Six years ago, Lena Schuler fled Cheyenne to escape the man who brutally stole her innocence. Now, believing her attacker has left Cheyenne for good, she’s returned to build a life for her and her son. Attorney Lucas Kline has established a new identity and is making his mark as a trial lawyer in the burgeoning rail town of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Fighting to escape the guilt from his past, he’s determined to help shape the emerging territory into a law-abiding state. When Lena’s attacker threatens the security of her son and others in the community, will she find the courage to face him in order protect those she loves? Can she trust Lucas to defend her secret before a township filled with doubt? Or will the guilt from Lucas’ past blur the lines between justice and vigilantism?
Lena turned to see a smiling Lucas standing before her with his dirty dishes in hand. “I’ll take them.”
He handed them over. “I haven’t tasted such delicious hasenpfeffer since—”
His abrupt halt startled her, as did his knowledge of the peppered rabbit dish Mutti only made for Sunday gatherings. “How do you know of hasenpfeffer?”
His smile tipped sideways.
Something indecipherable crept into his eyes. Sadness? Regret? Longing? The look disappeared before she could contemplate his puzzling reaction further.
His smile righted, and he shrugged. “Your father told me what it was called.”
Inexplicably, a twinge of disappointment came on the heels of Mutti’s words: Such men are not for you, Lena. Privileged men. Men who didn’t share their German culture. She dropped her gaze in embarrassment. “I have to help clean up,” she whispered then hurried away.
Once inside the kitchen, Lena set the dishes in the washbasin then grabbed a towel and dried while the easy conversation of the other women flowed around her like a comforting hug. A bittersweet ache settled in her throat. How she’d missed these Sunday afternoons when she’d lived with Tante Miriam. A time spent with friends and full of good cheer. Gemutlichkeit was the German word for such an atmosphere. Suddenly her chest tightened. Where would Vati and Mutti send her now if she disappointed them again? How would she provide for herself and her son? After the last clean dish was put away, Lena hung her towel.
Ilse grabbed her hand and tugged her from the kitchen.
“Ilse, what’s your hurry?”
“I want to say goodbye to Anton before he leaves.”
Lena would not begrudge Ilse for finding the other half of her heart, but she couldn’t help her twinge of envy as Ilse led her toward the hall, cheering echoing from within.
Once inside the room, Ilse stood on her tiptoes amid the throng of people now counting, “eine, zwei, drei…”
“I think I see him,” Ilse shouted to be heard above the chanting. She worked her way toward the center of the crowd, pulling Lena along.
No doubt Jonah would be front and center, caught up in the excitement. How her son had come alive in the past few days. He belonged here as much as she did, and she vowed not to jeopardize Jonah’s chance to grow up in this warm and loving atmosphere.
They emerged at the front of the crowd.
To Lena’s right was Jonah, clapping and counting. Her gaze followed his to the man in the center of the chanting crowd.
Lucas, his shirtsleeves rolled back to his elbows, moved with an easy, even rhythm as he played the children’s cup and ball game.
Lena’s fingers flew to her mouth to hide a laugh, but realizing no one would notice her unladylike display, let her giggle heartily join the noise around her. Imagine, a full-grown man playing a child’s game. What would Mutti say?
“…neun, zehn, elf…”
The enthusiasm of the crowd seized her and caused her to count along, “…fünfzehn, sechzehn, siebzehn…” The joy of Lucas’ expression each time he caught the ball in the cup held her spellbound.
His gaze remained sharp, the lock of hair swaying across his brow in time with his fluid motions as everyone shouted, “Zwanzig.”
Holding her breath, she clasped her hands beneath her chin. Even Erik, in competition with their childhood friends back in Missouri, had not caught the ball twenty times in a row.
Twenty seemed to be the magic number, for whistling and clapping swelled the room to near bursting. Lucas’ gaze shifted up as he swung the ball for twenty-one and found hers.
The ball settled into the cup and a wide grin broke across his face.
Jonah dashed forward. “You did it, you did it.” He jumped up and down in place, his arms high above his head.
Lucas glanced at her son then back to her with his eyebrows raised.
Without thinking, Lena nodded and watched Lucas reach down with one arm and scoop him up.
Jonah squealed and wrapped his arms around Lucas’ neck.
Lena laughed aloud at her son’s joy.
Lucas’ gaze locked onto hers.
Heat spread across her cheeks.
He moved through the crowd toward her.
She dropped her gaze and heard people slapping him on the back and offering their congratulations. The toes of Lucas’ boots came into her view.
“Did you see Lucas, Mama?”
She let her gaze travel upward, aiming for Jonah’s face, but it caught on the flex of muscles in the forearm that held her son. Awareness fluttered within her, and she hurriedly shifted her gaze to her son. She smiled. “I did, Jonah.”
Jonah released one of his arms from Lucas’ neck and wrapped it around hers.
She had no choice but to go chin to chest with Lucas. The fluttering sharpened to tingling. Even shirt clad, his chest was too disconcerting. Looking down was certainly not an option. She lifted her chin peeking through her lashes at the man who was so close they shared the same breath.
He gazed downward and the hazel of his eyes darkened, emphasizing the green flecks.
Lena caught her breath.
Jonah squirmed between them. “I want to play.” He released her neck to reach for the toy in Lucas’ hand.
After Lucas handed Jonah the toy, he set him down.
Immediately, Lena took a step back.
Something shifted in his gaze. Disappointment? Whatever she saw didn’t matter. She turned and fled from her attraction like she should have done six years ago.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ruby Merritt writes historical western romance. Her passion for imagining life and love on the High Plains has its roots in reading and rereading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books as a child. Although Ruby doesn’t call the High Plains her home, she resides in an equally beautiful and rustic locale, The Gateway to the Texas Hill Country. When Ruby’s not reading or writing, she can be found riding her horse or homeschooling her children who are avid horsewomen and readers as well.