

Mack shook his head. Her heart was so pure. He loved how easily she forgave those that harmed or sought to harm her. “No, she isn’t like her mother. Dalia is a special kind of stubborn. I’m glad you can see no matter who it was that it wasn’t right.”

Grady introduced the rest of the men. “This is Troy, Alvin, Lamar, Raymond, and Scott. We determined the other night we were done. I told them you let me go. I told them why.”

Mack glanced at the men. He could see the sincerity in their eyes. He knew they really wanted to help. “I thank you for giving this up.”

Dalia watched the men talk. She didn’t like the looks on Ethan or Darrel’s faces. She looked up to find Bart observing her.

Bart was curious what the others were talking about. He knew what Dalia was thinking. “I don’t like the looks either.”

Dalia nodded. She took a deep breath. “I have no choice but to trust God.”

Bart smiled as Charlie walked up to them. “I’m thinking that is the best choice someone can have.”

Charlie looked at Dalia. “Are you still doing ok?”

Dalia started blushing. Her uncle had asked that the morning after her wedding. That was two days ago, and he still seemed to feel the need to ask. She nodded. “I’m doing fine. I like being married. Mack is a very gentle man.”

Charlie nodded as he patted her back. “I know. I just like to make sure. You are one that puts on a brave face.”

Dalia laughed at the idea of putting on a brave face every night at bedtime. She shook her head. “I promise. I am fine.”

Charlie watched as the men turned. When Dalia laughed, they all smiled. He had to admit her giggles were fun to hear. From the time she was a little girl, she had a laugh that made others smile.

Dalia looked at her hands. They looked better but were still sore. “I wish I could help more.”

Charlie took one of them in his. He examined it. “I think you will be fine to help more in a few days. The scabs look small.”

Bart frowned. He wished she would stay put and safe. “You don’t need to help.”

Dalia laughed. She was unaware that it again made the men turn and smile in her direction. She put her hands on her hips. “I am just about as good as you. The only reason I can’t improve is because God made me small.”

Charlie whacked her backside. “Behave. You need to stop yelling at the men.”

Dalia rubbed her butt. “You need to stop hitting me. I’m married now. You have to wait until I start having babies. You can help discipline them.”

Charlie shook his head and threw up his hands. “You are just as mouthy as you have always been.”

Dalia frowned. She felt the need to defend herself. “I am not mouthy. I just so happen to have a lot to say.”

The men had stopped talking and observed the scene unfold. Mack was laughing as Dalia started wagging her finger. When her uncle went to give her another whack, he chuckled as she ran around the log.

Dalia smiled up at her uncle. Ethan shook his head. “She is going to sweet talk him now.”

Mack grinned. “She is actually very good at sweet talking him. Look, she already has him in the palm of her hand.”

Danny smiled. “She says he used to have to spank her at least once a day when she was little. Did she tell you she climbed a barn roof when she was seven?”

Mack paled. Some of the stories Charlie talked about were not near as amusing to Mack as they were to the others. He planned on having children with this woman. If they took after her, he was in for a world of drama. “She what?”

Danny shook his head and laughed. “She saw one of the cowboys do it and thought she could too. She got up but couldn’t get down. Charlie said she was wailing at the top of her lungs for help.”

Mack shook his head. He frowned at Dalia like she had just done what Danny had said. “I would have slapped her butt too.”

Alvin watched as she walked toward them. He hoped they could keep her safe. She did seem like a bit of a handful. “It is amazing she is alive.”

Dalia looked at her husband’s face. She frowned back at him. “I didn’t do it. I know that look. I promise. I have been well behaved. I have not caused problems that warrant that look in years. I mean that, Mack, it has been years.”

Mack raised an eyebrow. He was intrigued. “What look?”

Dalia took a long-suffering breath. She rubbed her temples as she closed her eyes. These men were giving her headaches. “The one that says I’m about to get hit. Not that I think you would ever hit me, but I’m almost positive you could put my dad to shame when it comes to lectures. My goodness could that man talk.”

The men started chuckling drawing a frown from Dalia and Mack. None of them looked remorseful about laughing.

Danny grinned. “He isn’t upset with you. I told him about the roof.”

Dalia frowned at the boy. “Why would you go and do that? Of course, that is upsetting. My goodness, I could have broken my neck.”

Troy looked at Mack. “She kind of causes a bit of chaos.”

Mack shook his head. “You have no idea.”

Dalia looked at the new man and frowned again. “I do not cause chaos.” She made a face. “It just kind of follows me. I’m not quite sure how that happens.”

Mack laughed at the bemused look on his wife’s face. “You say the funniest things.”

Dalia shook her head. “I need to go help clean up. Stay out of trouble.”

Mack frowned. “That is my line.”

Dalia smiled at him sweetly. “I know. I wanted to see how it fit. I like it. I’m keeping it.”

Mack shook his head as he watched her walk away. She really meant a great deal to him. He glanced at the newcomers. “Thanks for doing this. We really do need all the help we can get.”

The men continued to talk. They all agreed it would be best if Grady and his friends stayed. Dalia’s life was in danger for the foreseeable future. What Valentino had planned for her now was even worse than before. No one there was willing to allow that kind of harm to come to Dalia. They would work together and keep her safe.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Mack stood guard while his wife bathed. He tried not to groan often but couldn’t help it. He shook his head as he heard her belt out another trail song. That the others could hear her too was obvious by their grins. He glanced at her and frowned hoping to gain her cooperation. “Can you sing just a little lower? You’re drawing attention, Dalia.”

Dalia giggled at her husband’s face. When he stopped frowning and smiled at her, she shook her head. “Mack, you know there is only one way to sing a good trail song. You have to sing it loud. I need to make sure I’m doing it right.”

Mack rolled his eyes at her explanation. “You need to finish your bath.”

Dalia was getting ready to speak when the sound of approaching horses could be heard. She looked at Mack as she swam to the little hiding place he had pointed out before she had started her bath. Her fear put an end to their banter.

Mack looked at the three riders. He glanced at Grady whose gun was also drawn. “Are they yours?”

Grady shook his head. He didn’t recognize any one of them. The one he deemed the leader did not look happy. “Nope.”

Foster looked at the man he assumed was Mack Shore. He looked around the camp. When he didn’t find his sister in the group, his voice was anything but quiet as he asked loudly. “Where is my sister?!”

Dalia heard her brother’s roar. She grimaced knowing he would want to cuff her good for this. She yelled from her hiding place. “It’s ok, Foster. I’m here. I promise I’m ok.”

Foster looked around confused. Considering it was Dalia he was dealing with he should have known he would be. “Where exactly are you?”

Elam looked toward the water and grimaced. “I’m thinking she is taking a bath.”

Foster glanced at the number of men. He made a face. “I’m beating her if she is.” His voice was a roar. “Dalia, I’m beating you if you are bathing.”

Elam chuckled. He had watched Dalia grow up. “Your sister tends to earn quite a few beatings.”

Mack looked at his wife. He shook his head. “Are you ready to get out now? Your brother seems a bit upset.”

Dalia giggled. She knew exactly what her brother would think of this situation. “Does he look mad? He sure does sound mad. He really should know that I wouldn’t just take a bath in front of any man.”

Mack laughed. He had no intentions of telling her he looked furious. His wife would do her best to never end her bath. “It is time to get out.”

Foster looked at the man talking to his sister. He was trying to decide if he was going to let him live. His sister didn’t have a stitch of clothes on, and the man seemed way too comfortable with that. The next few minutes would determine if Mack Shore was honorable.

Mack held up a huge blanket and walked over to the bank. “Your brother is going to shoot me in the back.”

Dalia giggled as he wrapped it around her immersing her in it. She peeked over Mack’s shoulder before he pulled it over her head. “He does look like he is pretty mad. I should slap him for thinking the worst.”

Foster calmed down enough to think. He knew Dalia. He knew her faith in Christ was strong. There was no way she was that familiar with just any man. He looked at Elam. “I guess I can’t kill him. It looks like my little sister got married.”

Jasper looked at the group. The number of guns drawn was staggering. “It looks like they are ready for something a bit more serious than cattle rustlers.”

As Mack walked by the men, he gave Foster a sheepish grin. The only thing anyone could see was one of Dalia’s little feet as he carried her to the wagon.

Foster laughed when her hand shot up, and she waved at him. His eyes widened as he saw Charlie come out of the woods. “Uncle Charlie?”

Charlie smiled. “Well look who is back from University.”

Foster nodded. As far as his family was concerned University is where he had been. Uncle Charlie was family he would let him think that. “I see my sister was not alone.”

Charlie glanced at the wagon. He could just imagine what Foster thought of his sister being married. “She is not at all alone. Mack is a good man. They care for each other.”

Jasper looked at the group of men. He really had no desire to keep things this tense. He decided it was time to ease the tension a bit. “Well, I guess we can make introductions. But first I have to know does that gal still sing trail songs when she bathes? She really has not an ounce of self-control when it comes to singing.”

Elam laughed. He and Jasper were only seven years younger than Dalia’s dad. The day Dalia started singing them with her bath he felt like he was twelve. “Her father was going to kill us for teaching them to her. Foster, do you remember that? He threatened to hang every one of us.”

Bart chuckled. It was obvious they were friend, not foe. He holstered his gun. “She was singing. Mack was doing his best to quiet her a bit.” He looked at Foster. “Your sister doesn’t listen all that well.”

Foster chuckled. “She never did. When we were growing up, she was always in to trouble.”

Bart laughed. “We’ve heard.” He looked toward the wagon. “Her husband has his hands full keeping her safe.”

Foster watched Mack help his sister out of the wagon. He slid off his horse as she ran for him. He hugged her close. “It is a good thing you are married. I had all intentions of beating you for this. What were you thinking dressing up like a boy? Dalia, you should have wired me.”

Dalia shook her head. “I tried to. You never wired back. I assumed you didn’t want to hurt your mother. I had to.”

Foster shook his head. He ran his hands through his hair. His secret had almost cost Dalia her innocence. The man he asked to keep an eye out for wires must have slacked more than he realized. He took a breath. Foster looked at Charlie. The man’s keen eyes were catching on.

Charlie shook his head. That Foster was hiding something was becoming more apparent by the second. Charlie was not happy that Dalia had to deal with this in the first place. If Foster had been around, Dalia would still be safe, and Nash would never had known about her. “Do you care to share or do I cuff it out of you?”

Foster shrugged his shoulders. He always felt like a little kid around Charlie. “I can’t say anything right now, but I was not at University. I’m sorry I lied.”

Mack took a good look at the man in front of him. This man was not to be trifled with. He would like to know more too but held his tongue. He had a feeling Foster would tell them when he was ready.

Foster looked at the man behind Dalia. He held out his hand. “I take it you are Mack Shore? On that note, I’m hoping that makes my sister Dalia Shore. If not, things are going to get tense again.”

Mack shook Foster’s hand. He chuckled at the hidden threat of what would happen if Dalia was not his wife. “I am, and she is. It is nice to meet you.”

Jasper spoke to Mack. “I saw her go with you. It helped knowing your reputation. I was trying to get her over to us, but she stayed well away.”

Dalia leaned against Mack’s side. She smiled at Jasper. “If she had figured it out, you would have been fired. I didn’t want to do that to you.”

Mack looked at the men. “If you three are here, who is moving your cattle?”

Dalia answered that. “I would guess Daniel. He would be the most capable after Uncle Charlie.”

Foster chuckled. “You would be right. He cuffed you almost as much as Uncle Charlie too.”

Jasper looked at Dalia. He glanced at Foster. “Are you going to tell the men the new threat?”

Dalia looked at her brother alarmed. She leaned against Mack as his arm went protectively around her. “What?”

Mack took a deep breath. He felt his wife tremble. “Let’s sit down.”

Dalia giggled when Mack picked her up. She knew he was trying to get her mind off the coming news. “I can walk.”

Mack grinned. “I know, but you like to humor me.”

Elam had watched the men when Dalia giggled. He chuckled. “It seems they have the same affliction our crew does.

Foster laughed as he watched Dalia snuggle into her husband’s chest. He looked at Bart. “You all do.”

Bart didn’t deny it. “It makes you smile. It also brings out every brotherly instinct I have. She is easy to want to protect. The actual protecting we may have botched a bit.”

Foster had seen the fading bruises and the wound on her lip. “I take it Nash almost had her.”

Marty answered. “She was sleeping in the wagon. He took her while those of us on the night watch were distracted.”

Elam knew this was hard for Foster. He was ten years the man’s senior. The young Foster had confided in him many times. His young heart had wanted his mother to love Dalia. Elam watched that change. He watched a boy become a man who wanted nothing more than to protect his sister. He could see it bothered Foster that he had not been there to do just that.

Foster looked at Mack. “My mom is going to make a move to kill her. Once you are back at your ranch, she will be in just as much danger. Maybe even more…”

Dalia hated that Foster had to choose between the two of them. She glanced at her brother. “I’m sorry.”

Foster shook his head. His sister’s compassion always amazed him. “For what? You have never done anything wrong. What she did when she sent you away was unacceptable. The ranch isn’t hers. It is mine. She had no right to do that.”

Mack looked at Foster. “How was she able to do it then?”

“I wasn’t there. I should have been, but I wasn’t. I…” Foster looked at his sister. “I would have stopped her. You know that, right? If I had been there, none of this would have happened.”

Dalia looked at her hands. Her voice was sympathetic. “I wouldn’t have wanted you to choose. It isn’t fair.”

Jasper spoke. It always bothered him that Dalia thought so little about herself. “He already has chosen. Mable is gone. She will never be a part of the ranch again.”

Dalia tried to process what the men were saying. She had tears in her eyes. “Foster, she is your mom.”

Foster loved his sister’s, sensitive heart. He wished she could see how easy it was to choose her. “She is also poison. Dalia, I could never get married and live there with a wife and kids. I would never be able to leave them alone. I was there when she almost killed you. I was the one that ran for Uncle Charlie and Dad. You weren’t the only one he started taking on the drives after that. He never let either of us alone with her again. Dalia, you need to understand how valued you are. You’re my baby sister. I love you.”

Dalia felt Mack kiss the top of her head. She knew he was aware she was close to sobbing again. She looked at her brother. “I love you too. It’s why it hurts me to know you were forced to choose. I’m sorry she did that to you. I never wanted that for you.”

Foster smiled at his sister. He was pleased she realized it was not her that had forced his hand but his mother. He knew it was still upsetting to her, but that was because she cared. It was not because she blamed herself.

Mack nuzzled the top of her head as she sought him for comfort. His wife’s ability to forgive and love was humbling.

Foster looked at Elam and Jasper and grinned. The two men were also watching Dalia and Mack. It was obvious the couple was in love. He had to wonder if they knew it.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Dalia was still on Mack’s lap. She smiled as he started to rub her back. She knew it was almost time for bed. She thought for a moment about the verse she wanted to share next. “I’m going to say my next verse is first Peter chapter five verse seven.”

Mack listened as Dalia recited the verse. He smiled and chuckled. “You were not lying when you said most of them had to do with fear.”

Dalia cuddled into his chest seeking his warmth as the night air started to get chilly. “I told you. I have them memorized it is the trusting that gets me.”

Foster watched Mack as he absent mindedly rubbed Dalia’s back. That she was used to his touch made him feel better about the fact they married fast. He waited to hear what the man would say.

Mack thought about the verse. Before he gave his take on it, he wanted to hear Dalia’s interpretation. “How do you see the verse?”

Dalia nibbled her bottom lip as she thought about the words she had just recited. “I guess I find it straightforward. He wants us to tell Him what is bothering us because He really wants to know. He loves us. Christ has no hidden agenda. He is love which means He encompasses all that love is.”

Mack nodded his agreement. “I think I have to concur with you on this one. It really is saying exactly what it means. He wants to hear our problems because he cares about us.”

Dalia closed her eyes. She loved it when Mack rubbed her back. His warm hands soothed her. “What is your verse tonight?”

Mack looked at Grady and grinned. “Mine is Proverbs chapter fifteen verse one. I actually know someone that lives this verse. It’s humbling to see.”

Dalia listened to the verse. It had a wonderful meaning. “I like that one. What does it mean to you?”

Mack paused and thought for a moment. He realized he wanted to hear what Dalia’s thoughts were on it first. “I would be more interested in hearing what you think before I tell you. Is that ok?”

Dalia nodded against his chest. “I see it as a choice. Whether we are the ones that have done the wrong or the wrong is being done to us, a kind and softly spoken word will ease the anger of the situation. A peaceful spirit will win over an angry one.”

Mack smiled. “As I said earlier, I have seen this firsthand. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen lived out.”

Dalia leaned away and looked up at him. There was a difference in his voice. She was curious about the person that could cause such an emotional response from her husband. “Who do you know?”

Grady shook his head. Dalia really had no clue it was her. He waited to see what Mack would do.

Mack kissed her forehead. “It’s you, Dalia. You really don’t see that in yourself?”

Dalia was not sure what to do with his words. She glanced around the fire. When she saw Grady’s face, she smiled. She looked back at Mack. “I guess maybe a little.”

Forest chuckled. “You need to learn to take a compliment.”

Dalia snuggled back into Mack’s warmth. She thought for a moment. She closed her eyes as she got comfortable. It never occurred to her to be anything other than honest. If she had kept her eyes open, she would have seen the shocked faces. “I’ve never really thought I was worth that much. I suppose God loves me and that has always been enough. I know I’m garbage to some people.”

Mack felt moisture in his eyes. He leaned down and whispered softly in her ear. “I love you. You are worth more than you know. Dalia, you are not garbage.”

Dalia opened her eyes and looked up at Mack. She touched his face. She was confused at his words. “What do you see? I know I love you too, but you are a man that is worthy of love. I will never be your equal.”

Grady turned his face away from the couple. He coughed knowing he had put a label of worth on Dalia at one point in time. He knew in society he was not the only one.

Mack felt a tear run from the corner of his eye. “I see one of the most loving and caring people I have ever met. I see a woman that utters words of forgiveness to people who are not even sorry. I see a child of God that still does not see herself as the beautiful human He made her to be. Look around Dalia, everyone here would give their life to protect you. You are my equal no matter what others say. I am the one that wonders if I’m worthy of you.”

Foster closed his eyes. He hated this. No matter how often he and his father had tried to show her she was loved, Dalia always felt it was with conditions. He had a new respect for his sister’s husband. His words were on target. He just wished Dalia could see that.

Dalia wiped the lone tear from her husband’s cheek. She looked at the moisture on her finger. Her heart was still in turmoil. She rubbed her finger and thumb together feeling the moisture. She looked up at her husband. “That tear was for me? Mack, I don’t understand why.”

Bart was dying inside. Watching Dalia trying to understand her worth was heartbreaking. He looked over at Greg. He whispered to the other man. “If she turns and looks at us, she will see a lot of tears. The woman is turning us into females.”

Greg chuckled through the moisture in his eyes. “She really does wiggle her way into a person’s heart.”

Dalia didn’t want to look into Mack’s eyes. She always saw the truth in people’s eyes. She closed her eyes when he gently cupped her chin.

Mack smiled at his wife as she tried to protect her heart from him. “Open your eyes, Dalia. Stop hiding.”

Dalia opened her eyes. She saw that he meant the words he was saying. Her fear of what she saw in his eyes consumed her. She started shaking. “You can’t see me like that. You have to stop…”

Mack pulled her close as she started whimpering. “Why? I don’t understand, Dalia. Help me so I can love you like you need me to.”

Dalia started sobbing. She had not even realized the deep fear of abandonment she had. It was now dawning on her that Mack would leave her. “It will hurt more when you throw me away. We are on the trail now. When we get back to our area… Mack everyone knows who I am. I won’t even blame you, but you can’t let me hope.”

Charlie shook his head. He wiped the tears from his eyes. Dalia’s hurt was deeper than he had realized.

Mack’s voice held conviction as he spoke gently to his wife. “I am never letting you go. Dalia, I will not throw you away. I would not have married you if I didn’t want forever.”

Dalia tried to believe him. She breathed deeply trying to calm down. She closed her eyes trying not to hope. What Mack said next ruined her efforts of control.

Mack looked at Foster. He spoke as he looked at Dalia’s brother. “Your brother chose you. Maybe you can start there. And twenty years from now when we are rocking on our front porch, you will finally understand I’m not giving you up today, tomorrow, or ever. Death will have to separate me from you.”

