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Untamed Heart

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Chapter 1

Dakota Territory


Ashley was an excellent horsewoman. However, riding at this breakneck speed in these impossibly deep snowdrifts was suicide. If she had any sense at all, she would be at home in front of the fireplace, but when had good sense ever prevailed? Her father had always scolded her about throwing caution to the wind, but she just couldn’t let Dante get away. If he was lost, then the ranch was lost as well. It was getting difficult to follow his trail because it was snowing so hard, his tracks were being covered almost as fast as he made them.

She knew he wasn’t too far ahead, so she apologized to her mare and spurred her on to go faster. She was vaguely aware of the trees flying by as they ran faster and faster, but just as she thought she was in the clear and might be able to find the stallion tonight after all, a low-hanging tree limb from out of nowhere slapped her soundly in the face. Ashley was knocked cleanly off her horse and hit the ground so hard that just the simple act of breathing seemed impossible. There must be something broken!

If everything was still intact, surely there wouldn’t be this much pain, however, a more pressing thought came to mind. Even if every bone in her body wasn’t broken, her horse was nowhere to be seen and it was getting dark. Any time spent out here in this snowstorm with no shelter and no way home would mean certain death. She didn’t know how long she had been lying there, unable to move with these thoughts swirling through her mind, when a warm, soothing, comforting feeling started to seep through her cold, sore, and impossibly stiff body. She was chilled to the bone, this feeling was definitely welcome. It felt wonderful. She would rest for just a little while and then be on her way. Yes, just a little nap…just a little…

She awoke with a vengeance! At least, she thought she was awake, she was very aware of pain like she had never felt before. She must be awake, this torturous pain rampaging through every pore couldn’t be a dream! Someone was surely whipping her with a cat-o-nine tails. The cold was returning, along with a stinging sensation and a painful prickling in her fingers and toes. Yes, it certainly felt like she was awake, but she couldn’t seem to open her eyes.

If this were a dream, it was definitely not a pleasant one and she was trying her best to get back to that warm cozy place she had just been jerked out of so cruelly, but something was preventing that from happening. The pain was becoming unbearable, she was struggling to get away from it when a deep soothing voice began to flow into her unconscious mind, making everything seem all right again, at least for the moment. As she started to relax and give in to that appealing voice, she finally managed to open her eyes only to find herself staring into the face of a stranger, a very large and very male stranger, and she was aghast to realize that every stitch of her clothing had been removed and replaced only by a threadbare blanket! She tried to stand, but her legs would not cooperate, completely buckling underneath her. She would have fallen face first onto the floor had the stranger not caught her against him, causing her to desperately clutch the blanket to keep from losing it altogether.

Finding herself in unfamiliar quarters with a strange man should probably have terrified her, but for some unknown reason she didn’t feel afraid at all. She was… intrigued instead. Being so close to him, she couldn’t help but notice how tall he was as he towered over her, with a woodsy, clean pine scent that emanated from his thick dark hair. She looked up to find him studying her with the most amazing bluish-gray eyes. They were fascinating, almost hypnotic. Ashley gathered her wits about her, as well as the blanket, and assured the man that she could stand on her own. It dawned on her what a precarious situation she found herself in, and decided that the best way to handle it would be from a position of strength. Appearing fragile and helpless would never do, she would not be easy pickings for some ruffian! She looked him straight in the eye, raised her chin defiantly, took a deep breath and informed him that she did not intend to be raped or murdered without taking a good bit of his hide in the bargain.

When he spoke, his voice was deep and smooth, but somewhat impudent.

“Ah-ha, a position of power, not wanting to appear weak and helpless. Good thinking, lass! However, strategy wise, you might want to consider another point of view perhaps, a man’s point of view. You see, miss, for some men, that just might come across as a challenge, after all, what man can resist a challenge?” He cocked his head. “Especially from someone as beautiful and desirable as yourself!” He looked sympathetic. “And as maddening as you may find it or as much as you might want to deny it, the male of the species will always be stronger. Sorry, no brag, just fact. Simply a fact of life, nothing more. So you see, in some situations, that tactic might not be the best way to go.” He shrugged. “Just something to think about.” At the real look of concern that crossed her face he added, “Oh, not for me, of course. No need for you to be worried. While I do admit to loving a challenge, as far as…uh…relations with your fair sex is concerned, you don’t have to fret, I’m not the kind to exert any force. Never had to.” He grinned. “Again, no brag, just fact. I much prefer my women willing and eager.”

