A Cowboy's Temptation(10)

By: Barbara Dunlop



 When she turned from the table, she nearly walked into Seth.

 “Heading home?” he asked, without backing off an inch.

 “No. I’m going to stay and mingle,” she responded. “Chat with the citizens.”

 Other people were rising from their chairs in the big hall, too, moving around to visit with each other. Darby’s back was flush against her table, but a steady stream of guests passed behind Seth.

 “You sure that’s such a good idea?” he asked in the rising din of conversation.

 “It’s why I’m here.”

 His tone was serious. “The cowboys have been taking advantage of the bar, and you know you’re a lightning rod.”

 She settled her small bag firmly on her shoulder, squaring them both to show she meant business. “I told you earlier. I can take care of myself.”

 “Fair enough. I’m just worried about the other guys.”

 “You’re worried about your precious railroad.”

 “I don’t want another Joe Harry incident.”

 “I’ll avoid him.”

 “There are too many like Joe Harry for you to avoid them all. Why not wait until the judge rules on the referendum? You don’t even know yet if we’ll have one.”

 “Oh, you’d love a head start.”

 “If he doesn’t rule in your favor, all of this, the stress, the risk—it will have been a waste of time.”

 “I’m not feeling any stress.”

 “Well, I sure am. Part of the mayor’s job is to keep the peace.”

 “Don’t worry about me, Seth.”

 “I do worry about you. And not just that you might get a referendum.”

 “I will get a referendum,” she corrected him. “I’m an unstoppable force.”

 “And I’m an immovable object.”

 “Get out of my way.”

 He took a step to one side. “I mean that metaphorically.”

 She flexed a satisfied grin. “Oh, how I wish everything in life was that easy.”

 “You’re free to move about the reception.”

 “I was never asking your permission.” She brushed past him.

 She angled toward the patio, where the doors had been thrown wide to let in the fresh air.

 It was easy to find people with an opinion on the railway. Most of them disagreed with her, some quite vehemently. But she told them all about the potential referendum, anyway, that the judge would rule in the next few days, and she invited them to review all the facts on her website.

 Suddenly, a beefy, powerful arm slipped around her neck, trapping her. She automatically threw an elbow backward, connecting with his ribs. The man grunted in pain, but his grip only tightened and he dragged her backward and off balance.

 “Joe!” she heard Seth shout, and there was a sound of boots hitting the floor at a run.

 Darby elbowed her captor again, earning another grunt along with a shot of pain running up her arm. Joe lifted her all the way off the floor, and she was struggling to breathe. She kicked backward, but her heels skidded against the side of his legs. Without a visual, it was hard to land a direct hit.

 Then Seth was there, wrenching Joe’s arm. Seth’s brother, Travis, grabbed Joe from the other side.

 “Let her go!” Seth demanded, sheer violence in his tone as he yanked on the big man’s arm. “Right now, Joe. Right now.”

 The pressure eased on Darby’s neck, telling her Seth was succeeding. But Joe didn’t let her go completely, and she was still pressed against his body.

 “Phone the sheriff,” Travis shouted.

 “Darby?” Seth called. “Are you okay? Say something.”

 She tried to speak, but nothing came out. She was breathing, she told herself. She might have a bruise or two, but she wasn’t in mortal danger. She elbowed and kicked one more time.

 Joe suddenly let her go.

 She staggered to the ground, nearly falling, catching herself just in time, blinking the world back into focus.

 “You okay?” Seth called to her again.

 She managed a nod. “Fine,” she rasped, drawing rapid breaths.

 “What is the matter with you?” Seth shouted at Joe, straightening his shoulders, causing Joe to take a step back.

 The man didn’t seem to have anything to say.

 “I’ll take him home,” came another male voice from the crowd.

 “Take him to the sheriff,” Seth countered.

 “He needs to sleep it off.”

 “He can sleep it off in jail. Travis, go with them.”