Dalia smiled at the picture of them growing old together in spite of her pain. Her battered heart was starting to believe. A glimmer of hope made its way into the fear. She knew that believing Mack was a choice. She whispered softly. “I didn’t want to fall in love with you, but I did. I’ll try to trust what I see in your eyes.”

Mack kissed the top of her head. “I guess that is all a man can ask for. I do love you.”

Dalia was exhausted. Her head nodded slightly letting him know she heard him. The sleep she was fighting won. The emotional talk had taken its toll.

Mack looked at Foster. There was so much about his wife he didn’t understand. “Why?”

Foster shook his head. “We don’t know. I guess my mom played the biggest part in it, but we tried to protect Dalia from her. She was told often that she was loved.”

Mack nodded. “It must have been hard on your dad.”

Foster looked at the man across from him. He didn’t hold back his thoughts. “My dad did sin, but that should not have kept him from doing the right thing. My mom should have been sent away. How can she know how loved she is if her father isn’t willing to show her? Love chooses even when it is hard? Like I said, we told her. However, her own father didn’t really show her.”

Grady glanced at the man across from him. “It was hard for you to make your mother leave?”

Foster thought for a moment. He didn’t want them to think he didn’t love his mother, but Foster wanted them to know that he didn’t approve of her actions. His mom’s actions made certain things easy. “Not as hard as it should have been. I had already determined that she would leave when the ranch was mine. Even if dad had still been alive, he would have had to choose. He stepped out. There are consequences for that. Dalia was never one of them. She was a blessing in the midst of the ashes. His actions were never supposed to make him comfortable. The second he saw the danger in my mom, he should have sent her out of the house. He chose my mom when he chose to not send her away. I’m not saying he should have divorced her, but he should have made sure there were consequences for her sin too. My mom was unable to conceive after I was born. It never occurred to my mom that Dalia could have been a blessing if she had chosen to love her as Christ did.”

Mack looked at the woman in his arms. “I guess she will have to put up with a lifetime of me showing her how lovable she is. I’m glad God picked me for her. I still wonder if I’m worthy of her.”

Foster grinned. It was interesting seeing his sister wrapped protectively in a man’s arms. “I’m glad He did too. It is time for her to see her worth and beauty. Mack, I think you are more worthy than you know. She needs someone that can see her from the inside out. You seem to do that.”

The men talked for a few more minutes but the hour was getting late. Mack carried his wife to the wagon as the others crawled into their bedrolls. It was a heartbreaking night as Dalia’s deepest fears were laid open for all of them to see. It was also a night full of hope. Mack was ready to face the next day. Tomorrow he would start taking down the wall that surrounded his wife’s heart. Now that he knew it existed, he was not willing to let it stay in place.

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

Dalia glanced up at her husband. He was acting awful strange. She started to fidget as she tried to figure him out. “What are you doing?”

Mack kissed the side of her head. He knew this kind of thing was foreign to Dalia. He was starting to show her she was cherished. He had not had a chance to court her before they were married. Mack decided he could do it now. “I’m holding you.”

Dalia nibbled her lip. She looked around at the others wondering why they all seemed to be smiling at her. She continued to fidget as she spoke. “I can ride my own horse.”

Mack smiled. “I know. We aren’t going to herd today. You and I are going to enjoy each other’s company. I, Dalia, am going to court you.”

Dalia felt him nip her ear. She giggled at his playfulness. “You are going to what?”

Mack leaned down and whispered in her ear. He smiled as she shivered. “I’m going to court you. Your husband wants to know you better.”

Dalia turned her face and looked at him. Her voice was soft. “You are? You do?”

Mack nodded. “I am and I do. I want to love all of you. That means knowing you better.”

Dalia spoke again. Her voice sounded thoughtful. “Courting me makes you act strange.”

Mack chuckled as he nudged his mount and guided him ahead of the chuck wagon. “I think I’m acting like a man that just told his wife he loves her.”

Dalia closed her eyes when he cupped her chin. She sighed softly as he gently kissed her. She really did like being married. She liked his kisses too. If that was part of courting, she was willing to be courted.

Mack eased his lips away from his wife’s. He knew if he didn’t pay attention the two of them would end up off the trail.

Dalia leaned back against her husband. She wondered if talking was part of this courting thing. She gave it a try. “I prayed this morning. God is not very happy with me right now. I think He has His hands full with me.”

Mack chuckled. “I think He may be frustrated. I’m sure He is happy.”

Dalia giggled. “I guess you were there for that part of my prayer.”

Mack had been there for that part of her prayer. As comical as it was, his wife’s prayers were from the heart. “I love listening to you pray. Do you want to tell me about the part I wasn’t there for? I have to say, I’m curious.”

Dalia nodded. She had thought about this and knew she had to apologize. “I do. Mack, I need to say I’m sorry to you. When I said you would throw me away, I was judging you. I think God may have cuffed me while I was praying. The reality of who He is as my Father hit me fast and hard. I know you call me kissable, but I’m thinking cuffable can be added to that.”

Mack had to smile at the picture she painted. His voice was gentle as he accepted her apology. “I forgive you.” He chuckled softly as he finished what he was thinking. “I’m not sure cuffable is a word.”

Dalia giggled at his observation before she continued with a deep breath. “Jesus loved me enough to die for me. He gave His life willingly up for me. I didn’t even know I had the fear of you throwing me away until last night. I lost focus of the cross. I can’t imagine that God would give me to you if you weren’t going to keep me. He isn’t cruel like that. You should know I had to apologize to Him too. I’m glad He knows my heart. Most would have been confused at the end of that apology.”

Mack could not disagree with what she was saying. He wanted to chuckle at the way she presented it but didn’t want to hurt her feelings. He also didn’t want her to beat herself up about it. It was now in the past. It was a lesson learned. He needed her to know the behavior that he was owning from her confession the night before. He had been dismissive. “Dalia, I’m sorry I was not more sensitive to how you were treated growing up. I should have been doing more to let you know how much you have come to mean to me.”

Dalia was true to what Mack loved most about her. “I forgive you. If I didn’t even realize it, how could you?”

Mack kissed the top of her head again. He really liked kissing and hugging his wife. She was such a special woman. “I saw your eyes. I could see things in them that told me you were worried and afraid. I should have prayed more about that and asked God for His leading. I didn’t and that was wrong.”

Dalia was frustrated. She suddenly felt the urge to hug and kiss her husband. His words touched her heart. She looked up into his eyes when he stopped. She sighed as she realized he understood.

Mack got off the horse. He knew they couldn’t stay there for a long time, but they had a few minutes. He helped her off the horse.

Dalia wrapped her arms around her husband as his lips found hers. She allowed the man God had given her to use that kiss to show her how cherished she was. Tears formed in her eyes at the promise that one kiss held. Her voice was a whisper as he gently ended the kiss. “I love you, Mack. I love your devotion to God. I love how kind and gentle you are. I love you.”

Mack touched her face. “I love you. It happened fast, but I know what I feel is real. My heart is fully engaged. I will not throw you away. It would be like throwing a part of myself away. Dalia, I plan on spending the rest of my life showing you how beautiful I find you. That is why I wanted to do this. I wanted to start today. You are worthy to be treasured like this.”

Dalia sighed as he kissed her again. She knew they had to get back on the horse and move. When he ended the kiss, she smiled as he helped her back up on the horse’s back. Leaning back against him, she laughed. “I think you are right. I like humoring you. I feel cherished when you take care of me.”

Mack kissed the top of her head as he chuckled. “I appreciate that. I want you to feel cherished. Taking care of you is easy.”

Dalia giggled as she spotted their protection detail. “It looks like Troy and Alvin are done giving us privacy.”

Mack nodded. “It isn’t safe for us to just go off riding. They didn’t hesitate to follow us.”

Dalia knew the best way to keep healing was to keep talking. “What happens when we get back to your ranch? What happens once people realize who you married?”

Mack put his chin on top her head. “I’m hoping to remember the verse I shared last night. The thought of anyone saying anything nasty to you makes me fighting mad. I want to be as gracious and forgiving as you are. Can I tell you something?”

Dalia played with his hand as she nodded. She really did love how strong his hands were. “You can tell me anything. I like knowing more about you.”

Mack smiled as he realized it didn’t hurt to talk about Alice. His heart had put her in a place that she alone would hold while Dalia fit perfectly into the rest. “When Alice died, she didn’t just tell me to find love. She told me that there was a woman out there who needed me more than she did. She told me to find her. I can’t help but feel like I found the very woman she was talking about when I hold and touch you.”

Dalia was touched by his words. His voice held a conviction she could not ignore. “I think you may have just said one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. Thank you for telling me. I wish I could have known her.”

Mack nuzzled her neck knowing how much his stubble tickled her. “You are welcome. I know she would have loved knowing you too.” Mack remembered what else Alice had said. “Tell me, Wife, how many children do you think we should have. I’m finding myself envisioning babies with big brown eyes.”

Dalia giggled at the direction the conversation was going. She loved it when he tickled her with his beard when he rubbed her neck. “I think we should let God take care of the number. I hope that some of those babies have kind and gentle blue eyes too.”

Mack chuckled. “I can handle that.”

Dalia knew she was not pregnant at the moment. She had blushed while she explained to her husband that morning why she needed a bit of privacy to dress. She smiled at the thought of having his babies though. She knew she would still face fears. Right now, she was happy to think about a future with Mack. “Mack?”

Mack could hear a change in her voice. “Yes.”

“Thank you for this. Thank you for today. Thank you for showing me how much you do love me.” Dalia’s voice was soft but held an absolute tone of gratefulness.

Mack grinned. He kissed the top of her head. “You are welcome. Thank you for letting me take a few of the bricks off the wall you have built to protect yourself. I’m glad you are starting to really let me in.”

Dalia whispered softly, but she knew he could hear her. “I’m so glad you want to help me take the wall down. I’m ready to see a world without it.”

The morning was almost up. Their time before lunch was coming to an end, but that was ok. The time they had together was beautiful. Each of them knew it was just one of a lifetime of beautiful moments.

 

Becker put his binoculars away. He had observed the newlyweds most of the morning. He had to decide if he even wanted to tell Nash about them being well protected. That Nash was insane was becoming obvious. The last messenger was strangled to death. Nash’s bare hands had squeezed the life out of him before he could finish his report. Becker knew he didn’t want any part of that.

“There is no way Nash will get close to her. With the law now on his heels, I think it is time for you to move on.” Becker talked to himself as he nudged his mount forward. Common sense seemed to deem that he needed to err to the side of caution. He would be miles away from the insane man before he was even missed.

Lamar watched Becker move away. He had heard what the man had said. He followed him to make sure the man really was leaving Nash’s employ. Becker was not a man to be trifled with. Lamar was relieved that the man seemed to be moving on. He would go back to camp and let Grady know.

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Mable Stewart got on the stage coach. She had no intentions of finishing this journey. She had enough money to buy a ticket back to Dallas. She would be doing just that. The more she thought about her son abandoning her for the whore’s daughter. The more the bitterness consumed her. The solution to her obvious problem was simple. Dalia had to die. Mable didn’t care how the girl died as long as she was dead.

 

Dalia wiped the sweat off her brow. She looked up to find her husband observing her and smiled. His attempt to help her take down her wall was making a quiet impact on her heart. It had been a week since their little ride ahead of the herd. They had taken time every day after that to connect in some way alone and away from the group.

Mack watched his wife wrangle in a few more of the cattle. He knew that the time they were spending together was making a difference in her confidence. He was ready to get her back to their ranch and start a life with her.

“You have it bad.”

Mack grinned and looked at Foster. “I won’t even deny it. She walked into my life dressed as a boy. Her eyes told me a story I took a bit of time to understand. I’ll never regret making her my wife.”

Foster watched Troy and Alvin hover near Dalia. “They talked to me about their part in getting her hurt. I wish my mom could have seen the beauty inside her they are seeing. It is such a waste of time to hate like she does. My mom would have embraced joy if she had chosen Dalia to be her daughter.”

Dalia looked at Troy. She wanted to laugh at how protective he seems as he guarded her. She tried to lighten things up. “Do you have family?”

Troy smiled. “I have a little sister. She just got married.”

Dalia knew the man still felt bad about getting her hurt. When she and Mack talked about their verses at night, she could tell the difference between those that had no desire to know more about Christ and those that were struggling to know more about Him. Troy was struggling. She wanted to see that struggle end as he found a peace in Christ. “Troy, do you know what makes me different from you?”

Troy nodded. He had observed Dalia and Mack. He just was not sure he would ever be good enough. He said as much.

Dalia watched her husband ride toward her and Troy. She glanced at Troy. “God loves you. Not one of us will ever measure up. It is why he sent Jesus. The difference between us is simple. I accepted grace. You can too.”

Troy thought about her words. He glanced at Mack knowing he heard what his wife had said. He was very close to helping Valentino Nash kidnap the woman Mack loved. A part of him was hopeful at the things being said at night. Troy actually thought it was fun listening to Dalia pray. He glanced at Mack again. “Do you think what I have done is forgivable? Getting Dalia hurt is just one of the my many sins. Do you think it can be forgiven?”

Mack nodded. “I believe Valentino Nash is loved by God and able to be forgiven. My wife is right. If we were good enough to save ourselves, Jesus would never have been needed. He was needed because our sin separates us from God. Our only difference is that we accepted the grace offered.”

Troy looked at Mack. He knew it was time to either walk away from his new conviction or embrace it. He wanted to embrace it. Troy gazed out across the cattle before he looked back at his employer. “Can you and I talk?”

Mack nodded. He winked at his wife as he left her in her brother and Alvin’s capable hands. He was more than ready to help the struggle he saw going on inside of Troy end.

Dalia watched the men ride away. She wrangled a few strays in as she prayed for Troy’s salvation. She watched her brother take on a few strays and smiled. “It is kind of like we are kids again.”

Foster smiled. His sister was not a little girl any longer. She had grown into a very capable woman. “I miss this.”

Dalia thought for a moment. Her heart was heavy that her brother had lied to them. She knew it was time for them to talk. “What have you been doing, Foster? Where were you when I needed you?”

Foster looked at his sister. He knew she didn’t harbor ill will, but she was hurting. She was right. She had needed him, and he was nowhere to be found. There were some things he needed her to know because of that. He looked out at the herd. His voice was soft and pained. “I was married. I took a job as a sheriff in a small town. Some really bad men decided my wife was a good target.”

Dalia swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. This she had not expected those words out of her brother’s mouth. She sat silently and waited for him to finish.

Foster collected his thoughts. He should have been at his father’s funeral and wasn’t. He should have told his dad that he had ignored his advice and taken the job he was offered because he couldn’t stand the idea of being around his mother. He should have been there for his sister, and he wasn’t. Foster had so many ‘should haves’. “We were going to have a baby.”

Dalia started crying. She knew Foster was telling her he had lost his wife and child. She sniffled and wiped a tear away as she continued to listen.

Foster looked at Dalia and smiled. “You are the most sensitive human I know. You love my wife and unborn child even though you never had the chance to meet them.”

Dalia was trying desperately not to go into a full-blown wail at the picture he was painting her. She loved her brother, and the thought of him losing so much was tearing at her heart.

Foster continued his story. “Alvin and Elam tracked me down. I should have at least told you how to find me. I left last spring before the drive and stayed away because I was too much of a coward to face dad. I planned on showing up this summer with my new baby. Dalia, my pride cost my wife and unborn child their lives. I would have been at the ranch if I had just told Dad the truth. I would have been there for you and my wife and child would have lived.”

Dalia reached for her brother’s hand. When he took it, she gave it a soft squeeze. “I love you. You have always been my big brother. I’m so sorry you lost her and your baby. I wish we could all go back, but we can’t. Can I share something with you that Mack’s first wife said to him?”

Foster didn’t hide the moisture in his eyes. He nodded unable to speak past the lump in his throat. The truth he had just shared was painful.

Dalia’s voice held conviction. “God saw what would happen before you left last spring. Your wife and baby are with Him now. Foster, there is someone out there that needs you more. Find her. Don’t turn your back on what God has for you. Have you asked for forgiveness for your pride and deceit?”

Foster nodded. His voice was choked with emotion. “I have.”

“Then you are forgiven. It is time you forgive yourself. If you had been here, I may never have met the man I’m totally in love with. Choose to embrace the good. It is ok to mourn what was while embracing what is.”

Foster regarded the woman beside him. His little sister was something else. “When did you get so wise?”

Dalia grinned. “I’m a work in progress.”

Foster thought about her words before he smiled at her. “I will do as you say. I will keep my heart open for what God wants. I will find her.”

Dalia watched her husband and Troy head back toward them. She smiled at the look on Troy’s face. “He is at peace.”

Foster nodded. “I knew it was only a matter of time. He was searching and struggling.”

Dalia smiled as her husband nudged his horse close to hers. She was not surprised to find herself on his lap. She waved at her brother as her husband maneuvered his horse away from the others. She turned her face up knowing he would kiss her.

Mack kissed his wife softly. “I have wanted to do that all day. Working with my wife is enjoyable.”

Dalia pulled his head down for one more. She leaned into him as he deepened the kiss. She sighed softly when he eased his lips away from hers.

Mack touched her face. “Why the tears?”

Dalia took a deep breath. She whispered softly. “Foster has to find the girl that needs him more.”

Mack nodded in understanding. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Dalia started crying again. “Mack, he was going to be a dad. He had to bury his wife and unborn child.”

Mack thought dealing with Alice’s death had been bad. A child would have made it almost impossible. He pulled Dalia close. His voice was hoarse. The idea of losing her took his breath away causing him to tremble. “I love you.”

Dalia kissed him softly. “I love you too.”

The couple continued toward the chuck wagon at an easy pace. They talked about Troy accepting Christ. They discussed Foster’s secret. Before they made it to the wagon, they each prayed for Troy and Foster. They were unaware of the danger that watched and waited for them to make a mistake. What they were aware of was God’s unseen hand of protection.

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

Dalia felt Mack kiss her softly. She turned in his arms as she tried to process her thoughts. She shuddered as she cuddled into him.

Mack was not sure what was wrong with his wife, however, he knew something was bothering her. He spoke softly. “Dalia, are you ok?”

Dalia felt tears stinging her eyes. She didn’t know how to tell him the things she felt. She swallowed hard, but it didn’t stop her tears.

Mack kissed his wife’s forehead. He hoped she would open up to him. His voice became coaxing. “Did I hurt you?”

Dalia shook her head no. Her voice was broken. “You didn’t hurt me. Mack… I…”

Mack wiped her tears away. His concern was written on his face as he spoke once more to her. “Dalia, please talk to me.”

Dalia tried to put into words her worry. Her past was creeping into her present. “Mack, is it possible for me to like your touch too much? If I do, am, I like…” Her voice trailed off as she hiccupped.

Mack took a deep breath. He was very relieved he had not caused her tears. “Dalia, you can’t like my touch too much. You are supposed to like this. That is why the Bible tells husbands and wives to come together. There is nothing wrong with our attraction to each other. We are meant to be one with each other and no one else. There is nothing wrong with you or I when we desire this kind of touch within the vows or our marriage. We are husband and wife, so we are allowed to like this. It does not mean you are like your mom.”

Dalia shuddered again. She snuggled close to his chest. “I wish I could stop being scared. My past haunts me. It is like I’m happy and then something tries to take it away. I was fine until tonight. Tonight I…” She tried to think of the words again. “My mom said things when I was there. My stepmom took every chance she had to tell me what I was born to be. I was happy with this part of being married until their words crept into my head. I thought maybe they were right.”

Mack thought about her words. He knew he needed to be careful how he worded things. He didn’t want her to think he had been disrespectful in his thoughts before their vows were spoken. “Can I tell you something?”

Dalia nodded. “I’m listening.”

Mack chuckled as he spoke. “I had to pray about my thoughts with you. You took that wrap off, and I had all sorts of things pop into my mind. I had to wait until the next day to marry you, and that seemed way too long.”

Dalia glanced up at him surprised. “Really?”

Mack touched her cheek softly. “Really. You are a very attractive woman. I can’t say I looked at every other woman like I did and do you. I have been in the presence of the opposite sex since Alice died. You, however, made my heart skip, and my body react. You are the one I wanted to get to know better.”

Dalia blushed at his bold words. She nibbled her bottom lip drawing a chuckle from her husband.