She blushed crimson as she tried to dismiss the sensual feelings that his ruggedly handsome appearance, along with his crude words, were stirring in her. “Sir, really, I must protest. This conversation is quite improper!” The conversation was quite improper, but what she should be protesting was what those words were doing to her in response. If he knew how he affected her, she would be mortified!

He looked at her patiently as if she were a child, crossed his well-muscled arms across his chest and chuckled. “I’m sorry, ma’am. You’re right. I apologize and humbly beg your forgiveness for my deplorable behavior. The absence of feminine company for such a long stretch has made me forget my manners.”

He seemed anything but apologetic, and humble would be the very last word she would ever think of to describe this man. Instead of calming, his cocky attitude just succeeded in irritating her.

However, when he spoke again, it was if he were gentling a wild mustang. “As far as rape and murder are concerned, miss, you can trust me when I tell you, you are completely safe in my hands.”

Safe? As he looked at her, he could well visualize quite a few things he would love to be doing right at that moment with his hands, most of which she would not consider safe.

“And as for any improper activities, well I’m not planning any, leastwise not at the moment.” He added with a smirk, “I’m a bit tired for such goings on, for this morning at least. I had somewhat of a busy night last night.” His gray eyes were brimming with mischief.

Ashley looked at him with shock registering on her face, shock at more than the direction this unsavory conversation was headed. “Morning! How long have I been here, and where exactly is here?”

“This is a cabin I sometimes use for hunting. I found you yesterday evening. So you see, miss, we’ve been together for quite a while and I’ve somehow managed to rein in my murderous as well as lusty tendencies…up until now, that is.” He smiled a most engaging smile. “Let me assure you that I would never conceive of causing you any discomfort.”

“Inconceivable or not, you most certainly are causing me discomfort, every inch of my body is screaming in agony at this very moment!” She paled a bit. “And what exactly were you busy doing last night that fatigued you so?”

He laughed out loud and arched a dark brow as he looked at her, allowing a good measure of sarcasm to creep into his voice. “I see you are in some discomfort, my mistake! I was under the impression that you might actually appreciate your fingers and toes staying intact, not to mention your, uh, quite attractive hide! It was tiring, but it just seemed a damn shame for a beauty such as yourself to be hobbling around on a wooden stump, just something wrong with that picture. And, what was your other concern? Oh yes, you were inquiring as to what kept me otherwise occupied through the long, cold night? Well, nothing so interesting as what your expression gives away. Such lurid thoughts from a seemingly innocent young woman, tsk, tsk.” He laughed again. “No, nothing quite so pleasant, unfortunately. You see, I spent the better part of last night working my fingers to the bone to keep your fingers, not to mention your toes, attached to your very lovely body…no easy feat, I promise you!” He laughed. “Toesfeat? I swear, I crack myself up sometimes. Oh dear, not much in the mood for jokes, hmm, or maybe not in the mood to appreciate my sense of humor? You know, I’m beginning to think you don’t appreciate much of anything, miss.”

Ashley didn’t buy the pitiful expression he wore, and didn’t think much could really hurt this man’s feelings, if he had any, however the sarcasm smarted and as much as she hated to admit it, she couldn’t help but feel just a little giddy at his description of her as a beauty. It had been so long since she had thought of herself as beautiful, and this was the second or perhaps even the third time he had used that word to describe her. She decided she had been a bit harsh, after all he had obviously saved her from frostbite, not to mention freezing to death. As hard as she was trying, she was finding it quite difficult to stay angry with him after his flattering compliments, frivolous as that seemed.

“I’m sorry sir, my manners are certainly lacking. It’s just that I wake up here with nothing on but a blanket, to find a strange man…Well, please forgive me for seeming ungrateful.” Her voice trailed off. “But that doesn’t in any way excuse your speaking to me in such a manner, you are a complete stranger, after all!”

He backed away, bowed eloquently, and said, “No apologies necessary. I beg your pardon, ma’am. Shane Cordell at your service. We are now no longer strangers.”

Ashley couldn’t help but smile. The dramatic gesture made her feel like a queen being introduced to a royal subject. “Well, I could probably be persuaded to forgive you, but first, if you would, tell me how I came to be here.”

“It was a fluke I found you at all. If things had gone according to plan, I would have been miles from here last night. Anyway, there weren’t any tracks. They must have been covered by the snow, as you almost were when Dancer came too damn close to stepping right over you. It gave me quite a scare, you being unconscious and all. You weren’t much warmer than an icicle when we stumbled onto you and it was just dumb luck.” With that he leaned back against the wall of the ramshackle cabin and gave her a quizzical look, as if he were waiting for some sort of explanation.