 Travis gave Seth a sharp nod. “You got it.”

 Seth immediately moved to Darby, his arm going around her shoulders. “You okay?”

 “Good. Yeah, fine. Maybe some air.” She could feel dozens of pairs of eyes on her. They didn’t look particularly friendly, and the last thing she needed was to seem weak.

 She straightened, shrugged off Seth’s arm, managed a smile and made her way toward the big, open doors.

 Seth followed.

 “I’m fine,” she told him with conviction as they walked.

 “So you say.”

 “You can leave me alone now.”

 “I don’t think so.”

 “Sure you can. Joe’s on his way to jail, and everyone else has gone back to dancing.”

 “You’ve annoyed more than just Joe tonight. Who knows who else might be looking to get in on the action.”

 Darby wasn’t afraid of anyone else. Joe’s action was a one-off. Lyndon Valley was full of peaceful, law-abiding citizens. She made it to the doors and walked through. The cool breeze was welcome. She inhaled deeply, rubbing her neck where Joe had held her so tight.

 “Do you need to see a doctor?” asked Seth.

 “No.” She was fine. Well, she would be fine, and soon.

 “You sure?”

 “I’m sure.” She made her way down the length of the sundeck, into the shadows where the bright stars provided the only illumination. She sat down on a narrow bench, craning her neck, when Seth stopped directly in front of her.

 “You going to follow me around all night like some exasperating bodyguard?”

 “I was thinking I’d take you home.”

 “I can drive. And I’m not ready to leave yet.”

 He sat down beside her, stretching out his legs. “Have it your way.”

 “Seth?” came a woman’s voice.

 Abigail Rainer, formerly Abigail Jacobs, and one of Seth’s sisters, had followed them out to the wooden deck. Abigail was quite obviously pregnant, and Darby had been hoping to leverage the woman’s maternal instincts to make her question the wisdom of the railway.

 “Hey, Abby,” Seth responded, rising to his feet.

 “Hello.” Darby rose with him.

 “You must be Darby Carroll,” Abigail said.

 “I am.”

 “Are you all right?”

 “I’m perfectly fine. I’m sorry to have caused such a scene.”

 “It’s not your fault. Joe never was the most reasonable of men. As long as you’re not hurt.”

 “I offered her medical attention,” Seth noted.

 “Why don’t you head on inside,” Abigail suggested to Seth. “I was hoping Darby and I would have a chance to talk.”

 “You were?” Darby couldn’t quite hide the surprise in her tone.

 “Run along, Seth,” Abigail directed.

 “Yes, do run along, Seth,” Darby echoed, not quite hiding the thread of amusement in her voice. She’d never have thought of Abigail as an ally.

 Seth looked from one woman to the other. He hesitated, but then marched away, grumbling under his breath.

 Abigail perched herself on the bench, and Darby followed suit.

 “So, I heard you were giving my brother a run for his money.”

 “I’m trying.” Darby couldn’t help but be puzzled by Abigail’s friendliness.

 “Good,” Abigail chirped.

 “Good?”

 “I like to hear all sides of an issue.” Abigail gave an airy shrug. “I particularly like to talk to smart people who disagree with me. You strike me as a smart person who will undoubtedly disagree with me.”

 Darby wasn’t sure if she should be flattered or not. At the same time, she couldn’t help but contrast Abigail’s equanimity with Seth’s obstinacy.

 Abigail gave a disarming grin. “It helps me understand things better.”

 “In that case, I’m more than happy to assist. What would you like to disagree with me on?”

 “How long have you lived in the Valley?”

 “Three years,” said Darby. “I inherited the place near Berlynn Lake from my great-aunt.”

 “Mona Reese.”

 “You knew her?”

 “I met her a few times. She had a reputation for being independent and no-nonsense.”

 “I only met her a few times, myself,” Darby admitted.

 “Really?” Abigail’s tone invited more information.

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