“You are thinking hard on something,” Mack said gently as he touched her bottom lip using his thumb he pulled it out from under her nibbling teeth.

Dalia spoke softly. “I have seen every man here without their shirt on. You made my mind wonder too. No one else but you has done that. I had to pray as well. The fact I was dressed like a boy at the time made it even more awkward.”

Mack laughed softly as he grimaced. “I bet it did.”

Dalia felt him nudge her chin up. She closed her eyes as he kissed her gently. This time she didn’t feel guilty for enjoying her husband’s touch.

 

Valentino watched the camp. He had seen Shore go into the wagon with Dalia. His blood boiled knowing that the man took what was his.

He knew he was alone now. His men had deserted him. He didn’t care. It may be easier to get to her if it is only him.

“You will make a mistake Mack Shore. And when you do I will have my prize.” His voice was soft in the night air. There was no one to hear his vow. He didn’t care. He heard it. He would make it happen. This was personal now. The little chit had cost him everything. Not once did it occur to him that he was the one that killed in anger, not Dalia.

“Oh, Dalia the things I will teach you.” The man spent a few more minutes watching the camp before turning and seeking his own rest. Tomorrow was another day. Maybe tomorrow they would make a mistake. Maybe tomorrow he would find a way to take what he deemed rightfully his.

 

Chapter Twenty

 

Dalia frowned at her Uncle Charlie. She stepped out of cuffing range as she spoke. “I will not just stay put. I want to help.”

Charlie folded his arms across his chest. He was tired of Dalia being so stubborn. She couldn’t see the danger everyone else did. “Your husband told you to stay put with Troy and Raymond. That is exactly what you are going to do. I’ll hear no more argument, young lady.”

Troy glanced at Raymond. “She is going to be difficult.”

Raymond nodded. “I can see that. It may have been easier if he had just let us help.”

Troy chuckled. “We are hired guns. We would not be worth beans out there. I can’t lasso to save my hide.”

Dalia started to maneuver herself toward the horses. She yelped when she felt her uncle’s hand collide with her backside.

Charlie was done arguing. His voice was firm. “If this is a trap, you are walking right into it. The fire that caused the cattle to scatter was little. You are protected here. You will stay put if I have to tie you to the wagon. You know I’ll do it too.”

Dalia put her hands on her hips. She glared at Troy and Raymond who were laughing and doing nothing to hide it. She looked back at her uncle. “I can help. I want to help.”

Charlie shook his head. “There are more hands here now than we started with. What you can do is stay put.”

Dalia was not done with this. She walked over to the wagon and crawled inside. She hated being left behind. She formulated a plan in her mind. A part of her knew she was doing the wrong thing. Another part of her was sure she would be fine. What could go wrong?

Troy and Raymond walked around the perimeter of the camp. They kept their eyes peeled for danger. However, they didn’t pay attention to Dalia.

Dalia watched her uncle leave the camp. She saw Troy and Raymond go to the other side of the wagon. She was quiet as she eased out and headed for the horses. She didn’t notice her husband watching her every move. If she had seen him, she may have rethought her plan.

Mack watched Dalia try to leave camp. He was not happy. He saw her startled look as he rode up to her. He plucked her off the ground and put her in front of him. He was not gentle at all in his anger. The woman was a nightmare to keep safe.

Dalia swallowed her fear. She had seen the look in her husband’s eyes. His grip had stung her arm. She waited for him to speak.

Mack knew he should calm down but seeing his wife ignore his plea for her to stay safe had him livid. His voice was harsh. “I am tired of you acting so thoughtless. What were you thinking, Dalia? I should have let you go. I should have just let you walk right into the danger.”

Dalia flinched at his words. She looked down at her hands. A huge part of her was telling her to prepare herself. This was the moment her husband would throw her away. She started shaking.

Mack knew his fear was making him say some pretty stupid things. The voice that told him to shut his mouth was screaming. He was too angry to listen to it. He felt her shaking. His words showed her little mercy. “You should be shaking. There was a little camp that caused that fire. You were getting ready to walk right into his hands. Tell me, Dalia, is that where you would rather be? You sure are acting like it.”

Dalia started to struggle. His words were hurting her too much. She sobbed and gasped for air. “I’m going to be sick.”

Mack let her get down. He watched her hit her knees and lose her breakfast. He closed his eyes knowing he had caused her to do that. He got off his horse and went to her.

Dalia wiped her mouth and backed away from Mack. She shook her head as he reached for her. She didn’t want his touch.

Mack pulled her into his arms. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said those things. I’m so sorry. Please don’t fight me. Let me hold you.”

Dalia’s sobs wracked her body. Her voice was broken. “Please don’t throw me away. I’m sorry. I just wanted to help. I love you. Please love me back.”

Mack closed his eyes. Her fearful pleas broke his heart. His actions had allowed her past to catch up again. “I love you. I’m sorry. Please, Dalia please forgive me for saying those things. Please forgive me for letting my fear talk to you that way.”

Dalia started to listen to what her husband was saying. She let him hold her close and stopped struggling. She spoke softly. “I forgive you.”

Mack whispered gently. “I am so sorry I said those things. I let my fear talk to you, and that was wrong. I love you so much. I will not throw you away. Please believe me. Knowing what I did and then seeing you try to leave the safety of camp. I just can’t lose you. The thought of losing you makes me hurt inside.”

Dalia nodded against his chest. She could see Raymond and Troy on their horses watching them. Everything her husband was doing was to keep her safe, and she had ignored that. Dalia owned her actions. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen. You really are trying to keep me safe, and I threw your protection back in your face. That was wrong. I want you to keep me safe for the rest of my life.”

Mack kissed her forehead. He touched the tears on her cheeks. “I do not want to be the one that makes you cry.”

Dalia closed her eyes as her husband kissed her tears away. When he kissed her forehead again, she whispered softly. “I love you, Mack. I really do love you.”

Mack picked her up as he stood. “I love you too. I may not deserve you, but I’m keeping you.”

Dalia let Mack put her back on the horse. She leaned against him when he pulled himself up behind her. She felt him kiss the top of her head.

Mack spoke as they slowly made their way back to camp. “Did I put a few bricks back?”

Dalia shook her head. “I don’t think so. I think I might have, but I’ll take them back down. I was so scared that you were going to tell me you didn’t want me anymore.”

Mack swallowed the lump that put in his throat. He pulled her more tightly against his body. “I will never tell you I don’t want you.”

Dalia played with his hands. Her heart was still sore, but she knew it would heal. The man that held her close was the one God had given her. She had to start learning that fighting would not end in her being discarded. This was a pretty painful start to that lesson. Considering she was in her husband’s arms, it was also a hopeful lesson.

 

Valentino put his binoculars away. He had almost had her. He had seen her go for the horse. He was waiting for her to do just that when Shore stopped her. He would continue to wait. This was a long journey, and thanks to Dalia, he had time to make it.

“You are only a breath away from me. Just keep thinking you are safe little one. I almost had you once I’ll get to you again.” His voice was calm. His eyes held a madness that most would run from.

Valentino turned and mounted his horse. He moved along the trail at the same pace the cattle were now being driven. He would continue to do what he had been doing for a week now. He would bide his time and wait for his moment.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

Foster looked at his sister warming her feet by the fire. He glanced at Mack. “You have been married before. Stupid words come with the territory. She looks fine to me. When you came back from helping, she looked thrilled to see you. Stop beating yourself up, Mack.”

Mack was still kicking himself for the harsh words he had said to Dalia. He had caused her to become physically ill. He didn’t know how to forgive himself. “What was I thinking saying those things to her? Foster, you should have seen her face. She was crushed. With her history, I made her feel worthless.”

Foster took a deep breath. If there was any damage to fix Foster knew one thing for sure. He decided to let Mack in on it. “Standing over here isn’t helping. Go be with your wife. Love her with your actions. They will speak louder than any words you have used.”

Mack glanced at the man. He looked back at his wife as he started for her. “You’re right. I’ll show her how sorry I am.”

Dalia watched her husband walk toward her. In her entire life, she had never had anyone so concerned about the words they had said to her. She was touched deeply by her husband’s real regret. She was also worried about how bad he felt. She had to make him feel better.

Mack sat down beside his wife. He smiled at her. “Are they warm yet?”

Dalia nodded as she crawled into his lap. She touched his face. “I love you.”

Mack felt her lips touch his. He knew they had an audience. It didn’t seem to matter to his wife. She was sending him a message. He was thoroughly enjoying receiving the message. She really had forgiven him.

Dalia ended the kiss. She took his hand in hers and cuddled into his chest.

Bart coughed to hide his laugh. He looked at Greg. “The boss looks ruffled.”

Greg nodded. “He likes being ruffled.”

Mack kissed the top of Dalia’s head. He whispered softly in her ear. “Thank you. I needed that.”

Dalia brought his hand to her lips and kissed it softly. She looked up at her husband. “You are welcome. I’ve forgiven you, Mack. Now it’s time for you to forgive yourself.”

Mack shook his head. He hugged her tight. “How did I get so blessed?”

Dalia giggled. She almost managed to sound logical. “You hired a she dressed like a he.”

Mack laughed at her joke. He nipped her ear. “I love you.”

Dalia looked up at him. “This love thing has a lot more fun than not. We need to remember that. Mack, we are going to hurt each other. We are doing a great job of cultivating the love we have. It will withstand those darker days.”

Mack kissed her forehead. He was a content man that saw wisdom when it was in front of him. “I will remember your words.”

Dalia and Mack listened as Troy spoke to Bart. The two were both new Christians. They had lots of questions and Uncle Charlie was helping with the answers.

Dalia yawned delicately into her hand. She pulled her attention away from what her uncle was talking about and focused on her husband. She smiled up at Mack. “What is your verse today?”

Mack could see how tired his wife was. He kissed her forehead knowing the sooner they had this time together the sooner she could rest. “I’m going to go with Ephesians chapter four verse two.”

Dalia smiled as Mack quoted the verse. She giggled as he put certain emphasis on certain words. She knew he was poking fun at himself. Dalia was happy he seemed to finally forgive himself.

Mack pulled his wife a touch closer. “What are your thoughts?”

Dalia snuggled into him again. “We are going to do things that make us not as lovable. When we choose to deal with each other humbly, we are showing love.”

Mack had some thoughts as well. “This is how we are supposed to deal with each other. It goes back to Proverbs chapter fifteen verse one. This verse backs up the soft answer turns away wrath. When you are humble and gentle in your response even when you are right, it shows love.”

Dalia liked the way he put that. She thought for a moment. “I like Matthew chapter eleven verse twenty-eight.”

Mack actually loved that verse too. He wondered how she looked at it.

Dalia spoke softly. “When I was at my mom’s it was hard to sleep. I physically needed rest. I would say this verse to myself all day long and ask God to supernaturally sustain my weary body. I asked His mighty hand to hold me up when I couldn’t seem to hold myself up.”

Mack could hear the sadness in her voice. “I’m sorry.”

Dalia’s voice held conviction. “I know He helped me. He even gave rest to my mind so that I could sleep more during the day when the danger of my mom trying to sell my innocence was less. The only place I had to run was into the arms of Christ. There was literally no other place for me to go. I see now that was always enough.”

Mack was heartbroken for his wife. The more she talked about her struggle. The more respect he had for her sound faith. “This verse shows how big our God really is. He says come ‘all.’ That is so deep to think about. He doesn’t promise to take everything away. He promises to give us rest and help us carry it. Dalia, you are touching parts of my heart that I have never had touched. You truly were the example of being strong in Him. Second Corinthians chapter twelve verses nine through ten has been lived out by you in a very real way. I want you to see that.”

Dalia was not sure what to do with his compliments. She nibbled her bottom lip. Dalia knew he wanted her to say something.

Mack sighed. “Why are you so hesitant to see the good in yourself? Let your light shine. Others will find Christ that way. Dalia, your light has to be one of the brightest I’ve ever encountered. Look around, it’s already made a difference.”

Dalia stopped nibbling her bottom lip. She looked up at him. “Thank you. I will listen to what you say. In this world, the most important thing to me is helping others come to Christ. I do look around. I can’t ignore what Christ in me has done.”

Mack kissed her forehead. He knew she could see what he was saying. Her sincerity was evident in her eyes. “You are welcome. Are you ready to pray?”

Dalia bowed her head. Her prayer was soft but sincere. “Jesus, we come to You again in prayer. We hurt each other today. Help us to see You and act more like You. I confess my disobedience to You. You made clear in Your Word who was to lead in marriage. I didn’t help my husband by trying to take the lead. Forgive me for that. My sin caused a lot of hurts. I give it to You now. Thank You for my husband. Thank You for the love that has grown between us. Keep us all safe. Surround us with Your angels. Thank You for hearing us. In Jesus name, amen.”

Mack prayed after his wife. “Father I feel so unworthy right now. You gave me a blessing, and I didn’t cherish her like I should have. I sinned as well. I ask Your forgiveness for that sin. I pray that you will help me be a better leader. Help me to treat Dalia the way I would want to be treated. Thank You for giving me this beautiful woman. Keep us in Your hand as we face danger. May your angels travel freely among us keeping us safe. Thank You for all You are going to do. In Jesus name, I pray. Amen.”

Foster glanced at Elam. He was so proud to call Dalia his sister. “They are getting this right.”

Elam nodded. “She grew up. I can’t believe the little girl we all tried to keep safe is a wife.”

The two watched Mack stand with Dalia in his arms. They smiled as she waved to everyone. Foster chuckled. “She is still a handful.”

The men chatted a few more minutes before getting into their bedrolls. Tomorrow would be another day. The danger would still be there as well.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

Mack looked at his wife. It had been a week since they had fought. The daily time alone was a healing balm to the pain that the fight had caused. He grunted as her elbow connected with his ribs. “What are you doing?”

Dalia continued to button her shirt. “I need to… Well, you know…”

Mack laughed at her face. He pulled his shirt on. He grinned as he noticed his wife looking at his chest. Her eyes were telling him that they liked what they saw. “Are you ready?”

Dalia glanced up at his face. She blushed knowing she had been caught looking. She gave him a lopsided smile. “I am allowed.”

Mack chuckled as he followed her out of the wagon. “You absolutely are.”

Dalia walked a little way into the wooded area. She knew Mack was close but still looked around. She slowly backed out of the area. “Ummm…. I do not have to go that bad.”

Mack pushed her behind him as he drew his gun. He looked at Dalia when she tugged on his sleeve.

“I’m thinking the boys don’t need to get woke up by that gun. I’ll let the snake stay put and find someplace else.” Dalia saw him nod and headed toward a different area.

Mack put his hand on her side. “I’ll look for you.”

Dalia watched him go into an area. When he came back out, she knew it was clear. “Thank you.”

Mack watched her go in. He looked at the group of men and noticed Jasper sitting up looking intently around.

Dalia walked back out of the wooded area. She looked at Mack as she walked toward a little stream to wash her hands. She couldn’t help but notice his sudden concern. “Is everything ok?”

Mack stayed with her while he tried to see what Jasper was looking at. “I’m not sure. Look at Jasper.”

Dalia washed her hands quickly. Her desire to be closer to the camp increased with each second.

Mack put his hand at the small of Dalia’s back as he guided her toward Jasper. He spoke to the older man. “What do you see?”

Jasper glanced at the couple. “I’m not sure. I think I saw movement that way. It looks like a flicker maybe.”

Mack scanned the area he had pointed to. When his wife pointed her finger, he nodded his head. “I see it.”

Dalia leaned into Mack’s side as he put his arm protectively around her. She took a breath hoping it would calm her racing heart.

Jasper nudged Elam. He glanced at Mack. “Maybe she should go to the wagon. If she is out of sight, it would be for the best.”

Dalia watched Troy get awake and stand. When Mack nudged her to go with Troy, she listened. A soft cry made her stop. She looked at her husband. “Mack?”

The group watched as an Indian man and woman stepped into the clearing. Dalia heard the cry again. She knew the Wichita language or at least enough. She had played with the children of the Wichita tribe as a child. She spoke to them surprising the men and the Indians. “Would you like some food and water?”

The woman spoke. “You know our tongue?”

Dalia giggled. “I used to play along here as a child. I had quite a few names. I was a bit wild.”

The man looked at Mack and nodded. When Mack nodded back, he spoke. “You had many names?”

Dalia cocked her head to the side. “Your name changed as you grew, yes?”

The man chuckled. “It did.”

Dalia smiled at the woman as she took the baby off her back. “Do you speak our tongue?”

The woman looked at her and smiled. “We speak your tongue.”

Dalia asked them the tradition question again this time in English. “Do you need food and water? We have some to spare.”

The two walked cautiously into the camp. The woman spoke to Dalia. “I’m Flo.”

Dalia giggled. “You are an arrow. I suppose you keep things straight.”

Flo nodded. She spoke. “Your laughter is sweet. I like it.”

Dalia smiled as she took the baby out of Flo’s arms. “Who is this?”

The man answered. “That is our son, Dyami.”

Dalia nuzzled Dyami’s soft hair. “Your papa gave you wings little eagle.”

Mack glanced at Foster. “Does she always do this?”

Foster grimaced. “If they come to you, she knows how to be gracious. When she was little, she actually wondered off with a few of them.”

Dalia looked at Flo knowing she was to address her. “And your husband what is he called?”

Flo smiled. “He is Kajika.”

Dalia giggled again drawing smiles from the others. “That explains why we didn’t hear you.”

Kajika glanced at Mack. “She is yours?”

Mack nodded. “She is. I’m Mack.”

“It is pleasant to see you, Mack.” The young father looked at the men. “You are being followed. My wife spotted him first.” Kajika’s voice held concern.

Mack glanced at the man. “You came to warn us?”

Kajika nodded. “My wife was worried. One of your men had seen her alone. They act with honor. Women need to be alert this time of year.”

Mack took a deep breath. “There are evil people. I’m glad she was spotted by one of mine.”

Dalia’s giggle floated over to the men. Mack smiled. He looked around at the others. He chuckled when he noticed Kajika was smiling too.

Dalia and Charlie started food for breakfast. It was a little early, but everyone was awake. Flo interacted with Dalia as Kajika stayed with the men.

Mack glanced at Kajika. “The man that is following us, you need to make sure he doesn’t get your wife alone. He is not right in the head.”

Kajika observed the body language of the men around him. “He is after your Laughter.”

Mack smiled at the name he had given Dalia. “He is after her. He almost had her once. We are trying to stop that from happening again.”

Kajika spoke again. “You and these men are good. I can see that.”

Mack knew the prejudices against the Indians. He made sure the man in front of him knew where he stood on those bigotries. “I would not harm you or any of your people. It is senseless in my eyes.”

Kajika regarded the man beside him. He knew a way to help them. As he measured the integrity of the group, he knew he wanted to.

 

Dalia rode beside her husband. The two slowly worked the cattle toward their destination. As the cattle would stray, they would take turns guiding them back into the herd.

Mack spoke as they were again side by side. “I can’t believe you knew how to talk to them. I’m wondering how many more surprises you have for me to find.”

Dalia smiled. She acted like she was thinking very hard on the subject before teasing her husband. “I’m sure there will be more, but none come to mind.”

Mack chuckled. “Nash is going to be furious when he realizes we are going where he can’t follow. I’m not going to lie. I’m glad for the little break. I missed working with you by my side.”

Dalia spoke with a giggle. “He can follow, but it would be a stupid move on his part.”

Mack watched Dalia start nibbling her lip again. He had observed her doing it off and on the entire day. Mack knew that was a sign that she was thinking hard on something. “Do you need to talk?”

Dalia was hesitant. She knew what she wanted to say but was a bit concerned that her husband would overreact. The man liked to do that. She decided to check the waters. “Do you promise not to go crazy and start overthinking? I really don’t like it when you overthink things.”

Mack raised an eyebrow. He was a bit alarmed about any conversation that would start with those words. “What?”

Dalia gave him her best snooty look. “I’m not saying anything until I have your word.”

Mack was not sure what he was agreeing to, but he was curious enough to hesitantly give his word. “Ok. I promise I will not think too deeply or overreact.”

Dalia nibbled her lip again as she thought of just the right words. She blushed as she decided to keep it to the point. “If I don’t start my flow in two weeks, that means we are probably going to have a baby. I honestly don’t know if I’m supposed to ride while I’m pregnant. If I can, I really want to. I love this time with you.”

