Hide and Seek
by Lois Carroll
Frightened Danielle must trust a handsome rancher named Grey to help her escape from an abusive uncle. Grey hires her as the cook's assistant on his cattle drive taking longhorn cattle from El Paso to his desert ranch southwest of Tucson in Arizona Territory. Leaving all her dresses and feminine garments behind, she cuts her long hair short and dresses as a boy to keep the men from discovering she's a woman. But Grey knows she's a woman and he can't forget—not after he kisses her under the starlight.
FASTEST WEDDING IN THE WEST
Lily has been a nurse in Civil War hospitals in Kentucky. At the end of the war, she endures weeks of travel to Tucson, Arizona Territory, to find her father who headed there years earlier to hunt for gold. She learns from the one doctor in town, Ben, that he died, leaving her with no family. When a mine shaft south of town collapses and traps miners, Lily wants to go with Ben to help care for the injured. But he insists she abide by his rules to protect her reputation. How could he think she would marry a stranger? If she does not, how will she survive?
Release Date: July 9, 2015
Genre: Western / Historical Romance
1868 El Paso, Texas
With only the light from the last burning logs in the stone fireplace, Danielle set her pack by the front door of her father’s home, with the bag of what little food she had left beside it. She wasn’t taking much. She could take nothing that would identify her as a woman.
Her uncle’s men came to take her father’s clothes and the furniture right after the funeral yesterday. She’d managed to keep out two pair of worn trousers, three of his shirts, a rather stiff leather vest to wear all the time to hide her figure, and several pairs of socks because she needed to wear more than one pair to keep his riding boots on her feet. She’d added another belt that she needed to cinch in his trousers to make them fit her slim body. Worried they still might slide down she grabbed suspenders, which she wore now with one of the outfits. The rest were in her sack to which she'd tied a rope to make carrying it easier.
Gone were her dresses, petticoats, and decorated hats—everything a woman would wear. The men had taken all her clothes and the little jewelry she owned to set her up in a bedroom next to her uncle's in his house. She shivered thinking about it.
When the men finished emptying the house, they expected her to go with them to her uncle’s house, but she couldn’t. She wouldn’t—not after her uncle had stopped her after her father’s burial that afternoon with his big hand wrapped around her upper arm.
“We'll have everything out of your father's house for the new owners who move in tomorrow,” he'd told her with a smile at how much he'd accomplished by stealing all her father’s earthly possessions so quickly after his death. She knew he’d been planning it since her father became so ill. And the house and its contents were just the beginning of what he was going to claim.
“I don’t know why you insist in staying in that house for one more night,” her uncle told her when he came to check that the men had gotten everything. “You won't even have a bed to sleep in.”
“It's just one more night. I'll make sure the house is cleaned for the new owners.”
She held her breath waiting for his decision. “Oh, very well. I’ll send Harry with the wagon to get you in the morning. If you want to sleep on the floor, maybe I should sell your bed in my house.”
He laughed then and hadn’t lessened his tight grip on her arm. Instead, he moved his thumb up and down on the side of her breast. She saw the promise in his eyes of more liberties he intended to take. This would be just the beginning.
“This is the last time I shall allow such defiant behavior from you,” he told her firmly.
Frightened, she had twisted from his grip and walked away. Rubbing her arm, she was certain it would soon show bruising. She still heard his laughter and knew that all she had planned for her getaway was the right thing to do. She had to escape. Her only worry was that she had to depend on a total stranger who gave his word to help her. She’d only talked with him for a few minutes, and now she had to trust him completely.
She walked to the front window and looked down the road. It was late, and the lights in the neighbor’s windows had gone out. He should arrive soon. She tugged at the bottom of the vest. For once, she was thankful that her breasts were small enough to be hidden by it. All dressed, she had only one thing left to take care of, and then she would be ready.
Walking back to the fire, she took the pins from her hair, letting it fall down her back. It was long enough for her to sit on. For the first time, she was glad it was an ordinary brown. It wouldn't call anyone's attention to it, and that was good. How she’d loved it when her mother used to brush it and sing to her. But that would never happen again. Her mother had died several years before her father.
Two firm but quiet knocks on the door ripped her from her reverie. How long had she been standing there staring into the past? She ran across the room to open the door before he knocked again, her hair flowing over her shoulders like a cape.
“I've only one more thing to do,” she said when she saw him.
Dressed in black from his hat to his boots, even his hair and a day's growth of beard were black. He laid a finger across her lips to silence her and looked down the road in both directions. Stepping inside, he closed the door. She stepped away from him and touched her lips. She didn’t know if she was erasing his touch or seeing if hers felt the same. It didn't.
She didn’t remember that he was so tall. With his cowboy hat on, he seemed to tower over her, and she was taller than most women. She didn't mind the extra inches because they were what she thought made him take a chance on her passing as a young man.
Lifting a handful of her hair, he rubbed it between his fingers. “So soft, but you can’t keep all this.” His voice was soft and deep. The sound of it raised goose flesh on her arms.
“No, I know. Cutting it is all I have left to do. I kept the fire going to burn it so no one would know what I’d done.”
“Good,” he said, releasing her hair and following her to stand close before the fireplace.
Danielle took her father's knife from the sheath on her belt and reached behind her to grasp a handful of hair.
“Let me,” he said.
She lowered her arms and put her knife back. She stood with her head erect as he parted her hair behind each ear and held out the back portion. She heard him slide his knife from the sheath.