“Well, Mr. Cordell, I apologize for mistaking you for an outlaw, and I certainly do appreciate everything you did to save my fingers and toes, not to mention me. Thanking you hardly seems enough, but as you can see, I’m at somewhat of a disadvantage to do more at this time,” she replied sincerely as she surveyed her state of dishabille.

He smiled that cocky, self-assured smile that she was quickly becoming familiar with. “Don’t be apologizing too fast, ma’am, I might very well be an outlaw, but I would be most interested in finding out what more you would be willing to do at a more advantageous time to, thank me.”

Ashley thought his comments were probably very inappropriate once again, but with this man she was never quite sure. “I must admit that when it comes to you, sir, I’m not certain of anything, but I have a feeling that you are either being quite improper again, or you’re teasing me, I can’t really tell which.”

At his look of total innocence, she was afraid she might have read more into his words than was actually there, but she was convinced he was teasing her about being an outlaw surely! There definitely seemed to be a wild, untamed air about him. He certainly could be an outlaw. Just because he was incredibly handsome didn’t make him a law-abiding citizen.

He seemed to be waiting for her to say something, so she thought for a moment. “If you would be so kind as to see me back to my cabin, I would be glad to pay you for your services.”

He laughed smugly. “Ma’am, now you make me sound like a carpetbagger. Trust me, I require no payment for escorting you home. Even an outlaw such as myself would always be willing to help a damsel in distress.”

“Carpetbagger? Oh my, I certainly didn’t mean it that way!” She sputtered as her face flushed an attractive pink.

“Sorry, ma’am, but I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to teasing you. You just get flustered way too easy.”

He had that confident smile plastered on his rugged face again. Oh, but it was so infuriating…and appealing. She had to admit that much, at least to herself.

“You are definitely a rogue, of that I have no doubt! However, if it wouldn’t make you feel like a carpetbagger, perhaps I could at least talk you into a home cooked meal when we return, to thank you for everything you’ve done and, maybe we could even forget that this unfortunate situation ever happened?”

His eyes twinkled with mischief. “I would be most obliged to accept a home cooked meal. However, I don’t think I could ever forget how fetching you look with nothing on but a blanket.”

His words made her tingle, but she somehow managed to put a chagrined expression on her face, “Oh, you are impossible, Mr. Cordell! I should be insulted!”

“Yes, ma’am, that I am.” He laughed. “And perhaps you should be, but you’re not… insulted, that is. I have a novel idea though, how about a truce, Miss…uh…sorry, but I didn’t seem to catch your name.” She didn’t miss the fact that he could be charming when he wanted to be, very charming.

“Oh my goodness, well now, where are my manners? My name is Ashley, Ashley Clayton, Mr. Cordell.”

He nodded his head. “Nice to make your acquaintance, Miss Clayton.”

She smiled. “Now that the introductions are complete, if you would be so kind as to go into the other room while I get dressed, I would be most appreciative.”

He chuckled. “Miss Clayton, I really hate to disappoint you again, but there is no other room for me to go into, and I will not be so kind as to go outside to freeze my ass off for the sake of your misplaced modesty.”

“Sir, I must insist…really!”

“Insist all you want, but you won’t get your way, not this time.”

He leisurely crossed one booted foot over the other and ran his fingers through his dark, thick hair. As he looked at her, his eyes were a mesmerizing bluish gray color, but she couldn’t decipher the expression on his face.

“I hate to be the one to point this out, since you seem to be a fairly bright girl even if you were out running around in a blizzard. As I said, I hate to be the one to point this out, but to save my ass from freezing, I will remind you that out of necessity, of course, I was the one who undressed you last night. Your wet clothes had to be removed, so I’ve already seen just about everything that you’re insisting on hiding from me.”

He was unbelievably smug and so sure of himself, it was maddening! Every ounce of color drained quickly and completely from her face. “Oh! How embarrassing! Mr. Cordell, if you were any kind of gentleman you would not mention such things!”

He laughed out loud, “I can assure you, madam, that while I may be many things, a gentleman is not one of them, but you certainly have nothing to be embarrassed about.”

She could certainly decipher that expression, it was positively devilish! She sputtered with indignation as he chuckled again, but slowly turned his back to give her what little privacy he could. Ashley quickly donned her clothing and was relieved to find them warm and dry. After regaining some semblance of her dignity, she looked up and smiled apologetically. “Thank you Mr. Cordell for drying my clothes. I don’t think I could stand to be cold and wet again.”