Mack was speechless. He had not seen that line of thought coming at all. He hadn’t even thought of that. With the fact that he and his wife did enjoy each other’s touch, he should have been. “Ummm… Hmmm… I can’t overthink this huh?”

Dalia laughed at her husband’s face as she went to wrangle in a few strays. “You really want to. Don’t you?”

Mack couldn’t explain the sudden urge he had to smile. The thought of Dalia being pregnant made him really happy. “So, what am I allowed to do?”

Dalia was beside him again. “I don’t know why I’m thinking this now, but I guess it is because it could happen. I want answers before it does. If a doctor says it is ok, are you willing to let me stay with you? I would never want to harm our baby, but if I can safely stay with you, I want to. The problem is I wouldn’t even know if I were pregnant at the next town. I have no reason to see a doctor.”

Mack thought a moment. He was logical in his answer. “I don’t think you need to be pregnant to see the doctor. You can always just ask. It seems like a doctor’s bill worth paying for in order to know this answer.”

Dalia shook her head as she gave him a fake frown. “You just are hoping he tells me to stay off a horse.”

Mack laughed. “Or maybe I’m hoping he says you have to ride with me.”

Dalia giggled at the picture of him trying to rope while she snuggled up to his chest. “That would make your job so difficult.”

Mack chuckled at the picture he had in his mind. “It would make my job fun.”

The two continued to talk as they herded the cattle. As Dalia’s laughter trickled into the air. The unseen eyes that watched them had to agree with Flo. Their lips turned up in a smiled every time Dalia laughed. Her name should be called Ehawee which meant laughing maiden. It was a fitting name for their new sister.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Flo looked at Dalia and smiled. “Ehawee, do you want to eat?”

Dalia shook her head and giggled. Her new name was bringing out the laughter more than normal. “You are making me giggle now.”

It was time to make camp for the night. They were on Indian land now. If Nash tried to follow them, it would cost him his life. Flo smiled. “I am. Your laugh is so sweet. Even the men smile. Men don’t smile at such things.”

Dalia sat beside her new friend as they worked to make food. There were others with them now. She looked at them. She did her best to speak their tongue. “Does Flo…” She pursed her lips trying to come up with the right word. Dalia knew some things could be lost in translation. She didn’t want that to happen. “… tease you too?”

The women chuckled at her attempt. One answered her. “Ehawee, you are properly named now. It is an honor.”

Dalia gave them all a lopsided grin. Mirth danced in her eyes. “I have been honored many times. My father spanked my butt for it though. When I was eight, I started playing with one of the kids as our fathers traded. I went home with them. I had at least three names before my father found me.”

Flo laughed at the story. She could not imagine that it was true. “Now, who is teasing? You must be telling tales. Surely your father noticed he didn’t have you.”

Dalia shook her head. Most people would not believe a story like that, but it really was true. “I am not teasing. I couldn’t sit for a week after that spanking. My poor father alternated between shaking me and whacking my bottom he was so relieved to have found me. Everyone assumed someone else had me. Once they realized their mistake, my father had Daniel take the lead and came back to get me.”

One of the woman looked at her. “What were the three names?”

Dalia started giggling again. “They started out with Chitsa but soon realized I was bit wild. My second name was Lylu. So, I literally went from Pale Dove to Wild Dove in a day. It soon became apparent I talked more than anyone they had ever met. Now in my defense living in a Wichita village was new to me, I had lots of questions. My last name was Nata. I really was ‘one who talks and walks.’ I followed the one child’s mom everywhere while asking questions.”

Flo chuckled. “How long did they have you?”

Dalia grimaced as she remembered the look on her father’s face when he finally found her. “Two weeks…”

One of the older women clucked her tongue at Dalia.

Dalia immediately looked sorry. She had lived with this people long enough to know that was the proper response to an elder’s reprimand.

Flo smiled at her. “Look at you. You are one of us. Maybe a little pale….”

Dalia giggled again. One of the older women handed her a tool to crush the corn. Dalia took it and did the requested chore.

The woman smiled at her. “I am Aquene. You handle the tool well.”

Dalia smiled at her at the motherly woman. “Thank you. I’m almost positive I’m unable to work hard enough to get your name. You seem like you bring peace. I tend to bring chaos.”

Aquene laughed. “You are fun, Ehawee. I bet our people were sad to let you go.”

Dalia gave a sad smile. “My friend was sad to see me go. This is the first year we have not stopped to see them. My father is gone now. I’m with my husband. And as you know, things are not safe for me.”

Flo looked at her surprised. “You still see her.”

Dalia nodded. “I lived with her for two weeks. We are friends. As you say, we are sisters.”

Aquene smiled at her gently. The elder woman could hear the longing in Dalia’s voice. “You miss her?”

Dalia grinned. “She liked me. We were kids. Our differences didn’t mean anything. It was our similarities that mattered. I look forward to seeing her.”

Aquene had no idea a white woman like Dalia existed. She had a plan form in her mind. “What Wichita tribe is she from?”

“Tawakoni is her band,” Dalia said with a smile.

Flo grinned. “You know we are not all the same.”

Dalia nodded. “I asked a lot of questions. When we visited every year, we stayed for a week, so the questions continued. My father really was grateful they kept me safe.”

Aquene knew there was a chance her plan would fail, but she was going to speak to her son. It would not be hard to find the band and see if Ehawee’s friend would be willing to come to them. They were not enemies. Their people were peaceful.

Dalia’s laughter floated through the air as Flo teased her. The woman finished supper with Charlie and then served it out.

Mack sat beside his wife and ate. When he was done, he leaned over and kissed the side of her head. “It is fun watching you.”

Dalia smiled up at him. Her breath caught at the love she saw in his eyes. Her voice was thoughtful. “You do a lot of that. Why?”

Mack chuckled. “I can’t help it. You’re adorable.”

The couple chatted a few more minutes. When it was time to clean up, Dalia joined the women. She winked at her husband as she walked away. The atmosphere was more relaxed, but the men still knew Nash may make a move to get Dalia. Alert eyes made sure she stayed safe.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

Dalia and Mack had a very rough day. The cattle were restless. Dalia glanced at the bull in front of her. She looked at Mack. “I learned my lesson. He’s too big. I won’t be able to handle him. I guess we should switch.”

Mack traded areas with his wife. He got the bull under control. He glanced at his wife as she wiped the sweat from her brow. It was not hot that day, but the work was taxing. He had to admit she knew how to drive cattle. The bull started getting out again. Mack went to get him back with the rest.

Dalia saw a cow getting aggressive. She didn’t look that big, but Dalia wanted a little backup. When she went to talk to her husband the cow charged her horse. Before Dalia knew it, she was in the air.

Mack looked up and didn’t see his wife. Fear shot through him as he looked at her empty saddle. Then he spotted her.

Dalia stood up slowly. She saw the cow coming for her and darted toward another cow. She knew she only had a few seconds to make it back to her horse.

Mack pulled Dalia up in front of him. “Are you hurt?”

Dalia nodded her head. “I’m ok. I’m thinking we know the answer to that question I wanted to ask the doctor.”

Mack chuckled at her honesty as he helped her back onto her horse. “I’m thinking we do.”

Dalia knew they would be on Indian land for at least one more day. She knew everyone was still alert. She let herself relax knowing the chance of Nash following them was very little. She would take the reprieve from danger for what it was even if it was temporary.

Mack saw Greg and the chief heading their way. He waited for Greg to get to them before he nudged his mount away from the herd.

Dalia looked at Greg. “Well old timer…. It looks like I’m with you again. Hopefully you can keep up with this young pup.”

Greg laughed. “It sure does look that way. How is it over here?”

Dalia made a face. “I hit the ground once. They are all restless right now. I think it is the cooler weather. I’ve always hated that about drives. It goes from cold to hot and then back to cold. The weather is not predictable at all.”

Greg watched Mack and the chief talk about the cattle. “I’m glad Mack is giving them some of the cattle. It seems they need it. The tribe has had some rough times with hunting.”

Dalia knew what her husband was saying to the chief. “I hope the chief understands this is not a handout. Mack is really grateful for the protection they are giving me. He feels that has earned them the beef.”

Greg took care of the big bull. “This guy really wants to go. I take it Mack had him?”

Dalia nodded. “Yes, he did. I had him at first, but he was giving me problems.” She pointed to the ornery cow. “She took me off my horse and then tried to get me. I guess it really is the day.”

Mack was thrilled with what the chief had told him. After watching him with his wife the chief believed him about the trade. He was willing to take the head of cattle Mack was giving him as payment for safe passage. It also seemed one of the men in the tribe knew Dalia’s friend. The woman and her husband were on their way to the chuck wagon. The woman’s band was not that far away from them. He shook the chief’s hand and thanked him again for helping them.

Dalia watched her husband come back toward them. She let her eyes take him in. He really was a very good looking man. His broad shoulders told a story of the hard work his body had seen. She glanced at Greg before she went to wrangle a stray.

Greg shook his head and laughed. He followed her since the bull was one of the strays.

The three worked hard for the next two hours. As lunch came, so did Bart, Danny, and Alex.

Mack pulled his wife in front of him as he headed toward the chuck wagon. He kissed the top of her head. “I love you.”

Dalia smiled. “I love you too.”

The others watched them leave. Mack must have said something funny because they all could hear Dalia’s giggle. Hearing it, they all looked at each other and grinned.

 

Dalia again helped make food. She joked with the other women like they were family.

Flo looked at Dalia. “Ehawee, you are bad. You did not do that.”

Dalia laughed. She tried to stop, but the picture she had just painted was so funny. When she finally stopped, she looked at the others. “You have to believe me. I did. I sat down and waited to be rescued. I think Uncle Charlie was my rescuer that day.”

Charlie shook his head. “I wish she was lying. Do you see these gray hairs? She did this to me. She took years off my life with her wild ways.”

Dalia heard a little commotion. She glanced up from what she was doing. She almost went back to work when she realized who was there. She jumped up and ran to her friend. “Amitola…”

Flo and the other women smiled. “She really does not see skin.”

Aquene smiled as she watched the women embrace. “She is special.”

Dalia glanced at the man beside Amitola and laughed. “I knew you were going to marry her. Didn’t I tell you that?”

Wynono tried to keep the face of a warrior but failed. He laughed loudly. “You did.”

Flo knew who the warrior was. She glanced at Aquene. “Isn’t that the Wynono?”

Aquene nodded. “It appears our Ehawee has some very strong friends.”

Dalia walked up to the others. She knew Wynono was going to try to act all warrior on them. She grinned up at him. “You have to be nice.”

Flo made a face. “You did not just say that.”

Dalia rolled her eyes. “We have gotten punished together. Wynono’s father took a stick to me many times.”

Wynono nudged her. “She was very bad.”

Amitola agreed. “Nata always got us punished. She thought of many ways to get into trouble.”

Dalia frowned. “You both could have said no.”

Mack smiled at his wife. She left the group to walk up to him.

Amitola looked at Wynono. “I guess we are not the only ones to share a blanket.”

Flo looked at the two. “You didn’t know she belonged to Mack?”

Wynono shook his head. “We only knew she was here and that she was in danger.”

Dalia’s giggle once again flitted through the air.

Flo smiled. “Ehawee is fun to be with.”

Amitola looked at the group. “Her name has changed?”

When they nodded, Wynono spoke. “It is fitting.”

Mack pulled his wife into his arms. “You are happy?”

Dalia reached up and touched his face gently. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his lips. “I am happy. Even if my friend was not able to see me, I am happy with you.”

Mack took her hand and kissed it. “I have things to talk about with the men. You go ahead and enjoy your friends.”

Dalia was blushing by the time she got back to the women and Wynono. When Flo winked at her, she busted out laughing.

Amitola was thrilled for her friend. “He kisses your hand. How very nice…”

Dalia glanced at her husband. She took a deep breath. “I love him. He could have left me along the trail but didn’t.”

The other women were not sure what Dalia was talking about. Aquene looked at the haunted eyes. “Why do you say that?”

Dalia sat down and started working again. She knew she would hear a few clucks on this. “I tricked him. I dressed like a boy so I could escape the town I was in.”

Wynono raised an eyebrow. “That was very bold.”

Dalia lowered her head as Aquene clucked her tongue. “You should not have lied.”

Dalia shrugged her shoulders. She had known Amitola and Wynono since she was little. She had grown up with them and played with them. She swallowed a lump in her throat. “I have a very bad man after me. I had to be bold.”

Aquene could see the fear in her eyes. She went from clucking to soothing. “Your husband will keep you safe.”

Dalia watched Amitola grab some tools and help. She looked at Aquene. “I’m trying not to be afraid, but it is hard.”

Wynono looked at Mack. “He seems capable of protecting what is his. You need to put more faith in that.”

Dalia took the rebuke for what it was. Wynono was a warrior. It was insulting to say they were not able to keep their people safe. She nodded. “I will.”

Amitola took Dalia’s hand. “I like your new name. Ehawee fits you.”

Dalia hugged her friend again. “I love having you as my sister of the heart.”

Flo smiled as Amitola agreed.

Dalia glanced at the group. “It is nice finding new family.”

Flo was surprised when Dalia spontaneously hugged her too. She returned the embrace. “I am proud to be your sister, Ehawee.”

Aquene smiled at Dalia when the woman hugged her too. “I will be your other mother.”

Dalia touched the older woman’s face. She was unaware that many ears were listening. “You will be my only mother. If God allows, I will come see you again.”

Mack’s heart broke at the longing he heard in his wife’s voice. He knew she had craved the gentle touch of a mother and had not gotten one. Mack hurt knowing two women could have given her the maternal love she needed but chose not to.

Aquene hugged Dalia. “You make this old woman cry. I am honored to be called your mother. I am honored to call you my daughter.”

The rest of the evening went by fast. Mack and Dalia were unaware of what Aquene’s statement meant for them. When they left Indian land, they would have a few more protectors guarding their way. Those protectors had two purposes. Protect Ehawee and bring Valentino Nash to Mack. It was time for justice.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

It had been a little over three weeks since they had left the safety of the Indian land. Dalia stretched beside her husband. She turned in his arms and snuggled into him. There was a chill in the air. Dalia needed his warmth.

Mack kissed his wife on the forehead. “I thought it would be warming up at night. It is May now.”

Dalia nodded. They were almost to their destination. Depending on the weather it would be only two more weeks. She sighed in contentment as she wiggled her cold feet between her husband’s warm calves. “Me too. With the rain last night, how do you think our next crossing will go?”

Mack rubbed her back absently as he spoke. Her feet were like ice, but he didn’t mind. “I think it will be ok. All we can do is take a look when we get there. If it isn’t safe, we wait.”

Dalia knew it was time to get out from under the blankets. She also knew she needed to talk to her husband. She knew she was blushing. Her face was the only warm thing on her right now. “I don’t think I should ride today. I’m over a week late now.”

Mack nodded. He kissed her forehead. He had promised not to overthink things. He stayed calm and kept his promise. “I understand. How do you want to do this?”

Dalia giggled. It was obvious to her that he wanted to overthink the entire thing. “I am thinking you know that answer. If anything changes, I’ll start riding again.”

Mack chuckled at her blush. His wife was not comfortable at all with her body doing what women’s bodies do.

Dalia closed her eyes as Mack pulled her closer. She felt him kiss the top of her head. “I love you, Mack.”

Mack whispered softly before he gently kissed her lips. “I love you too.”

Dalia took a deep breath as she heard the others start to stir. “I guess we need to join the others.

The two got dressed. Mack helped his wife out of the wagon. He touched her face looking concerned. Dalia looked green. “Are you ok?”

Dalia took a deep breath. She swallowed hard trying to dismiss the nausea she was feeling. She had felt a little of it yesterday, but today she was really feeling it.

Bart looked Mack. He couldn’t help but note the paleness of her face. “Is she ok?”

Dalia bolted out of her husband’s arms. She made it to the edge of camp before she hit her knees and started dry heaving.

Mack looked at Charlie. “Do we have a little food for her?”

Charlie frowned. “The girl is sick.”

Mack shook his head as he walked toward his wife. “I think she is hungry.”

Dalia leaned against Mack. “I felt this yesterday but not like this.”

Mack took the leftover biscuit from the night before. He broke off a piece of it. “Maybe just nibble and be still for a few minutes.”

Dalia nodded. She did as he instructed. After a few moments passed, she looked over at him. “I think I’m ok. It seems to have passed.”

Mack helped her to her feet. He knew the others were watching concerned. He took her hand and started back to the wagon.

Dalia dug her feet in. She had no intention of getting back into the wagon. “What are you doing?”

Mack raised an eyebrow. “I’m taking you back so you can lie down.”

Dalia was not happy. She made sure her husband saw her frown. “I can help now. I feel fine.”

Mack looked at her. He knew she would be difficult. “Can you humor me on this?”

Dalia folded her arms across her chest. Her voice was getting louder. “Mack, I’m probably pregnant not sick.”

Mack picked her up. He really wanted his own way on this. “I think you should rest.”

Dalia pinched his shoulder. Her voice was almost a bellow. “I want to be awake now. Do you honestly think women take to their beds the second they feel morning sickness?

Mack knew she made a sound argument. He put her down. His voice was getting to be as loud as hers. “Those women aren’t my wife. I happen to love you not them.”

Dalia closed her eyes. She needed Mack to understand she was fine. Yelling at each other was not helping. She took a breath and calmed down. “If I need rest I promise I will take a nap. The sickness has passed. Please, Mack…”

Mack put his forehead on hers. He knew she was trying not to yell. He knew he had to calm down too. He started to concede. “I’ll trust you. I just don’t like seeing you sick.”

Dalia wrapped her arms around her husband’s waist. “I’m fine now.”

Mack kissed the top of her head. He reluctantly released her to go help with the food. He glanced up and looked at the men’s grins.

Bart chuckled. “She is going to be difficult.”

Mack laughed. “Well, at least we know nothing is changing.”

Troy grinned as he put his gun belt on. He started for his normal position near Dalia. “I guess I’m protecting two now.”

Lamar chuckled as he followed Troy. “Congratulations, Boss.”

Mack watched Lamar and Troy station themselves close to Dalia. He looked at Bart and Foster. “I wish this danger would pass.”

Foster remembered his mother’s face. “Nash isn’t her most dangerous enemy. My mom is determined to get to her. I know even if she got on the stage she didn’t stay. She will come after her. When my men catch up, I’ll have a definite answer. I had one of my men watching for her to come back.”

Grady glanced at Mack. “I’ll stay on after Nash. I owe her my life. You could have hung me. Her forgiveness stayed your hand.”

Mack looked at Grady. “I appreciate that. I’m glad you’re here.”

Foster heard his sister start fussing at their uncle. He grimaced as her sweet little voice escalated to a bellow. “She really has no intentions of letting anyone baby her. Who in the world could have imagined such a tiny body could have such a loud voice?”

Mack grinned as he started for his wife. He winked at her as he took her hand and started for the stream’s edge. He wanted to laugh at her angry frown but didn’t.

Dalia was going to argue with her husband if he insisted she rest again. When he pulled her into his arms and nuzzled her neck, she closed her eyes and sighed.

“You are strong,” Mack whispered into her ear. He smiled as he felt her shiver.

Dalia nodded. Her voice was soft. “I know.”

Mack kissed her softly. He whispered against her lips. “Maybe humor them a little. They care.”

Dalia felt her husband kiss her again. She leaned up as he deepened the kiss. When he eased his lips away from hers, she nodded. “I will try.”

Mack took her hand as he started back toward the fire. “Thank you.”

Dalia giggled as she thought of his kisses. “You are very good at negotiating, Husband.”

Mack chuckled. He gave his wife a lopsided grin. “I really like negotiating with you. I find it pleasant.”

Dalia spent the rest of the morning doing what her uncle would let her do. She didn’t argue. Dalia did what her husband asked and humored the older man. As the day wore on, Dalia’s eyes got heavy. She did as she promised and climbed into the back of the wagon. Her eyes closed and she slept. This humoring thing was exhausting.

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Dalia heard the commotion outside the wagon. She stretched trying to wake up. Dalia sought her husband’s warmth and was confused when it wasn’t there. She sat up startled.

Lamar looked at Dalia. He knew the boss wanted her to stay silent. His voice was a whisper. “You need to stay in here with me.”