As the knife sliced through her hair, her eyes stung with tears—not from pain, from the loss of one more part of her life as a woman. She blinked away the tears as he handed the cut tresses to her. Taking the side sections in hand, he repeated the process. Apparently not completely pleased with the job, he lifted out a section on one side of the back and trimmed off a little more. He threw those cut ends right into the fire and watched as she dropped the long strands on top of them. She turned away from the smell that rose as the fire flared to consume the hair, and then died down.
He walked toward the door and picked up her pack and swung it onto his back.
“I can carry that,” she told him.
“When you’re on your own horse. I brought only one to get you. Less noise. Less obvious.” He looked down at the second pack on the floor. “I told you one pack.”
“That’s food. It’s all I had left.”
His gaze slid over her from head to toe and back again. Her stomach fluttered. It had felt as if he had touched her with his gaze. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Ah, I...” Her mouth snapped shut, and she thought another moment. “I can’t remember the last time.”
“Then you eat what you have in the sack on the way to the herd. Small bites and slowly. I can’t help you escape if you don’t take care of yourself. You faint and the men will know you're a woman.”
“You’re right, of course.” She almost smiled with the new confidence she was beginning to feel. She had chosen the right man. He would make certain she could escape.
He nodded and stepped to the door.
Danielle picked up the cowboy hat that had been her father’s and put it on her head. She’d tried it on before, but now that she had only short hair, it was too big. It slid down over her ears. She looked up at him and he grinned. His whole face brightened, and she had to smile too. She’d never seen him smile before, but then she’d only talked to him once the night before when she’d convinced him to hire her as the cook’s helper for his cattle drive to his ranch in Arizona Territory. Her uncle would never find her there.
“You think I’m crazy?” he’d asked her. “It’ll take us weeks to get there. I cain’t take a woman on the drive. You would be man-handled more than a bottle of whiskey in a saloon.”
She’d talked fast and pleaded with him. “I won’t even take a dress or anything female with me. I'll cut my hair off short. No one will know I’m a woman,” she’d said.
He'd stared at her a few moments. “I will,” he’d said, his deep voice punctuating his conclusion.
But eventually he’d agreed. She was too relieved to question why. In her way of thinking, whatever happened to her on the cattle drive, it would be better than becoming a perpetual victim of her uncle's desires.
Danielle picked up the sack of food and her full canteen. She had to take off her hat to get the narrow canteen strap over her head and shoulder. Putting the hat back on, she picked up the food sack again and looked up at him.
He was leaning against the door grinning at her. “You ready now?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, smiling again, at how silly she must have looked.
“One more thing.”
Danielle panicked and her smile disappeared. What was he going to add to their deal at this point? She had no other options open to her if he'd changed his mind. He had to take her with him.
“What’s your name?”
“What?” she asked, not certain she’d heard him right.
“Your name? You gave me directions to this house, but you never told me your name last night when I agreed to your crazy scheme.”
“Danielle Trent. My friends call me Danny. That could be a man’s name, so I thought I could go by Danny. That way I wouldn’t miss it when someone said something to me.”
“Too feminine. You may be dressed as a man, but you’re still a beautiful woman.”
Her mouth fell open in surprise at his comment. He laughed at that too. She snapped her mouth shut. “You got better a idea?” she retorted.
“Yeah, just Dan. Not Danny.”
“Fine.” She nodded. “What’s yours?”
“Grey. Grey Barton, owner of the rocking G ranch near Tucson in Arizona Territory.” He smiled and touched the brim of his hat as if they had just been politely introduced, but the smile quickly disappeared. “That’s Mr. Barton or Boss to you, boy.”
He reached for the door latch but paused and looked back over his shoulder.
“No talking outside. If one of your neighbors is awake, we don’t want them looking our way.”
She nodded again and followed him out the door. They skirted around the house to where he'd left his horse. He lifted her into the saddle and she swung a leg over the horse's neck so she could ride astride. He swung up behind her. At least riding astride was not new to her. She could even ride bareback if she had to, but she couldn't imagine that happening now that she was grown. That had been fun as a child. She'd ridden often before they moved to El Paso after her mother died.
Riding in the weeds and grass beside the packed dirt road, they stopped beside a horse he had waiting for her just a mile or so from her home. She took her pack from him, but he helped her lift it onto her back. The bedroll tied on top hit her hat brim and knocked it off.
He laughed and then with a sigh, he helped her tie the bedroll to her saddle so she could wear her hat. This time she tied the narrow leather straps beneath her chin so it wouldn’t fall off again.
“One more thing,” he said, and she worried again, what he would change in their agreement.
He bent over and rubbed his palms in the dry dirt on the road. Clapping them together, he took her face in his hands and rubbed on a layer of the dust over her cheeks, her chin, and around her mouth.
She batted his hands away from her face. “What do you think you're doing?”
“Giving you the shadow of a beard, but we won’t know if it worked until sunrise and we see the men's reactions. But then, if they don’t see it as a beard, they’ll at least see it as a dirty face on a boy I hired to help the cook.”
Tempted to wipe her face on her sleeve, she left the dirt where he had put it. He was right. She should do all she could to disguise the fact that she was a woman.
She took her horse's reins in her hand and raised her leg to put her left foot in the stirrup. Without her asking for help, he lifted her into the saddle with a hand low on each side of her hips. Her body felt as if he had branded her, but his touch was nothing like her uncle's. She didn't understand why she didn't dislike Grey's.