At that moment, upon seeing her smile, Shane was sure that the sun had come out right in the middle of that seedy little cabin. He had been so busy trying to save her from frostbite that he hadn’t really noticed how beautiful she was, and she was beautiful! Well, to be honest, he had tried not to notice, or at least not to linger on it, or his focus might have slipped from being noble to something less honorable, but definitely more pleasant and much more stimulating. It was impossible, however, to forget that long glistening hair that fell in wave after wave of auburn silk almost to the small of her back as it narrowed to her waist and try as he might he couldn’t stop his imagination from traveling further south to what he knew from the previous night was the most well-formed derriere he had ever seen.

She looked at him as if she could read his mind and blushed furiously.

“Oh your clothes, dry, yes, indeed, it was my pleasure, miss. Unfortunately, you will be getting cold and wet again soon, I’m sorry to say. The sun has been up for a couple of hours now, and we have no choice but to get started or we’ll get caught out tonight with no shelter.”

As they gathered up his supplies, with Shane putting them away quickly and efficiently, Ashley explained where her ranch was located, and after everything was packed, with the cabin looking as deserted as ever, they started out to what had been a barn at some time in the past.

Ashley was taken aback by the sheer size of Shane’s mount, when they entered what was now little more than a shed. He was beautiful, too. She had been raised around horses all of her life, and she recognized good horseflesh when she saw it. The bay stallion stood a good seventeen hands high and looked like he would be a handful for anyone but the most adept rider. As Shane approached, he put his muzzle right into Shane’s hand and stood there as docile as a puppy while Shane saddled and made him ready to carry two now instead of one. “Whoa, boy.” He looked at Ashley and his expression was again unreadable. “Almost ready now.” She couldn’t tell if he was talking to her or the horse. As Shane murmured to Dancer, Ashley remembered hearing the same soft-spoken voice when she awoke in the cabin to find herself in an unfamiliar place with a strange man. She noticed again how masculine he was, but also sensed from the way he interacted with his horse that he could be gentle as well. A strange feeling ran through her as she watched the exchange between horse and master.

“Okay then, we’re off.” And with that Shane reached over and picked her up, placing her in front of him on his saddle effortlessly. She couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of pleasure in the ripple of pure muscle splayed beneath his fringed coat. She was so very tired, but absolutely determined to keep from leaning against him. With the effect he had on her, she didn’t think it would be a good idea to have her back end pressed up so close to his, well, that particular region of his body that her thoughts seemed to be dwelling on entirely too much since she had awakened to find herself in his company. What in the world is wrong with me? She thought to herself. No such ideas had ever entered her head about any other man she had ever known, especially not a total stranger! She was resolved that her demeanor would not give her away, would not reveal how indecent her thoughts had become. She kept her backbone as rigid as possible, and was becoming increasingly uncomfortable because of it, when she felt his lips so close to her ear that his warm breath caused her to shiver as he whispered, “Relax, lean back. Ease up a bit. I won’t bite you, I promise! All that back in the cabin was pure teasing. I’m not such a bad guy, once you get to know me.” He laughed and she could smell the aroma of peppermint on his breath. “That’s not really true, but what the hell, I suppose it’s possible you could end up liking me.” he shook his head. “Well, maybe not hate me, at least.” He shrugged. “Who knows?”

He would probably be surprised at that moment just how much she didn’t hate him! The feelings he evoked in her were anything but hate, and anything but suitable either! After allowing herself to loosen up a bit, she leaned back and rested her head on his chest. She seemed to fit quite nicely in between his strongly corded thighs and couldn’t help but marvel at the way his muscles flexed as he expertly guided the huge stallion. While she was settled firmly in his arms, he was finding it impossible to think of anything else other than her nicely shaped bottom planted so close to his… Enough! This was torture! He must get his thoughts under control, because at this moment he was so hard he was afraid she would be able to tell. He needn’t have worried, she had drifted off to a much needed but fitful sleep.

Ashley wasn’t any more successful at keeping her thoughts away from Shane asleep than awake. Her dreams were strange, consisting of images of gray eyes and strong arms; a handsome stranger, dark and appealing, exciting, and with a start, she awoke to find herself in Shane’s strong arms, with her head cradled against his shoulder as he carried her to the cabin. What was she getting herself into? She should send him away with her gratitude. His handsome face and strong body were sending her emotions reeling. She didn’t want to leave his arms. Her common sense was telling her not to bring this stranger into her home. The pit of her stomach and lower region were tingling. He was opening the cabin door, and she was letting him.

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