Dalia curled to her side. She closed her eyes and shivered in fear. She now recognized the voice she was hearing. Tears stung her eyes. “He should have left me alone.”

Lamar nodded. That was a fact he could not argue with. “He should have but didn’t. Mack will be in shortly. Try to calm down.”

Dalia whimpered as she heard the foul things Nash was saying. She put the blankets over her head trying to block the words out. She started crying as she heard the things he was yelling at the wagon. As Nash went into detail of what he would do when he caught her, Dalia started to sob.

Lamar felt horrible for Dalia. A part of him wanted to go out and knock the man out. He glanced out of the wagon and watched as Foster and Grady tied Nash to a horse. He wished they would gag him. His words were causing Dalia some real pain. When Mack looked at him, he indicated that Dalia was awake.

Mack glanced at the Wichita warriors. “Thank you for bringing him to us. He is wanted for murder. We will see that he is taken to the closest town to face justice.”

Lamar watched the warriors leave. He got out of the wagon as Mack got in. “She’s hurting, Boss.”

Mack nodded as he got into the wagon. He laid down beside his wife and pulled her close. “Your brother and Grady will be taking him to Newton. Dalia, I’m sorry he said those things.”

Dalia sniffled. “He almost had me. I’m trying not to be afraid but knowing he is out there…”

Mack kissed the top of her head. “I know it isn’t easy. Do you want me to tell them to go? Or do you have something you want to say to Nash?”

Dalia shook her head. “I don’t want to see him. Mack…”

Mack felt her tremble. He wished he could help ease her fear. His voice was gentle. “I’m right here. I’m not going to leave you.”

Dalia breathed in her husband’s scent. She could feel herself starting to calm. She slowly relaxed.

Mack rubbed Dalia’s back. He felt her relax against him. “I’ll tell them to go. I’ll be right back.”

Dalia watched Mack open the flap. She closed her eyes as she heard Nash’s response to his order. She didn’t understand the evil she was hearing. Dalia could never understand the hate that seemed to come with her birth.

Mack pulled Dalia back into his arms. It had been a week since she had stopped riding. Her nausea was still a morning bother, and her afternoon naps were becoming the norm. He closed his eyes. “We are having a baby.”

Dalia smiled. They had not really vocalized that fact. They had stayed cautious just in case she was simply late. She rolled to her back and placed his hand on her abdomen. Her voice was soft. “I think it is safe to say we are.”

Mack pulled her shirt up enough to reveal her tummy. He leaned down and kissed her abdomen. “I never thought I would have this. Now I have it with a woman I am so in love with it hurts.”

Dalia ran her fingers through her husband’s hair as he kissed their unborn child. She had never dreamed that she would ever marry. Now she was going to be a mother. She whispered a heartfelt prayer. “Thank You for not forgetting me Jesus. Thank You for loving me this much. Amen.”

Mack took Dalia’s little hand in his big one. “I do love you. I never imagined I would find a love like this.”

Dalia sighed when her husband kissed her again. “I love you too.”

Mack knew it was time to get back to work. He kissed her once more before he reluctantly left her side.

Dalia smiled as she followed her husband out of the wagon. She giggled when he nuzzled her neck as he helped her down. “You sure do like to nibble.”

Mack winked at Dalia before he went to get back on his horse. It was time to start moving the cattle again. He chuckled when she blew him a kiss.

Dalia looked at Troy and Lamar. “I guess I’m out of danger.”

The two men looked at each other. They smiled but kept their thoughts to themselves. They knew Nash was only half the battle. Although it was doubtful Mable Stewart was following them, neither one of the men was willing to take a chance. They both stayed close to the boss’s wife as they had done since they joined the group. If Foster was right, the real threat was still very much unaccounted for.

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

Dalia sat beside Charlie on the chuck wagon. She watched him handle the team with ease. “Do you remember when Cookie and I did this? I loved those days.”

Charlie chuckled. “I could not forget that if I tried. You were always under his feet. He would grumble all the time, but all of us knew it was all show. That man loved having you with him. I bet he is missing us both this year.”

Dalia took a deep breath. She frowned as she got angry. A few seconds later she felt like wailing like an infant. Talking about her father’s ranch was hard. “Uncle Charlie?”

Charlie looked down at Dalia. He could see how sad she was. He made sure he kept his voice gentle. “What is it?”

Dalia wiped a tear from her eye. “I know that the reason you and Daddy took me was because of what Mable did but….”

Charlie could see the real struggle Dalia was having. She looked like she was barely in control as she hiccupped through the tears. “Dalia, honey, what’s wrong? It’s okay. Tell me what’s bothering you.”

Dalia looked up at him. “If she hadn’t lost her temper, she would have kept hurting me quietly. Uncle Charlie, she was always hurting me. The beating she gave me was a blessing. She would drag me by my hair all the time. She did things that didn’t leave bruises. You would never have known she was hurting me.”

Charlie put his arm around Dalia. He kissed the top of her head. “I always wondered about that. Your dad did too. He always felt like we stepped in too late. Your brother would tell us things, but Mable always denied them. It shouldn’t have mattered that Foster was a boy. He didn’t lie. Your dad…”

Dalia whispered softly as she finished what he was saying. “…loved me but not enough to send her away. He felt guilty about what he did with my mother.”

Charlie knew that Dalia spoke the truth. It was the one thing he had never understood about his friend. The reason Foster stayed away as a man was because of his mother. He didn’t need to take the job. He had chosen to. There was pride involved, but Charlie knew that was not the only reason Foster had stayed away. He glanced at Dalia. “I think he loved everyone the only way he knew how. I agree though, he should have sent Mable away. He shouldn’t have let Satan use his guilt against him like that.”

Dalia still hurt at the thought of the words and actions of the two women in her life. She saw Alvin nod at Lamar as he came back to ride close to the wagon again. “I’m not out of danger, am I? Nash wasn’t’ the only threat.”

Charlie shook his head. He didn’t give her all of his thoughts, but he knew Foster was right. Mable was more dangerous than Nash. “No, Dalia, you are not out of danger. I don’t think Mable has what it takes to follow you here, but she may send someone to do her dirty work. Once you and Mack are back at your ranch, she will come. Did you get to meet the men that stayed behind at the ranch?”

Dalia shook her head. She laughed. “I was avoiding that like the plague. I had no intentions of going to the second bunk house. I had seen enough bared chests. I only talked to Brett and Thomas, and that was briefly before we left.”

Charlie howled with laughter. Dalia’s face was hysterical. She looked mortified with the idea of seeing any more men unclothed. He didn’t blame her. She had been raised to be modest. Her father and brother were the only two men she had ever seen without a shirt, and even that was only a handful of times until this happened.

Dalia blushed. “You have to admit. My dad did a great job making sure I didn’t see more than necessary. Being dressed like a boy opened the door for way too much exposure. Bare chests were not the only thing. Like I had said back at the ranch, men are quite gross.”

Charlie grinned. “Does that include your husband? I’m thinking you don’t find Mack gross at all.”

Dalia shook her head. She thought her husband was anything but gross. “It does not include him. I don’t find him gross at all. I find him quite dreamy if I’m honest.”

Charlie chuckled at her blush. “I’m thinking the fact you are carrying tells me that.”

Dalia put her hand on her still flat stomach. She never had anyone to tell her what this would be like. She had some concerns. “I’m really tired. Is that normal do you think? I can’t make it more than a few hours before I need a nap.”

Charlie glanced down at her. “I don’t know. When we reach Abilene, I’m thinking you should ask Mack to take you to the doctor. Those are questions you should be asking him.”

Dalia wrapped her arms around her uncle. “I do love you, Uncle Charlie.”

Charlie eyes got misty. This girl really was like a daughter to him. “I love you too.”

Dalia saw the stream ahead. She really wanted to clean up a little. “Are we going to stop there or keep moving?”

Charlie knew there was a bigger stream a little further up. “I think we will keep moving for another hour. It is getting hot again. The area I’m thinking of has a deeper stream for swimming.”

Dalia got a delighted twinkle in her eyes. She couldn’t help the impish grin that came to her face. “I can have a bath?”

Charlie laughed. “You only want to torment your husband.”

Dalia grinned. “I love trail songs. I think Jasper and Elam did a wonderful job of teaching them to me.”

Charlie chuckled. “Your husband looks very uncomfortable every time you sing them at the top of your lungs. You’ve got no shame, girl.”

Dalia snickered. “My dad did too. I have not sung the one that got me cuffed since the tanning he gave my hide. Back then I didn’t know what it meant. I do now, though. It’s no wonder I was spanked.”

Charlie grinned. “I believe I helped catch you that day. You were eight and running around the camp naked as you please to get away from us. I think Jasper and Elam got a lecture for that as well. They were fortunate they didn’t lose their jobs.”

Dalia glanced up at Alvin as he guided his horse closer to the wagon. His voice was firm. His eyes held his worry. “I’m thinking you need to get into the wagon now.”

Dalia followed his gaze. She got into the wagon and waited. The rider she had seen in the distance didn’t look like a threat, but she knew they wouldn’t risk her until they knew for sure.

Charlie watched as the lone rider made his way closer to them. His eyes widened with surprise when he saw the man. “Daniel?”

Daniel saw the drawn guns. He looked at Charlie. “What are you doing here? I thought this was Mack Shore’s drive.”

Charlie nodded. “It is. I’m their new cook.”

Daniel started to fidget. He wanted to ask about Dalia but didn’t know if the men were aware she was a she. He looked around. “Did Foster catch up with you?”

Charlie nodded. “Is Mable with you?”

Daniel glared at Charlie for even putting such a foul thought into words. “Of course not…”

Charlie chuckled. “I’m just making sure. You can come out now.”

Dalia peeked out of the wagon. She waited for the storm she knew was coming.

When he spotted Dalia, Daniel nearly fell off his horse. His voice was a roar. “You cut your hair! If your brother didn’t beat you, girl, I will.”

Dalia frowned at him. She knew he was not aware she was pregnant. “You can’t hit me. Even Foster won’t allow it.”

Daniel noticed the guns that were drawn. He shook his head. “You two have to know I’ve beaten this girl almost as much as her father and Charlie.”

Lamar’s voice was calm. “Then you have to know we won’t let anyone touch the boss’s wife.”

Daniel started sputtering. He started bellowing again. “You got married! Dalia, did you think anything through? Girl you should have come to us. We would have found a way to hide you.”

Dalia was not one to cry. She nibbled her bottom lip trying not to. She glanced at the look of pity that Alvin was giving her. It was all it took. She started to cry. She tried to explain herself as she hiccupped.

Daniel felt bad. He got off his horse. He now wanted to comfort her. “Now Dalia, I didn’t mean to make you cry, girl. Calm down little squirt.”

Mack rode up. He glanced at Charlie and then watched an older gentleman start wiping his wife’s tears. “I take it he knows my wife.”

Lamar nodded. “Yup. He had all intentions of beating her for cutting her hair. He yelled and well you can see what happened.”

Mack shook his head. “It seems like everyone has beaten my wife. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It sounds like her childhood was horrible.”

Dalia hiccupped. She looked at Mack. “They didn’t hit me hard. It’s all bluster. If they had actually spanked me, I probably would have learned my lesson.”

Mack nodded. “Are you ok? You seem a bit emotional.”

Alvin coughed. He watched Dalia’s eyes narrow on her husband. The boss was in trouble now.

Dalia’s voice was soft. Her voice was too soft. She wasn’t crying now. “I’m not sure why you said that, Sir.”

Mack was confused. He could see everyone but him, and maybe the old guy knew what was suddenly wrong with his wife. She went from crying to angry. His voice was hesitant. “Said what?”

Dalia was now standing on the seat of the wagon. Her hands were on her hips. She had all intentions of telling her husband what she thought of his opinion.

Mack’s voice was gentle. “Sit down, Dalia. You can’t risk a fall from there.”

Dalia frowned and got off the wagon. She was willing to see the wisdom in his words. She was not, however, willing to back down. She put her hands back on her hips. “I am not emotional.”

Mack glanced at Charlie hoping he would help. It didn’t take him long to see he was on his own.

“Don’t look at me boy. You got yourself into this. You can get yourself out.” Charlie grinned as he folded his arms across his chest.

Daniel had to agree with Mack Shore on this. He looked at Dalia. “I think you ‘are’ being a bit emotional. What has gotten into you?”

Mack looked at Lamar as Dalia turned her sites from him to Daniel. He whispered softly. “That was close. I’m so glad this guy keeps talking.”

Lamar chuckled as he watched Dalia hold her ground.

Dalia glared at Daniel. Just when they thought she would start yelling she started crying and then she turned and walked away.

Mack handed Lamar the reins to his horse. “I guess I need to go sweet talk her.”

Daniel watched Mack walk beside Dalia. He smiled as he watched the man take her hand. He looked at Charlie. “They are in love?”

Charlie nodded. “They are. They just found out they are having a baby.”

Daniel paled. “I just told her I was going to beat her. No wonder she got all upset. I should go apologize.”

Alvin grinned. “You should just let the boss take care of it. She has a soft spot for him. I can’t guarantee anyone else’s safety.”

The men watched Mack kiss his wife. Daniel shook his head. “In my mind, she isn’t old enough for this. She is still that little girl that kept getting her backside in trouble.”

Charlie nodded as he watched the couple head back toward them. “It is hard to forget the little girl she was. It is easy to see the woman she has become. Mack will give her the life we all hoped she would have.”

Dalia looked at Daniel once she and Mack were back with the group. “I’m sorry. I guess I am a bit emotional.”

Daniel chuckled. “I threatened to beat you. You were acting like a mom protecting her baby. It’s ok ‘little squirt.’”

Dalia looked at her husband suddenly very happy. “I get to bath tonight.”

Everyone laughed as Mack groaned loudly.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

Foster and Mack joined their herds. There was safety in numbers the last part of the journey and they took advantage of that. Dalia looked up from the pot of food she was stirring as the men started to come in for food. She giggled as a few of her father’s cowboys started for her.

Lamar stepped in front of Dalia. His voice was soft but firm. That he was protecting Dalia was more than obvious. “You cannot pick her up and throw her around or hug her too tight.”

Dalia laughed. She tried to elbow him out of her way. The man was too big. “Lamar, you are so protective. I’m not a glass doll.”

Lamar made sure the men heard what he said. He glanced down at Dalia as he moved aside. “I understand, but you are pregnant. Now behave and let me do my job.”

Chuck and Allen grinned at each other. Allen knew he shouldn’t torment Dalia’s protector. He simply couldn’t help himself. Allen put his hand over his heart. “I thought you would wait for me, Dalia.”

Lamar frowned at the man as he took the bait. “She’s the boss’s wife. I don’t think you should talk like that.”

Dalia giggled. She knew the game Allen was playing. “He is joking. Allen is married and very much in love with his wife.”

Alvin was now standing with Lamar. It was apparent that he would be backing Lamar up. “They didn’t see your face after Nash got you. We have a job to do.”

Chuck looked at Dalia. A flash of anger could be seen in his eyes. “Someone hit you?”

Dalia shrugged her shoulders. She frowned at Alvin. She really wished he had not brought that up. “It was nothing. Mack and his men got to me in time.”

Allen was not much older than Dalia. He had gone to the Stewart ranch as a young teen. He felt like an older brother to her. “We tried to find you after she took you. We were going to hide you in the bunk house. I’m sorry you got hurt, Dalia.”

Dalia watched Mack start toward her. She looked at the men. “I’m ok. If you had done that, I would have missed out on finding love.”

Mack heard his wife’s comment. He walked up to her and gave her a hug. “How are you feeling?”

Dalia smiled up at him as her eyes sparkled. “You heard I didn’t take my nap today?”

Mack chuckled. He kissed her forehead gently. “I heard you were so excited about your brother’s men coming that you couldn’t sleep.”

Dalia giggled. Her eyes took on an impish gleam. “That may be true. If you give me a second, I’m almost ready for my bath.”

Mack tried to sweet talk her. “Now baby, don’t you think maybe you can keep it down this time? For me?”

Allen and Chuck roared with laughter. They knew exactly what that meant. The two shook Mack’s hand before heading back to the others.

Dalia sighed as Mack gave her a soft kiss. She leaned into his hand when he stroked her cheek. She glanced up at him as she turned her head and kissed the palm of his hand.

Mack pulled his wife close for one more embrace. He whispered softly. “I am so blessed. I love you.”

Dalia closed her eyes as she put her head on his chest. She felt his hand cover her abdomen and smiled. “We are blessed. I’ll lower my voice a little this time.”

Mack watched Foster talk to his men. He grinned. “I think your brother is starting to sound like Lamar and Troy. Grady and Alvin are calmer about your ‘delicate’ condition.”

Dalia followed her husband’s gaze. She giggled. “You would think I’m the only woman on the planet that has ever gotten pregnant.”

Mack chuckled as he reluctantly released her. “In my eyes, you are. Now Charlie looks ready to have my hide, so I’ll let you go help.”

Dalia winked at him and then turned and headed back to help her uncle make the food.

Mack glanced back at Foster. He took a deep breath as he went over to the other man. He had not really talked to him since earlier that day. At that time, they had decided to join herds. The problem was Mack wanted to know what had happened with Valentino Nash. A topic they had not gotten around to discussing. It was too important to simply assume justice was being served.

Foster saw Mack. He paused in what he was saying. The look on his brother-in-law’s face told him it was time to talk Dalia’s safety again.

“He is in the hands of the law?” Mack asked as he got closer.

Foster nodded. “They were aware he was wanted for murder. Nash isn’t going to be an issue again.”

Mack shook the hands of the two men there. He glanced at Foster. “Your sister didn’t want this. She just wanted to be left alone.”

Foster knew that. “She is a very forgiving person, but you and I know he would not have stopped until he had her.”

“I know I need to tell her that he will probably hang. With her being pregnant, I just don’t like to get her so upset.” Mack said as he glanced back toward his wife.

“She is going to be even more upset when she realizes Mable is going to end up in some trouble.” The man standing closest to Mack said softly.

Foster looked at Ryan. “You saw her come back?”

Ryan nodded. “I did what you said. I made sure I was there for every stage after she left. I watched her come back to town. She is bent on hurting our girl.”

Mack closed his eyes. “I don’t understand this hate. Dalia is one of the most beautiful humans I have ever met. I’m not just saying that because I love her. I noticed it before I realized she was a she.”

Karl, the other man with Ryan, looked at Mack. “Well, at least we know you love her. A bunch of us were debating if you were good enough for her.”

Mack chuckled. “I’m probably not, but I’m not giving her up. She has come to mean the world to me. Life without her isn’t an option.”

Karl watched Troy and Grady position themselves close to Dalia. “I’m thinking you are just what she needs. Your men protect her well.”

The men continued to talk about Dalia’s safety. They understood the obstacle ahead was different for them. The only way for Mable to have justice served would be for her to make a move on Dalia. No one wanted to see that happen. However, every man there knew it could not be avoided.

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

Dalia sat beside her husband. Her hair was still damp from her bath and Ethan was still chuckling at the frown her husband was giving her. “She was louder last time. You should be grateful.”

Mack shook his head. “She should just stop singing. All of you were listening way too closely.”

Bart chuckled as he glanced at Ryan. “I guess he can’t see how funny it is. She so tiny and then belts out songs like a sailor.”

Dalia yawned and crawled into her husband’s lap. She whispered softly. “I’m tired. Let’s do our verses.”

Mack kissed the top of her head as she tucked herself under his chin. “What verse are you thinking of today?”

Dalia smiled. “I’m thinking Isaiah chapter forty verses thirty and thirty-one.”

Mack listened to her recite the passage. It was actually one of his favorites. He couldn’t wait to hear what her thoughts were on this passage. “What does it say to you?”

Dalia spoke softly. “I like that it does not say we will not get tired while we are living our life. We all will at some point in time become weary. Even those of us that are young will get tired as life happens. I can’t help but hold on to the promise of the verse. If we hope in our Father and wait for His time, our strength will be renewed. He gives us what we need to face what life has in store for us. How do you see it?”

Mack thought for a moment. “I agree with everything you said. I also like to look at that one part with the eagles. He won’t just renew our strength. It will be on the same level as soaring with eagles. That gives me the picture of something beyond exhilarating.”

Dalia smiled as her mind envisioned what he was saying. “It is a nice picture. You are right. I never really looked at it like that before. What is your verse?”

Mack absently rubbed his wife’s back. He thought for a moment. “I think I am going to go with Proverbs chapter three verses five and six.”

Dalia listened to her husband recite the passage. She had heard the verse before but had not really broken it down. Now that she thought about it there was a lot of meat in the verses he spoke from memory. She was ready to hear what they meant to him. “How do you look at them?”

Mack thought for a moment. “I guess to me the verses are saying that in everything we need to trust. Even when we just don’t get it, we need to trust that God has our best in mind. Our human understanding of the situation will never lead us to God’s will in it. We have to trust God’s understanding and that will lead us into His perfect will.”

Dalia nodded against his chest. “I see that too. I’ve heard these verses many times. I just didn’t really think about them. When I accepted your proposal, I begged God to show me why it had to be like it was. I asked Him many times before that why my father died. I just didn’t know why all of it had to be. I can see now I was leaning on my understanding of what was going on. Christ saw the love you and I would have for each other. He even now sees the baby being formed inside of me. I have to acknowledge Him in all of this mess. He totally directed the paths we were on to intersect.”

Foster looked at his sister. He glanced at Mack. “I’m thinking I can see what your late wife meant. My wife and baby do not need me. They are in heaven with Christ. I need to be open to finding the one that needs me. I need to understand the tragedy that was with His understanding not mine.”

Most of the men around the circle did not know Foster’s story. Ryan glanced at his boss. “You were married? I thought you were in college.”

Foster nodded. “I was married and the sheriff of a little town outside of San Antonio.”

Elam and Jasper were aware of the story. Their boss had confided in them. Daniel was not privy to what happened during his boss’s time away from them. He looked at Foster. “How did they die?”

Foster took a deep breath. Those that knew the story only knew a bit of it. He was ready to tell them all of it. “There were three men that just seemed bent on causing trouble. If I was not locking them up for fighting in the saloon, I was locking them up for fighting on the streets. They seemed bent on doing the wrong things. There was a murder, and I arrested one of the local ranchers for killing the saloon girl. He hired those three to send me a message.”

Dalia shivered as she watched the play of emotions on her brother’s face. She turned her face into her husband’s chest. Foster’s pain was hurting her. She needed to hide from it.

Foster swallowed hard. His thoughts carried him back to that tragic day. “Sandy was six months along when they found her alone. The leader of the group shot her. I made it there seconds after, but she was gone, and with her, my child.”

Mack closed his eyes. He tightened his arms around his wife. The thought of losing her and their child was overwhelming.

Foster finished his story. “My deputies and I arrested the three. They and the rancher were all hung on the same day. The town’s people threw rocks at them as they were led to the gallows. I told the three that were responsible for Sandy’s death that I forgave them. I let all four of the men know that Christ was waiting if they asked.”

Dalia looked at her brother. Tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks. She was touched by Foster’s kindness to those that had taken his family away. “Did any accept?”

Foster nodded. “The rancher and two of the men gave their lives to Christ. The one that actually shot Sandy didn’t accept Christ’s forgiveness as far as I know. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. It was even harder than burying the love of my life in a cold grave. To look at those men and forgive them and then share the plan of salvation made me shake. I have not regretted obeying Christ on it at all, but it was still hard.”

Mack felt the tears soak through his shirt as Dalia buried her face against him. He kissed the top of her head. “It is a beautiful story that comes from heartbreak. Try to look at the redeemed souls.”

Dalia nodded against his chest. She sniffled softly. “I do love you. I would hope I could be just as obedient if that happened to you.”

Mack hoped neither of them had to find out if they could obey God through such a horrible calamity. He was ready for bed. He was ready to hold his wife close and sleep with her by his side through the night.

The group talked for a few more minutes. Mack stood with Dalia in his arms and looked at Foster. “Thank you for telling us.”

Foster nodded. “Thank you for listening. I needed to tell all of it.”

 

Chapter Thirty

 

They were finally in Abilene. Dalia sat in the hotel room and waited for her husband and brother to return. She had bathed and eaten. She yawned delicately. A part of her missed being with everyone else. A bigger part was actually quite pleased that she had time to herself.

A knock sounded on the door. She almost went to answer it, but something made her stop. She waited to see what would happen.

“No…” She whispered softly as she heard someone trying to turn the knob. She glanced around the room trying to find a place to hide.

Cursing started on the other side of the door. Dalia opened the window. She breathed a sigh of relief. There was a porch. She opened the window and slipped out closing it quietly behind her. She huddled in the shadows against the side of the wall as she heard the door to the hotel room open hard against the wall.

Dalia listened to the men argue. It appeared one was furious that she was not there. They were worried. One insisted that Mack would figure out they were after his woman. She frowned. Even though no one would hear her, she spoke. “I do have a name ‘his woman’ indeed.”

As the men started destroying the room, Dalia shuddered. They were supposed to take her back to her mother. As they continued to talk Dalia started to whimper. She closed her eyes. Now was not the time to panic. She wished they would leave already.

“Alright, Dalia, it is time to think. You can’t just go back in there. You can’t start wailing like you want to do either.” Taking a deep breath, she looked around. She was hidden in the shadows, so she didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing her unless she wanted them too.

Looking down she saw her husband, he was heading into a mercantile to get some supplies. Troy and Uncle Charlie were with him. She knew they still had a few hours of work to do. If she could get down and get to him, she would be safe.

Dalia slowly made her way toward the side of the porch. She was careful to look for weak boards. The last thing she wanted to do was fall through a porch roof and get hurt.

She breathed a sigh of relief. She continued to talk to herself. “Alright, Dalia, you made it to the side. Now just take a little look over the edge.”

Dalia laid flat and peeped over the side. She saw a few people standing around. She leaned back against the wall. “I don’t know what they look like.” She whispered to herself. She closed her eyes. She had to wait until the area was clear. If she had gotten a look at the men, she could have determined if it was safe but she hadn’t.

“Dalia, you need to be patient. I know you want to rush down there, but you need to wait.” The woman started giving herself a pep talk again. She knew if she panicked she would make a mistake. That mistake could cost not only her but her unborn child their lives. She put her hand protectively over her tummy.

“Please come back.” She whispered softly. The tight control she had on her emotions was slipping. “I need you to come back now, Mack.”

Dalia sat looking at the mercantile. She was desperate for Mack to come out. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw him. “Look up… Please, Mack look up…”

Mack started back down the walkway. Dalia’s shoulders slumped as tears started to form in her eyes. They straightened again when he turned. She eased out of the shadows. “Please see me.” When he took off running her way she cried softly. “He sees me.”

Dalia eased her way back over to the window. Her tears were now running unchecked down her face. She waited for her husband to open the window. When he did, she took his hand.

Mack spoke to his wife gently. “I’m here. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have left you alone. Please tell me you’re ok.”

Dalia was shaking so hard her teeth were chattering. She sobbed against her husband. “I was so scared. I was strong until I didn’t have to be. If they had opened the window…”

Mack rubbed her back. He looked up as Troy and Charlie made it to the room. His voice shook as he spoke to Charlie. “Can you see to the supplies? I need to get her to another hotel. We can’t stay here.”

Charlie nodded. “I’ll get them together. You watch her.”

Troy looked at Mack. “Once you two are settled in a new hotel, I’ll go get Lamar, Alvin, and Grady.”

Mack kissed the top of his wife’s head. “I can’t believe I left her. What was I thinking?”

Troy didn’t let Mack beat himself up. “We all thought she was safe. We all left her.”

Dalia looked up at Troy. She heard the voices behind him and shuddered. “That’s them.”

Troy nodded and slipped out. He could hear the two arguing. It appeared they had stayed close to see if they could catch her alone. He saw Lamar and nodded at the two.

Lamar smiled as the two men started for the door. He stood his ground refusing to get out of their way. “Are you boys looking for something?”

The two men looked up. The one’s eyes widened as he saw the drawn gun in Lamar’s hand. They turned and stopped as they noticed Troy. His gun was drawn as well.

Troy spoke deceptively soft. “I’m thinking you boys have some information we would be interested in hearing. I hope you both are feeling chatty.”

Grady and Foster walked into the building. They had heard from Charlie what was going on. Foster spoke. “I suggest we all sit and you two start at the beginning. I’m dying to know what it is you two boys wanted with my little sister.”

The bigger of the two glanced at the other. He looked back at Foster. The confusion on his face was genuine. “We must have gotten the wrong room. We are here to take a woman back to her mother.”

Foster sat while Grady, Troy, and Lamar continued to stand. “What is the name of the woman who sent you?”

The big man spoke again. “Mable Stewart… She told us that her daughter ran away and got married without her permission. She is paying us to bring her back.”

Foster shook his head. He swallowed the bile in his throat. He glanced up at the two. “Is she here?”

The other man spoke now. “No sir, she is back in Dallas.”

Foster looked at the men. His voice was soft. “My sister didn’t run away. Mable is my mother, not hers. She sent you to get her so she could kill her. If I’m right, you two would have been left holding the blame. You’re blessed that you failed. She would have let you both hang.”

The big man sat back in his chair. He regarded Foster. “I’m not following.”

Foster looked up at the men. “My sister was born to another woman. We share the same dad. We do not share the same mom. Mable is not Dalia’s mom. It is Dalia you are after? Am I right?”

The two men looked at each other. It was evident that they were after his sister.

Foster spoke softly. “I’ll pay you whatever she was going to if it means you will leave her alone. My sister is married to Mack Shore. He’s an upstanding rancher from outside of Dallas. They are happy, and I mean to keep it that way.”

Troy spoke now. “And they are having a baby. If you had taken her, you would have caused two deaths.”

The bigger man glanced behind Foster. His eyes widened as he watched Mack come down the stairs. He watched as the woman started to back away in fear. When her eyes met his, he felt shame.

Foster took a deep breath. Half of the crew was now in the lobby. They all had one thing in mind. Protect Dalia. He gave the men an explanation they didn’t deserve. “When she was five, my mom almost killed her. She hates Dalia. You would not have been taking a daughter back to her mother. You would have been taking my sister to her death.”

Mack left Dalia with Bart. He walked toward the table. He looked at the men and then glanced at Foster. “Why?”

The shorter man looked up at Mack. “We thought we were helping.” He looked at Foster. “You can keep your money.”

The bigger man agreed. “I won’t take blood money. It was one thing to be returning a daughter to her loving mother. It is a different thing causing someone’s death.”

Troy looked at the two. “Will you tell us where she is? We have to make sure she stays away from Dalia.”

The two men gave Foster and Mack all the information they could on where Mable was staying. The each gave Dalia one last look before leaving the hotel with two of Dalia’s protectors.

Dalia watched the men leave with Troy and Lamar. She closed her eyes as Mack pulled her into his arms. Her voice was soft. “I need those wings like eagles. Mack, I’m weary.”

Mack held her close. “I’m so sorry I left you.”

Foster helped get the two to a different hotel. He then went to meet up with the others. If they knew where Mable was, it would help keep Dalia safe. It was a long shot Foster knew his mother was smart. She wouldn’t have given the two men her actual place of residence. But right now, it was the only shot they had. Foster was willing to try.

 

Chapter Thirty-One

 

Dalia woke up screaming. It had been two weeks since the men had tried to take her. It had been two weeks since the nightmares started.

Mack pulled his wife into his arms. She fought for only a moment before she woke up. He did his best to soothe her. “I’m here. No one is going to get you.”

Dalia whimpered against her husband’s chest. She tried to block the terror from her mind.

Mack closed his eyes and prayed his wife would open up to him. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Dalia shook her head. She calmed as Mack held her close, but Dalia did not want to talk.

It had been a little over a week since they had left Abilene. They had seen a doctor while they were there. Everything looked great with Dalia and the baby physically. Dalia mentally, however, was having issues calming her mind. Mack’s voice was a gentle whisper. “Dalia, you have to start talking. It will help.”

Dalia knew her husband was right she just couldn’t seem to bring herself to deal with the thoughts that raced through her mind. Her biggest fear was now for another. Her biggest fear was for the innocent child growing inside her. What if Mable’s hate extended to her baby? If Mable did eventually get to her, who would protect her child once he or she was born? Dalia knew what Mable did to children. She shuddered at the thought of her child in the woman’s clutches. The images in Dalia’s mind were distressing on a level she had never experienced.

Mack kissed the side of his wife’s head. He turned her to face him. He took a deep breath as he was once again hit with the force of her beautiful, sad brown eyes. “Please trust me. I want to help. Talk to me, Dalia.”

Dalia touched her husband’s stubbly cheek. His kind blue eyes were begging her to open up. She nibbled her bottom lip.

A part of Mack was hopeful that this time Dalia would talk. Her habit was to think while she worked her bottom lip in her teeth. He prayed seeing her do that was a good sign.

“She used to drag me around by my hair. She wouldn’t slap me because that would leave marks. She would pick me up off of my feet and watch me cry in pain. I would try to pry her fingers open, but she always had my hair wrapped around her hand.” Dalia went back to nibbling on her bottom lip. She wanted to stop talking, but Mack’s eyes were begging her not to.

Mack gently kissed his wife’s forehead. He whispered softly. “Please, I want to know.”

“What if she gets me, but it’s after I have our baby? What if she hates our child and harms him or her? I’m scared, Mack. I’m more afraid of her than I was of Nash. I can’t seem to get my fear in check. I am praying all day long about it. Mable isn’t going to let me run any more than Nash did. When is God going to stop this mess? I’m tired. I feel like I just can’t do it anymore.” Dalia knew she sounded faithless. She also knew she had to be honest with her husband. She was mentally exhausted, and that was causing her to become physically exhausted.

Mack was not surprised when Dalia talked about Mable’s treatment of her. Charlie had confided in Mack what Dalia had told him. Mack knew it was time for him to stop pretending he was rock steady. It was time for him to open up and be honest too. Dalia wasn’t the only one living in fear. “I’m scared too. I’m terrified that I will be unable to keep you safe. My thoughts have even gone down the same path as yours. The thought of Mable and our child chills me to the core. I had even thought of selling my ranch and moving, but like you said I’m sure that won’t stop her. You aren’t alone in this. We are weary let’s ask God to give us rest. Let’s ask Him for some eagle’s wings and let’s do it together as husband and wife. He is faithful even when we are finding it hard to trust.”

Dalia wrapped her arms around her husband’s waist. She was surprised that Mack felt afraid as well. She knew he was concerned, but the idea of him being afraid had not crossed her mind. She suddenly didn’t feel so alone in her tormented thoughts. She listened to her husband as he talked to God.

Mack prayed as he continued to hold his wife close. “Father we first want to thank You for always being in control. Forgive me for being afraid. I pray that you will ease my mind and give it rest. I pray that you will do the same or my wife. Thank You for this woman that You have given me. Father, I’m feeling at a loss right now on how to keep her safe. Please guide me. Help me to listen to Your voice in this. Thank you for the gift we have yet to hold. I love you Father, and I seek to do Your will. I pray this in Christ name. Amen.”

Dalia whispered her prayer softly after her husband finished. “Jesus, I ask that you give my mind and heart rest. Please hold my husband and I through this. Help us. Forgive me my faithlessness. Help me to remember that You are in control and not a hair on my head can be harmed unless You allow it. Thank You for Mack. Thank You for the husband he is. Help me to follow his lead. Help me to trust him because he is the one you chose for me to trust. I love you. I want to serve you. Give us rest I pray. In Jesus’s name…Amen.”

Mack gently kissed his wife’s brow. He suddenly felt quite drowsy. “Let’s try to sleep.”

Dalia nodded and closed her weary eyes as a peace she had not felt in weeks settled over her. “Let’s sleep.”

 

Foster looked at the wagon. He glanced at Charlie. “I say we wait for them to wake up. I heard Dalia twice in the night. Considering they have yet to sleep the entire night since she had to crawl onto the porch roof, they have to be exhausted.”

Charlie agreed. He glanced at Albert. “You think the boss will be ok with it?”

Albert nodded. “We are making good time. I don’t see an issue. I agree with Foster. They need some sleep.”

Troy, Grady, Lamar, and Alvin had taken shifts through the night. The four were relaxed on the ground.

Grady yawned as he got comfortable. “I’ll just take a little snooze too.”

Foster chuckled as the other three got comfortable. He looked at Albert. “I guess it’s a good thing we have some shade to work with. Are we still stopping so Dalia can see Aquene?”

Albert nodded. “That is the plan. I think your sister could use a motherly touch right now.”

Foster had to agree. He yawned. “I guess we can all get a little snooze time in.”

Bart and Greg stayed by the wagon as the others either snoozed or chatted. Bart glanced at Greg. “I slept through it all last night. Did you hear her?”

Greg laughed. “Once I close my eyes I’m gone. I didn’t hear a thing.”

Bart and Greg sat down on one of the logs and chatted. They both agreed it would be nice once Mable was caught and dealt with. It bothered them both to see Dalia and Mack worried. As noon neared, Charlie started lunch.

Hearing a sound, Greg looked back at the wagon. A smile stretched across his face as he greeted his boss and Dalia. “How was your sleep?”

Mack got out and then helped his wife out. “It was fortifying. We were spent.”

Dalia nodded before she took the offered biscuit from her uncle. She didn’t talk until she had nibbled it. “We were both exhausted. Thanks for letting us sleep in. It was appreciated.”

Charlie spoke from behind them. “I figure we can eat some lunch and then head out.”

Mack nodded. “That sounds like a great idea.”

Dalia walked with her husband to the water’s edge. She cleaned her teeth and washed her face. She spoke softly. “I’m rested. I guess we should have talked and prayed sooner.”

Mack finished cleaning his teeth. He leaned down and kissed her softly. “I guess we can look at this as a lesson learned.”

Dalia sighed against his lips. “I guess we can. I love you.”

Mack whispered his love for her as he held her close. He knew they needed to seek God as one. Their fear was justified, but it didn’t have to rule them. Letting it do that had been a sin. It was time for them to lean on Christ for rest. It was time for them to understand that His will and timing was perfect.

 

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

Dalia leaned against Mack. They were finally home. It had taken them almost five weeks since they had taken the time to stop and visit Aquene. She watched as a few of the ranch hands she had not met walked toward them. She was suddenly quite nervous.

Mack chuckled as Dalia’s bottom lip went into her mouth. He leaned down and whispered softly. “It will be ok. You don’t have to eat your lip off.”

Dalia nodded as she continued to lean against him. When he stopped the wagon, she glanced up at her husband.

Mack leaned down and kissed his wife. He knew she was worried. He also knew she needed to work this one out in her mind. “They will like you.”

When Mack helped Dalia down, she tried to stay behind him. He was having none of it. Mack pulled his wife to the side of him. He shook his head as he spoke to her. “Dalia, trust me.”

Dalia knew she was not being fair to her husband. He had already proven that he was able to protect and lead her. She looked up and touched his face. “I’m sorry.”

Mack covered her hand that was on his cheek. “I forgive you. I know this isn’t easy.”

Dalia watched Bart, Troy, and Grady walk toward them. She chuckled as Bart elbowed Grady. “They really do fit with our group. Don’t they?”

Mack followed her gaze. He chuckled as the men tormented each other. “They do.”

Dalia watched as the men she saw when they first got there stopped in front of them. She noticed their curious looks but could not sense anything malicious. Dalia allowed herself to relax.

Mack spoke to the men in front of him. “Richard and Lyle, I would like you to meet my wife, Dalia. Dalia this is Richard and Lyle.”

Richard looked at Mack surprised. “Your wife?”

Mack nodded. He watched as Brett and Thomas started to walk their way. “It is a long story.”

Dalia trembled unsure as the men extend their hands in welcome. She accepted their gesture of kindness. Her voice was soft. “It is nice to meet you both.”

Brett looked at Thomas and then back at Dalia. Mack could see that the two recognized her.

Thomas chuckled as he greeted them. “Ronnie, I’m thinking you have some explaining to do.”

Mack watched Dalia pretend she was not yawning. He frowned at her. “I thought you were not tired.”

Dalia put her hands on her hips and frowned back. Their audience was forgotten. “I wasn’t when you asked me. It does kind of sneak up on me.”

Bart and Greg were now in the group. Greg gave his opinion. “You need to take care of yourself.”

Dalia turned and glared at Greg. “I do take care of myself. You men need to stop nagging. The second I yawn everyone suggests a nap.”

Bart shook his head. “We are just worried. You are in a delicate condition and such.”

Lyle glanced at Mack. “Is she sick?”

Mack shook his head. He smiled as his wife continued to frown at Greg. He knew in a moment her mood would change. He hoped it was not tears. He really hated seeing her cry. “She is not sick.”

Dalia suddenly realized she was sounding like a shrew. She was immediately contrite. “I’m sorry, Greg, I should not have been mean to you.”

Greg grinned. “I understand.”

Thomas and Brett were lost. They had not been there when Mack had called Dalia his wife. Brett looked at Greg. “You do? I sure don’t.”

Greg was getting ready to speak when the sound of horses drew their attention.

The crew that had been at the ranch watched in surprise as Mack, Greg, Bart, and a man they didn’t know surrounded Dalia. Their guns were drawn.

Thomas and Brett drew theirs as well. Lyle spoke as he pulled his gun out. “Are we expecting trouble?”

Mack visibly relaxed as Foster, Alvin, Lamar, and Ethan rode into the ranch yard. He glanced at ranch hands that had not been on the drive. “Yes, we are expecting trouble.”

Charlie, James, Seth, and Marty had finished emptying the first wagon. They joined the group and waited for Foster and the other three to join them.

Mack looked at Dalia. “Why don’t you go in and rest?”

Dalia shook her head. “I want to know.”

Mack folded his arms across his chest. “I want you to wait.”

Charlie frowned at Dalia. “Go do as your husband says now before I cuff you.”

Dalia kissed Charlie’s cheek. “Uncle Charlie you won’t hit me.”

Thomas and Brett looked at Mack. “You’re married?”

Dalia tried to hide her yawn. “Please let me stay. You know I can’t sleep if I’m worried.”

Mack gave in. He pulled her to stand in front of him. He rested his chin on top of her head as Foster made his way to them. “Yes, I’m married.”

Foster glanced at Dalia. “Do you need a nap?”

Dalia shook her head. “I’m fine. I really wished you all would stop telling me I’m tired.”

Thomas glanced at Bart. “She has a point.”

Bart watched Mack put his hand on his wife’s abdomen. “She’s pregnant.”

Foster spoke. “Danny, Darrel, Scott, and Zach are guarding a few men we caught on your land. It could be innocent.”

Mack nodded. He knew Foster had experience with outlaws. “Your gut…?”

Foster glanced at Dalia. “They are here for my sister.”

Charlie looked at Mack. “Why don’t you take her inside? Foster and I will tell these men what is going on.”

Dalia stifled another yawn. She smiled when Mack picked her up. “I can walk.”

Mack chuckled. “I know. Humor me.” He knew she was afraid. He could feel her trembling. He knew her effort to not cry would come to an end the second they were alone.

The group watched them go inside. Brett looked at Foster. “What is going on?”

Foster started from the beginning. He gauged the reaction of the four men when he explained exactly who Dalia’s mother was. He was pleased it didn’t seem to make a difference. He went on to tell them her full name.

Richard smiled. “She didn’t lie.”

Bart shook his head. “No, she didn’t. She is a Christian like the boss.”

Brett was glad to hear that. He had grown up with Mack. When Mack was on the drives, Brett was in charge of the ranch. He did have one question. “I’m not trying to sound judgmental but…”

Foster took a guess at what Brett was worried about. “They didn’t compromise. They were married less than a week after the drive started.”

Charlie spoke too. “She was pure as the day she was born. I explained things to her.”

Greg and Bart busted out laughing. Bart spoke. “She looked terrified after you were done.”

Charlie frowned at the man. “I did the best I could.”

Greg started snorting as he spoke through his laughter. “She actually asked Mack if his first wife enjoyed being married. You confused her.”

Brett was relieved to hear what the men were saying. He looked at Foster. “How do we keep her and the baby safe?”

Foster said what everyone knew. “She has to make a move. Right now, it is our word against hers. The sheriff is aware of the danger, but his hands are tied.”

Brett listened as they explained all that had happened on the trail. He shook his head at the thought of Dalia being out on a roof to escape. He looked at Lyle, Richard, and Thomas and knew they were just as willing as he was to help. They knew there was a ranch to run, but they all realized that now was the time to protect Dalia from her stepmom’s vile plan.

 

Chapter Thirty-Three

 

Troy smiled as he took the basket of clothes from Dalia. “I can help.”

Dalia shook her head. “I can do it myself. Troy, you baby me. I’m putting my foot down this time.”

Troy glanced at Lamar as he finished filling the washing tub. “We like to help. It is no problem.”

Dalia rolled her eyes. “You two are as bad as Mack. You do realize there is an entire world of women that do this very thing. And guess what? Some of them are pregnant too.”

Lamar chuckled. A movement toward the woods caught his eye. He whistled and nodded at Grady and Raymond. He watched the two men go. “Maybe you should go inside for a few minutes.”

Dalia didn’t argue with him. She put her hand on her abdomen as tears filled her eyes. Dalia was ready for this nightmare to end.

Troy spoke to her gently. “I know you don’t understand why she is doing this. I don’t think any of us do. We’ll protect you and your baby.”

A shot was fired and that was enough to get the gunmen moving. Lamar picked Dalia up as Troy bound up the steps and opened the door.

Dalia heard another shot. She glanced up at Lamar as he put her on the sofa. Her anguish could be read on her face when she spoke. “I’ll never forgive myself if something happens to them.”

Lamar watched Troy bolt the door. He glanced back down at Dalia. “We made a choice to stay here and keep you safe.”

Dalia pulled her knees up to her chest. She closed her eyes and prayed while a few more shots were fired. ‘Keep them safe. Please, Jesus keep them safe.’

Troy unbolted the door. He stood aside as Mack walked in followed by Raymond and Grady.

Dalia looked up. She didn’t wait for her husband to come to her. Standing, she walked over and stood in front of him. Her eyes silently questioned him about what was going on.

Mack knew he had to tell her what happened. He picked her up and walked over to the sofa. He sat and settled her on his lap as he tried to find the words.

Dalia folded her hands tightly in front of her and waited. She was happy that Raymond and Grady were fine, but she knew what she had heard. Someone wasn’t fine.

Mack’s voice was soft. “She sent two more.”

Dalia swallowed hard knowing that someone was dead. She nodded letting him know she heard him.

Mack pulled her close. “Honey they are making the choice to come here. If they draw, we have to protect ourselves.”

Dalia looked up at Grady and Raymond. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I’m sorry you had to do that.”

Grady shook his head. “This is not your fault. They are choosing to work for Mable. This is her fault. Her hate has no reason. It just is.”

Dalia knew that she still had work to do. She also knew that thinking about this was making her afraid again. She looked at her husband. “Can I go finish my work?”

Mack nodded. “You can. Dalia, I know you don’t want to deal with this, but you have to. I get that it will have to be in your way, but you have to acknowledge that this is not your fault. These men came here with the sole intent of taking you to your death. You can’t ignore that.”

Dalia leaned away from her husband. She looked up at him. “I know. It doesn’t make it easier to know they are gone. They now face eternity. I don’t like knowing that. The idea of any human facing eternity without Christ hurts me.”

Mack touched her face. “Every day people die and face eternity. It is between them and God now. Their choices were ones they decided to die with.”

Dalia knew he was right. She took a deep breath before she spoke again. “I’ll think about what you are saying. I promise.”

Mack helped his wife off his lap. He pulled her close for a quick kiss. He whispered his love to her softly before letting her go. He nodded at Lamar and Troy as they went with her outside.

Grady glanced at Mack. “We have been here two weeks. This is only the first attempt. When she runs out of money to pay for the hired killers, she will have to come herself.”

Mack leaned forward and put his forearms on his knees. He looked up at the man he now considered a friend. “She won’t give us a choice. I wanted to believe she would give it up, but I can see it was wishful thinking. She will force us to take her life.”

Grady had to agree with his boss. “She will force us to protect Dalia.”

Mack took a deep breath. “What a mess.”

Grady watched Mack stand up. “It is that. All we can do is pray for peace and protection.”

Mack started for the front door. He glanced at Grady. “I guess if prayer is all we have it is the best weapon we have in our arsenal.”

Grady followed Mack outside. “You can count on it.”

Mack kissed his wife once more before getting back on his horse. He glanced back once before joining the other men working the ranch.

Dalia looked at Lamar. Her eyes held the sadness she felt. “I guess life goes on.”

Lamar gave her a sympathetic look. “It does.”

Grady watched Dalia start washing the clothes she had brought out. The men did their own, and she did her and Mack’s. He looked at Troy. “I wish this would end. I’m ready to learn ranching.”

Troy agreed. “This needs to end. The stress is getting to her. It can’t be good for the baby.”

Grady glanced at Raymond. “If you want to get some shuteye go ahead. You and I have the night guard.”

Raymond nodded and headed toward the bunkhouse. He looked around once before going inside.

Grady looked at Troy. “You have this?”

Troy nodded. “Scott will be back later to sleep. He will watch the parameter until there are more of the men back here.”

Lamar watched Grady head to the bunkhouse.

Dalia knew she had another hour of work. She tried not to yawn. When she did, she frowned at Lamar. “Don’t even say it. I have to finish this. I’m almost done.”

Lamar laughed. “I understand.”

Dalia started humming as she washed and rinsed her clothes. When she was finished, she watched Lamar take the basket of wet clothes to the line. “Thank you. Lamar?”

Lamar glanced down at her before he turned his attention back to the tree line. “Yes.”

“I’m sad that you all have had to make choices to keep me safe. I want you to know I am grateful.” Her voice was soft as she started to hang the clothes on the line.

Lamar nodded. “I know you have forgiven us. My hope is that one of these guys does not draw his gun. I would love for one of them to see you as we do now. You are more welcome than you know. Your forgiveness has changed all of our lives.”

Dalia didn’t know what to do with the compliment he had just given her. She knew he realized her struggle when he grinned and walked toward the edge of the porch. Dalia continued to work while she hummed. She finished hanging the last of their clothes before turning to go into the house. She didn’t have to look. She knew Lamar was behind her.

Lamar looked at Troy. “Outside or inside…?”

Troy leaned against the porch railing. “I’ll stay here for now.”

Dalia stirred the stew she had made earlier. She knew the longer it simmered, the tastier it would be. She yawned once more before heading back to her and Mack’s room. It was time for a nap. It was time for her to fall asleep talking to her Father. As hard as this was Dalia did have a peace that passed human understanding. She had a Father in heaven that loved her more than she could have ever imagined.

 

Chapter Thirty-Four

 

Dalia sat on the side of the bed and grimaced. She nibbled her lip in frustration. Her face showed her emotions.

Mack watched his wife as she started getting dressed. He chuckled at the look on her face. “Is it that bad?”

Dalia stood and turned. “My body is changing. This is too tight. It isn’t proper.”

Mack had seen the changes. It had been two weeks since an attempt had been made to take his wife. It was now the end of July and Dalia’s condition was evident. “Why don’t you grab your shawl? We can go into town and grab you some dresses.”

Dalia frowned. “I can make my own dresses. It is July. I’ll look silly with my shawl.”

Mack chuckled as he sat beside her. He pulled her onto his lap. “I’m sure you can make your own dresses. I, however, can buy you some. It will save you some time.” His voice softened a little. “It will also give me a chance to take care of you. I guess you could try a looser dress if you don’t want the shawl but I really want to do this.”

Dalia closed her eyes. She loved cuddling. She giggled as he covered her tummy with his hand. She covered his hand with hers and sighed. “I’m happy. I know things are tense right now, but Mack, I am so happy to be yours. I’m happy to be having a baby.”

Mack kissed the top of her head. “I’m a man in love. I love cherishing you and making you happy. It makes me a content man.”

Dalia spoke softly. “Mack, it is hard for me to let you take care of me. I do want to go to town but… I guess I’m not sure how this works. This life with you is something I never even dreamed of.”

Mack knew Dalia hated asking for anything. It was still obvious to Mack that she underestimated her worth. “I want you to make a list of everything you need. I also want you to make a list of the things we need. Then I want you to put something on the list you don’t need but would love to have.”

Dalia nibbled her bottom lip again. When her husband’s thumb pulled it away from her teeth, she leaned away from his chest and looked up at him. “Mack…”

Mack leaned down and kissed his wife. He deepened the kiss slightly wanting to cherish her. He whispered softly against her lips. “Please let me love you this way. Let me take care of you. I know you don’t understand it, but I do. Trust me.”

Dalia knew he was trying to show her something new. She took a deep breath. “I guess I should see if I have a dress that fits better.”

Mack grinned as she eased off his lap. “I am really getting the hang of this negotiating. I’m getting to be an expert.”

Dalia giggled. “You are very good at it. I will have to stay difficult, so I can enjoy your skills.”

Mack swatted her butt before he left the room. His happy whistle followed him out.

 

Troy, Grady, Raymond, and Scott were the four that went with the couple. Troy was going to protest until Mack explained to him the problem. The four were alert as they made the hour and a half journey into Dallas.

Mack felt his wife tense as they entered the main street and headed toward the mercantile. He knew she was worried about what the people there would think. He almost told her she would be fine because she was with him. He changed his mind. She would be fine because she was a wonderful human. “You are so sweet and honest. If anyone chooses not to see that, it is their problem not yours. They are denying themselves a beautiful glimpse into a beautiful soul.”

Dalia relaxed against her husband. His words had been lovely. She looked at him and smiled. “I’m so glad you took the time to look. Thank you for saying those words. Thank you for believing them even when I don’t.”

Mack stopped the team in front of the building. He held out his hand. “I’m ready for your list.”

Dalia hesitantly handed it to him. She watched him read it. When he glanced down at her, she grinned. “I take it you see my want.”

Mack chuckled. “You really want that?”

Dalia nodded. “I really do.”

Mack’s laugh was loud. It drew curious stares. He leaned down and kissed his wife’s forehead. “You are full of surprises.”

Dalia giggled drawing more looks. “You thought I would ask for something practical. Didn’t you? I prayed before I did the list. I wanted to be honest.”

Mack helped his wife down. Those watching smiled as he held her a little longer than he needed to. “I guess we go in and get what we need and some gumdrops.”

Dalia felt the palm of his hand on the small of her back. She let him guide her inside the establishment. She became shy as a woman greeted her husband.

“Hello, Mack. It has been a while since we have seen you. I take it you had a successful drive.”

Mack smiled at Polly Greenwood. She was the youngest daughter of the store owners, Ben and May Greenwood. “Hello, Polly. We all made it back in one piece. You’re right, it was successful.” He glanced down at Dalia as he made the prober introductions. “I would like to introduce you to my wife. Polly this is Dalia. Dalia this is Polly. Her parents own the store.”

Polly smiled at Dalia warmly. “You are just adorable. I think you and I are going to be friends.”

Dalia swallowed the fear in her throat. She whispered softly. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Polly took Dalia’s hand. “What can I help you find?”

Dalia felt Mack nudge her. She reluctantly went with Polly. “I need to look at some new dresses.”

Polly stopped and looked at Dalia. “I can see you are shy but I promise I only bite my brothers and I have not done that in years.”

Dalia giggled. “You bite your brothers?”

Mack watched Polly work her magic. He grinned as Ben came to stand beside him. “Your daughter is great at helping people relax.”

Ben nodded. “I was not aware you were remarried. I heard you tell Polly.”

Mack watched Troy and Scott stand between Dalia and the door. He looked over at Ben. “We were married in April.”

Ben could see Mack was not going to elaborate. He decided to ask. “There are problems?”

Mack glanced at the man beside him. Ben and his family were part of Mack’s church. He had never had an issue trusting them but suddenly felt vulnerable on Dalia’s behalf.

Ben’s voice was soft. “I can’t pray if you don’t trust me.”

Mack heard Dalia’s giggle. He smiled. “Did you know Jared Stewart?”

Ben nodded. “I did. I was sorry he passed.”

“Dalia is his daughter.”

Ben nodded. “She is Abby Langer’s daughter as well. Was she pregnant when you married her?”

Mack swallowed his anger. His voice was soft but angry. “Is that what you think? Because her mother was a prostitute, she must be too?”

Dalia glanced at her husband. She looked at the man beside him and swallowed. The smile left her face. She felt her head spin. She tried to take a breath but couldn’t. She saw Mack coming toward her. Tears formed in her eyes.

Mack pulled his wife close. “I’m right here.”

Dalia trembled against her husband. Her voice was soft. “I told you. I’m sorry. I…”

Mack shook his head. “You have nothing to be sorry about.”

Ben spoke from beside Mack. “Your husband is right. I am the one who is sorry.”

Mack closed his eyes as he heard his wife’s soft reply.

“I forgive you.”

Ben looked at his daughter. “You finish helping Mrs. Shore. I’ll help Mack.”

Polly nodded. She was angry at her father’s behavior. She whispered softly. “You taught us better than that.”

Ben glanced at Polly. “I did.”

Dalia was ready to leave, but she knew it wasn’t time. She really did need clothes. She reluctantly left her husband’s safe embrace.

Troy stood beside Mack. “She is going to get tired soon. She doesn’t want to be here.”

Ben could see the anger on the other men’s faces. He spoke softly. “I am sorry. I’m a man that admits when he is wrong. I was wrong.”

Troy turned and regarded the man beside Mack. “You should be sorry.”

Dalia heard Troy’s tone. She could also see that Polly’s father was truly sorry. She left Polly’s side. “When we ask Christ to forgive us, He does. We then give that grace to others.”

Troy watched Dalia walk away. He rolled his eyes and looked at Mack. “Your wife is really good at making me feel guilty.”

Mack chuckled. “She speaks the truth.”

Troy looked at Ben. “All is forgiven.”

Ben accepted the forgiveness given him. He looked at Mack. “You are a very blessed man.”

Mack nodded. “Can I count on you when we come to church?”

Ben smiled. “It will not take long for others to see you’re a blessed man. May I tell the pastor?”

Mack looked at his friend. “You can tell him. The ranch work will slow down soon. We should be back in church when that happens.”

“Will you join us after for lunch like you used to?”

Mack grinned. “You may want to rethink that. We have quite a few ranch hands that love Jesus now. You will have a house full.”

Ben chuckled. “I take it she let her light shine?”

Mack nodded. “That she did.”

 

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

Troy and Lamar heard the team approaching. Troy glanced at Dalia. His voice didn’t allow for argument. “Go inside.”

Dalia started to listen. When she glanced up, she was surprised. “Is that…?”

Troy chuckled. He relaxed as he holstered his gun. “It looks like Polly.”

Lamar and Troy headed out to the wagon. Dalia was behind them. She was happy to see her new friend.

Polly was surprised when Troy helped her down. She smiled up into his face. “Thank you.”

Dalia peeked out from behind Lamar who was still in protection mode. “Is everything ok?”

Polly nodded. “Everything is fine. I have something for you. I just couldn’t wait to give it to you.”

Troy reached over Polly’s head and took out the wooden box she was trying to lift.

Polly smiled up at him. “Thank you.”

Troy winked at her. “Your welcome.”

Polly reached under the seat of her rig. “I have this too. My dad made sure to tell you that this is from him. He still feels bad about last week. My mom gave him a lot of grief about it.”

Dalia took the bag from her and peeked inside. She giggled. “Yummy…”

Polly grinned as they followed Troy into the house. “Wait till you see what my mom found. I’m so excited.”

Lamar looked at Troy. “I’ll stay out.”

Troy nodded as he put the box on the table. He was hoping Lamar would say that. He was curious about the box.

Polly took the burlap covering off the box. “Look inside.”

Dalia listened to her new friend. She looked at Polly surprised. “She wants me to have this?”

Polly nodded. “She had two made for my sister and I when we were little. They were made with our baby clothes. My sister died when she was ten.”

Dalia pulled the soft baby quilt out of the box. It was beautiful. She looked at Polly. “Why? I don’t know your mother. Why is she being so nice?”

Polly’s voice was soft. “You are my friend. She wants to show you that you are accepted. It’s her way of saying you’re safe with her.”

Dalia ran her fingers along the edge of the quilt. Happy tears filled her eyes at how thoughtful the gift was. “Thank you.”

Polly hugged Dalia. “You are welcome.”

Troy glanced at Dalia and Polly. “I’ll leave you, two ladies, alone.”

Dalia nodded. Her eyes were still on the quilt.

Polly smiled up at Troy. “Thank you for helping with the box. I appreciated it.”

Dalia watched Troy nod at Polly. She wiped a tear from her cheek as she looked at Polly. “I guess I’m a bit emotional.”

Polly giggled. “It’s ok. We women are allowed to be. I’ve been told it always happens when you’re expecting a baby.”

Dalia made tea and then put some biscuits on the table. When the tea was done, she put the kettle on the table and joined Polly in sitting. “I have a question for you.”

Polly sipped her tea. “Ok. I may have an answer.”

Dalia nibbled her bottom lip. She glanced up at her new friend. “Will the pastor be ok with me? He is coming tomorrow. I’m so nervous.”

Polly smiled. “You will like him. He is very nice. Now, I have a question for you?”

Dalia was surprised. “Ok.”

Polly leaned forward and whispered softly. “Is Troy a Christian?”

Dalia giggled as she realized her new friend was interested in one of her protectors. “He is.”

Polly nodded. Her voice stayed soft. “Now I have one more question.”

Dalia grinned and answered the question before Polly could ask it. “He does not have a girlfriend or wife.”

The door opened as soon as Dalia spoke. Troy peeked inside. “Are you two still ok?”

Dalia busted out laughing as Polly blushed red.

Troy raised an eyebrow. “I’m going to take that as a yes.” He shook his head as he went back outside.

Dalia grinned as the man closed the door. She looked at Polly. “I need to make lunch.”

Polly laughed. “I will help you.”

The two chatted as they worked side by side. Polly insisted that Dalia was now her sister. She also insisted that when they fought, they had to take turns winning. It was how sisters did things. When Polly noticed Dalia yawn, she stood. “I guess it is time for me to go.”

Dalia followed Polly outside. “Thanks for the visit. It was so fun.”

Polly hugged Dalia again. “You are welcome. I had fun.”

Troy spoke to Polly. “Did you come from town?”

Polly shook her head. “We own a house right between here and town. My parent’s rent the rooms above the store.”

Troy nodded. He was obviously relieved. He still had some concern though. “You should be careful right now when you come here.”

Polly smiled. “I was fine.”

Lamar and Dalia glanced at each other. Dalia spoke to Lamar softly. “Do you think they know they are still holding hands?”

“I don’t think they do.”

Troy looked at Polly again. “If it is ok with you, I would feel better taking you back home.”

Polly nodded. “If it makes you feel better I’m ok with that.”

Troy glanced at Lamar. “Are you ok?”

Lamar smiled. “I can handle it here.”

Dalia watched as Troy tied his horse to the back of the wagon. She grinned at her friend when he sat beside her and took the team’s reins from her. Dalia yawned delicately into her hand as the wagon left.

Lamar chuckled. “Go get some sleep. I’ll keep watch until Mack gets here.”

Dalia went to sleep with a smile on her face. The look on Troy’s face indicated he was just as interested in Polly as she was in him.

 

Chapter Thirty-Six

 

Dalia listened to Mack and Pastor Gill talk. Her hands trembled as she set the table. She glanced at the pastor’s wife. Tears stung her eyes as the woman looked away. Dalia knew when she wasn’t accepted.

Troy and Lamar watched the slight. Lamar had enough. His silence was over. What was happening ended now. “Pastor Gill?”

Mack could see the men were angry. He waited to see what would happen.

Gill looked at his wife. He was not happy with her. She had insisted on coming with him but refused to even talk to Mack’s wife. He glanced at Troy and Lamar. “Yes.”

Lamar looked at Lillian, the pastor’s wife before he continued. “Did Mack tell you the story of how we came to be with him?”

Gill shook his head. “I can’t say he has. Would you like to tell me?”

Lamar didn’t believe in tiptoeing. His words were blunt. “I sure would, Sir. We were trying to steal Dalia. Valentino Nash wanted her purity.” He looked pointedly at Lillian. “The man wanted to take her innocence. She ran from him.”

Dalia dropped the fork she was placing. She was done pretending. She walked to her husband seeking his comfort.

Lamar watched Dalia walk into her husband’s embrace. He looked at the pastor again. “We created a diversion so Nash could get her.”

Troy spoke softly. “And he did. Dalia was able to scream though. He beat her a bit, but Mack and his men were able to get to her.”

Lamar took over the story again. “His men caught Grady. When Grady spit on the ground close to Dalia, she looked at him and forgave him. She had a swollen face, bruises on her body and a bleeding mouth. Knowing he was not even sorry, she looked at him and gave him forgiveness. She showed him grace without being asked for it.”

Troy spoke again. “All three of us follow Christ now because she chose to show us grace. She chose to show us, Christ.”

Gill saw his wife’s tears. He spoke to her. “Lillian, do you have something to say?”

Dalia turned and looked at Lillian.

Lillian was hit with the full force of Dalia’s pain as she looked into her sad brown eyes. Her voice was soft. “I judged you. I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?”

Dalia nodded. Her voice was soft and pained. “I can, and I do.”

Mack knew his wife was hurt. The fact that Lillian was sorry did not erase her pain. He pulled her close and whispered softly. “It’s ok to cry. You don’t have to hide.”

Dalia nodded. She tried to take a breath but failed. Burying her head in Mack’s chest, she started sobbing.

Gill looked at his wife. He knew they would be talking later. There was so much to say about how Christ would have treated Dalia.

Dalia sniffled. She wiped her tears away. She looked at the couple. “How can the lost be saved if this is how other Christian’s are treated? How can my mom be saved? I didn’t do anything, but if I had done something, who would have been Jesus to me? He loves everyone, not just the saved.”

Lillian looked at Dalia. “I will be praying about your words. I have sinned against you and against God. I have been selective in sharing my faith. I truly am sorry for my actions.”

Dalia squeezed Mack’s hand assuring him she was ok now. She moved away from him. Her voice was still shaky, but she wanted to be graceful. “I guess we should put the stew and biscuits on the table.”

Lillian worked by her side. She was still very ashamed of her actions. She smiled at her. “So how did you and Mack end up married?”

Dalia made a face. “I didn’t want to get married. It was the only way to stay proper while keeping me safe. Mack made sure I understood that he wouldn’t make a mockery of the sanctity of marriage. Once we married, it was for life. I was terrified.”

Lillian was mortified. The thought of going to Gill without being in love was too much. Without thinking, the older woman took Dalia’s hand showing her she cared. “How did you calm down? That couldn’t have been easy for you.”

Dalia was now fully relaxed. “We started doing Bible verses the night before we were married. We showed each other what we had hidden in our hearts. It calmed me seeing who Mack was in Christ. Once we had talked about the Bible verse we each had picked, we prayed.”

Lillian shook her head. “Your faith was tested. It seems you have passed”

Dalia looked at the older woman. “It was tested. I’m glad it was though. I love my husband. God gave me a man that knows how to lead. I would follow him anywhere God asked me to.”

Lillian grimaced. “I could use a lesson on following. God gave me a great leader, and I have failed him.”

Gill winked at his wife. “We all make mistakes. I know I fall short many times.”

Mack watched Dalia interact with Lillian. He glanced at Lamar. “Thank you.”

Lamar grinned. “I had to let them know. To stay silent was not an option for me. Dalia is beautiful in her faith.”

The rest of meal was spent enjoying a comfortable fellowship. It was a time of healing for Dalia as she saw first-hand that hearts could change if she gave them a chance. She now knew that God wanted her to give this church a chance. She also knew it would be harder than a simple evening supper.

 

Chapter Thirty-Seven

 

Mable watched Dalia and her bodyguards go into the mercantile. She almost laughed when Mack walked by her. She would have to thank Dalia for the idea before she killed her.

She pushed away from the wall and walked toward the establishment. Her hand wrapped around the knife in her pocket. When she opened the door, it didn’t take her long to find the object of her hate. She slowly made her way toward Dalia without being too obvious.

Dalia waited for Polly. She looked at the man that had walked into the shop. She thought she heard a voice and turned. She turned back around.

Mable stopped. She frowned as Dalia seemed to get edgy. She glanced at the guards. One eyed her curiously the other a bit more intensely.

Dalia started to shake. She heard the voice again, but this time it was like it was in her ear. “Run!” She didn’t hesitate.

Mable stabbed at Dalia as she ran by her. She didn’t know how the little tart had known it was her. She smiled as she heard Dalia scream in pain. She became livid as she realized it was only her shoulder. Dalia and her brat would survive that. The sound that left her throat as she lunged for Dalia again sounded animalistic. Mable wanted Dalia dead.

Troy and Lamar’s guns were out. Troy pushed Dalia behind him as he aimed and shot. He watched in surprise as the hat came off the man’s head. He looked at Lamar. “I’m guessing this is Mable.”

Dalia glanced at the dead woman on the floor. She whimpered softly. “My brother’s mother…”

Polly rushed over to her friend. She stopped when she saw the knife. Blood was dripping off Dalia’s fingers. “Dalia look at me. Don’t look at her. Your baby needs you to look at me.”

Dalia nodded as she turned her gaze toward Polly. Her voice was soft. “Polly, my shoulder hurts.”

Polly nodded. “I know.”

Troy watched Mack run into the store. He nodded to the body on the floor. “She went for your wife.”

Mack glanced at Mable. He looked at his wife. “Dalia, Honey, can I pick you up?”

Dalia saw a crowd gathering. Tears stung her eyes. “Mack, my shoulder hurts. I think she hit me.”

Mack’s voice was gentle. “Let’s see if the doctor can help.”

Dalia cried out when her husband picked her up. “My shoulder… Please, Mack let me walk.”

Mack’s voice was hoarse. “Honey, you need to let me do this. I’m sorry.”

Troy watched as the crowd parted for Mack. He gave Polly a little nudge. “Go be with your friend.”

Polly sniffled. She wiped her tears. “I need to be strong for her.”

Troy nodded. When Polly still didn’t move, he spoke again. “It is ok. I’ll stay here.”

Polly shook her head as she started to sob. “The hate she had….” She leaned into Troy when his arms went around her.

 

Mack was unaware of the group of people that followed him. He glanced up as the door to the doctor’s office was opened for him. When the woman turned to leave, Mack spoke. “You won’t try to harm her?”

Abby turned. The tears that ran down her cheeks were not for show. “I…”

Mack nodded his head. “Come…”

Abby followed her son-in-law into the doctor’s office. She covered her mouth as Dalia started speak.

Dalia cried out as Mack moved her. “Please… It hurts. Mack, I’m scared.”

Mack followed the doctor back. When the nurse tried to keep Abby out, he spoke. “She is Dalia’s mother. Let her pass.”

Abby was surprised. She followed them back and watched Mack put Dalia on the table.

Dalia turned her head. She whispered softly. “She didn’t hit me, did she?”

Mack pushed the hair out of her face. “No love, she stabbed you.”

Dalia put her hand protectively over her unborn child. “The baby should be ok? Please, Mack tell me our baby will be ok.”

Doctor Sherman spoke to Dalia gently. “You baby will be just fine. We just need to take care of mommy right now.”

Abby sobbed as she watched her daughter protect her unborn child. She knew she was not worthy of this and turned to leave.

Dalia saw her mother. “Mamma, please don’t leave.”

Abby shook her head. “I shouldn’t be here.”

Dalia started to close her eyes. “You should. I meant it when I told you I love you. I haven’t forgotten. I still hear you crying in my mind.”

Abby nodded. She sat and watched the doctor work on Dalia. When he pulled the knife out, she rushed to her daughter’s side. Dalia’s scream of pain tore at her heart.

Dalia felt her mother’s hand on her forehead and relaxed at the gentle touch.

Mack glanced at Abby. “She forgave you.”

Abby swallowed hard. She looked at her daughter’s husband. “You love her?”

Mack looked into his wife’s now open eyes. “I love her very much.”

Abby touched her daughter’s face. “I’m sorry. It is all I know.”

Dalia shook her head. Her voice was soft. “It was all you knew. You will see something new now.”

Abby had her doubts. She tried not to, but now she had a little hope.

 

Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

Dalia stood beside her brother. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She felt Foster take her hand and leaned against him. Dalia had never wanted this for her brother. She was devastated on his behalf.

Foster knew Dalia was distressed that it had come to the death of his mother. He looked down at the box that held her body. He hurt but not as much as he could have. He knew if Dalia had been in the box he would have been shattered. He tugged her into his arms. His voice was gentle. “Dalia, she chose this road. I know it hurts. Please stop blaming yourself. She chose this path herself.”

Dalia closed her eyes. “I never understood the hate. Maybe she is with God. Maybe her mind was broken. I want to believe that, Foster.”

Foster wouldn’t judge that. He smiled at the thought that his mother was indeed with Christ. That like Dalia said, she had somehow been broken. “We can hope. Christ is compassionate.”

Dalia looked up at her brother as she wiped her tears away. “If He is all we have to hope in, it is enough.”

Mack knew Dalia spoke the truth. Though they could assume to know where Mable was, it really was in God’s hands. He stayed silent as he watched his wife and brother-in-law deal with the tragic death. He knew God would help them.

 

Foster watched Abby hesitate as she entered the room. He walked over to her. “Are you ok?”

Abby looked down at the ground as she answered. “I just wanted to tell you, I’m sorry for all of this.”

Foster looked at Dalia’s mom. “Abby, my dad made a choice to come to you. This is as much his fault as yours. I love my little sister. I thank you for giving her to my dad so he could raise her. I can’t imagine that was an easy thing to do. I don’t hold anything against you. There is nothing to be sorry for.”

Abby glanced up at the man in front of her surprised. “Thank you.”

Dalia and Mack watched Abby turn to go. Before they went back to the ranch, Dalia wanted to talk to her mother.

Abby turned as she felt someone touch her. She looked into the loving brown eyes of her daughter.

Dalia gestured to a row of chairs. She prayed her mother would hear her out. “Can we sit?”

Abby sat. She took a deep breath. “I know you probably don’t want me to be a part of your life….”

Dalia didn’t let Abby finish. “I want you to come and stay with us. I want you to stop crying at night. Most of all I want you to tell me your story. I love you.”

Abby shook her head. “Dalia, you can’t let me come.”

Dalia took her mom’s hand. She refused to take no for an answer. “How old were you? How? How did you end up at this place?”

Abby whispered softly. “Dalia, I can’t tell you that.”

Dalia’s voice was just as soft. “Yes, Mamma you can. This pain you have. It is time for it to end.”

Abby held her daughter’s hand tightly. “I was thirteen. My mom and dad had been killed in a fire. I came here to live with my uncle.”

Dalia watched Lillian sit beside her mother. She watched the woman take her mother’s other hand.

Lillian coaxed Abby to continue. “Did your uncle hurt you?”

Abby’s voice was soft. “He said he had enough mouths to feed. When the man came to take me away, I watched him give my uncle money.”

Dalia could see her mother was done. She spoke to her gently. “Please stay with us. You didn’t have a choice then. I know this town has given you very little after. But my husband and I are giving you one now. You don’t have to do this anymore.”

Lillian’s voice held conviction. “Our church stands with you and Dalia. She will not lose anything because of this. I know you are worried about her reputation.” Lillian stopped and smiled. “You are being a good mom. Let her be a good daughter to you. Let her and all of us love you.”

Abby shook her head. “I’m a terrible mother. I was going to give her to Nash.”

Dalia hugged her mother. When Abby reluctantly returned the embrace, Dalia whispered. “The past is behind us. I want this. I know you do too.”

The women sat silently for a few more minutes. As the people came in and out to offer Foster their sympathy, it became obvious to Abby that Dalia and Lillian didn’t care. They were sitting with her unashamed. Another sliver of hope made its’ way into her broken and battered heart.

Dalia could see her mom was thinking about accepting her offer. “I love you. Please, Momma, let me show you. My husband and I both want you to come. You’ll be able to see your grandchild come into this world.”

Lillian hugged Abby when she started to cry. “You are loved by God, Abby. He has seen your pain. Let Him show you that you are not forgotten.”

Abby had not felt loved since the death of her parents. The kindness and loved that flowed from the two women beside her was almost overwhelming. She didn’t understand the gift she was being offered. It frightened her. She started sobbing in frustration as her heart begged her to go with her daughter.

Dalia and Lillian held Abby close to them. As the years of hurt came out of her, they held her close. They never left her alone in the pain she was feeling. In those moments of mourning her past, Abby knew that she really was loved. She also knew she was ready to be loved.

 

Chapter Thirty-Nine

 

Dalia snuggled into her husband’s chest. It had been two months since Mable’s attack on her. Dalia’s mom was now living with them at the ranch and thriving. When she felt Mack rub her back, she giggled. “Did I wake you?”

Mack nuzzled the side of her neck making her giggles last longer. “No, I was awake. The baby kicked me.”

Dalia felt his hand go between them to her tummy. She smiled when the baby kicked Mack again. “I am going to be so happy to meet this little person. I never thought I would have this.”

Mack leaned down and kissed her gently. He whispered against her lips. “I’m glad I was able to meet this little person’s little mother. I love you. I’m a very blessed man.”

Dalia touched Mack’s face. “I really enjoyed falling for my boss. He really was as honorable as Uncle Charlie said.”

Mack turned his head to the side and kissed her hand. “I know your boss had a nice time falling for you.”

Dalia put her feet between her husband’s calves. She smiled when he rubbed his legs on them to warm them. He really did take great care of her. Her voice was soft. “Did you see my mom’s face at supper? Mack, I love watching her. She’s thriving here.”

Mack chuckled. “It was hard to miss. She was not quite sure what to make of Albert’s attention.”

Dalia grinned. “He used your idea. It seemed to work. She has come a long way in her walk with Christ. She had her verse ready.”

Mack’s voice was thoughtful. “I would not mind seeing them fall in love. Your mom is only thirty-six. It would be nice to see her find happiness. What her uncle did, it breaks my heart to think of any child being sold and used like that. She didn’t deserve that treatment.”

Dalia nodded against his chest. “She worries about being mistreated because of her past. I think Albert sees that. He is so gentle and patient with her.”

Mack continued to rub his wife’s back. He knew shortly she would fall back to sleep. It seemed to be her nightly ritual. She would wake up and talk. Without warning, she would fall back asleep like she was never awake. When her breathing became even, he knew she was resting again. He smiled as the baby again kicked against him.

Mack thought back to the night that Alice had passed away. The agony of losing her had almost consumed him. Her words, however, gave him a reason to keep going. Mack had never wanted to disrespect her memory by disrespecting her request. He was grateful he had listened to Alice’s wise words. Mack closed his eyes. His prayer was silent and from the heart. ‘Father you have given me so much. Thank you for helping me find the woman who needed me more. My heart truly runs over. Amen.’ Minutes later, Mack fell asleep holding the woman who he needed as much as she needed him.

Note from the Author

 

I hope you enjoyed the first book of the Brides of the Southwest Trilogy. I loved taking a shot at writing historical. If you enjoyed this book, don’t miss Foster’s journey as he finds the woman that needs him more. Coming in June of 2018, join Foster as he meets a young orphan that really does need him more. In the next book of this series, A Refuge for Her Heart, I will introduce you to another heart in need of more.

 

 

Other Books by Kay Edwards

 

Susquehanna Trilogy

A Prelude to A Dance

The Storm’s Journey

To Be Blessed

 

Crazy in Texas Series

A Time of Seasons

A Season of Secrets

A Season of Hiding

A Season of Justice

 

Felix Brothers Trilogy

Always Enough

A Heart’s Strength

A Beautiful Faith

 

Brides of the Southwest Trilogy

A Heart that Needs Him More

A Refuge for Her Heart (being released in June of 2018)

 

 


A Heart that Needs Him More

Mack Shore is no stranger to tragedy. Losing the love of his life had rocked his world. Living up to his late wife's request was even more difficult. He was supposed to find the woman that needed him more. Unknown to Mack, Dalia Stewart was that woman. Running from a danger that would follow, Dalia managed to get herself hired on to Mack's cattle drive north. Being a lone woman in the midst of men would not have been tolerated. Dalia did the only thing she could think of to ensure a place north. Dressing like a young street boy and showing Mack she could rope was easy. Pulling off her charade for the duration of the cattle drive would require a bit more cunning. As danger closes in, will Dalia trust Mack enough to tell him her secret? Find out as you get to know Mack and Dalia in the first book of Kay Edwards next series, Brides of the Southwest Trilogy.

  • ISBN: 9781370723973
  • Author: Kay Edwards
  • Published: 2017-09-30 03:35:18
  • Words: 61646
A Heart that Needs Him More A Heart that Needs Him More