Heath (The Morgans of Rocky Ridge)
Heath Morgan is a happy man. He has his ranch in Rocky Ridge, Colorado, his close-knit family, and his freedom. He doesn’t need anything else. He has no intention of following his brothers’ footsteps and getting “stuck” with one woman when there are so many out there to enjoy.
Annabelle Forrester’s life in a small mining community is anything but exciting. The only bright spot in her existence is when Heath comes to visit friends there every few months. She has loved him since the first time they met and even though she knows he has no plans to settle down, she hopes he’ll eventually love her back.
Then, one night, everything changes and by the next morning, Heath is gone.
When Annabelle tracks Heath down and gives him some unwelcome news, neither of them can imagine how it will change the course of their lives.
Chapter 1Colorado, 1868
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Annabelle Forrester took the driver’s hand and allowed him to help her out of the stagecoach on Rocky Ridge’s main street. She was tempted to stretch her aching muscles, but instead, she ignored her fatigue and smiled graciously. Her parents had raised her to be a lady at all times, and everyone knew a lady did not ever show discomfort in public.
“Sorry we got delayed, ma’am,” he said. “We shouldn’t be this late. I’ll get your bag right away,” the driver said.
“Thank you.” Annabelle watched in awe as the man, who had to be at least fifty, scampered to the roof of the stage with the agility of a young boy. Mere seconds later, he’d climbed back down and was standing beside her. She only had one valise, and it held everything she owned. “Here you go, ma’am,” he said.
She glanced down the street, taking note of the shops and businesses lining the boardwalks on each side. A large mercantile, a milliner, a gunsmith. And of course, a saloon and a sheriff’s office.
People hurried about, many of them likely eager to finish their day’s business and get home to their families. Yes, she thought, a smile tugging at her lips, I’m going to like living here.
“Anything else I can do for you, ma’am?” The driver’s voice interrupted Annabelle’s thoughts. “You got somebody meeting you?”
“No,” she replied. “It’s a surprise. I’m looking for Heath Morgan. Do you know him?”
The driver’s brows lifted. “Sure, I know him. You planning to surprise him, are you?”
“I am.” She saw no reason to explain to the driver the reason why she was looking for him, even though by his the glint in his eyes, it was obvious he was curious. “Do you know where he lives?”
“He and his pa have a spread outside of town.”
“Oh.” Annabelle’s spirits were dashed. “That makes things a bit more difficult.” She glanced up at the sky. The sun hung low over the mountains in the distance. She doubted if she’d have time to find someone to drive her to his ranch before night fell. She’d have to stay in a hotel until morning, which would eat up most of her savings. If she was lucky, she’d have enough money left to at least buy something to eat for breakfast. The apple she had in her reticule would have to do for dinner.
The stage driver’s voice filtered into her thoughts. “’Course, you can usually find him at The Lucky Shamrock at this time of day. It’s down the street a piece.” He pointed in the direction she should go.
“Is The Lucky Shamrock a saloon?” she asked, although she was almost positive it was.
“I see. Is there somewhere I can store my valise until I can make arrangements?”
“I’ll just put it in the Wells, Fargo office for you if you want.”
“Perfect,” she said, pasting on a smile she didn’t feel. “Thank for your help.”
Annabelle turned and hurried down the boardwalk in the direction of the saloon. If she’d thought stretching in public was unladylike, entering a saloon was … well, it was downright vulgar. But she had no choice if she wanted to find Heath.
With any luck, she’d find him and all her problems would be solved.
She paused when she reached the entrance to the saloon, stretching onto her tiptoes to peer over the batwing doors. Smoke hung like a cloud in the air, and raucous laughter blended with the tinny sound of piano music. A group of men sat around a table near the back of the saloon. A soiled dove in a scarlet satin dress leaned suggestively over one of the men who had his back to her, the woman’s arm curved around the back of his neck. His arm reached around the woman’s waist and pulled her closer to him.
Taking in a calming breath to steady her nerves, Annabelle pushed the door open and stepped inside.
As she walked up to the bar, her heels clicked on the wooden floor. The bartender’s brows lifted in surprise, but he didn’t speak. The man seated at the table turned as he smiled up at the woman, and Annabelle’s heart stopped.
It was Heath!
Even in the dim light, there was no mistaking the strong, square jaw, the chestnut hair that curled at the nape of his neck and the dark brown eyes that had looked at her that night as if she were the only woman in the world. Or the smile! The smile that revealed a tiny dimple near the corner of his mouth that could make her melt with just one look.
And right now, he had his muscular arm around another woman.
Anger surged inside Annabelle. Anger and hurt so piercing she felt as if someone had taken a knife to her heart and twisted it. Her throat tightened, and she sucked in a breath, determined he wouldn’t see how his betrayal affected her.
She took a few steps, stopping a few feet from him. Six pairs of eyes shifted to look in her direction. Heat crept into her cheeks.
Then Heath met her gaze, and recognition dawned in his eyes. Turning back to the woman draped across him, he whispered something. Her smile faded and she stood, then sauntered away, giving Annabelle a glare as she sashayed past.
The conversation ceased. The other men at the table watched silently as Heath got up, picked up his glass of whiskey and crossed the space toward her. The piano music stopped, and the only sound was the clanking of Heath’s spurs with each step.
He grinned when he paused only a few inches from her. “Well, hello there, darlin’. What are you doing here?”
Annabelle swallowed down the rage and pain threatening to overwhelm her. “Really? That’s all you have to say to me?”
He had the gall to look confused, and Annabelle was tempted to slap the bewildered expression off his face.
“Is there something I’m supposed to say?” he asked. “I’m just surprised to see you here, that’s all. Last time I saw you was what … a couple weeks ago …?”
“Six weeks and four days, to be exact.”
He chuckled. “You counted the days?”
The fact that he was laughing infuriated her even more. Her anger wound into a tightly knotted ball in her stomach. Her hands fisted at her sides. “I counted every day since you left, waiting for you to come back.”
His brows knitted in a frown. “Wait a minute,” he said, backing away a few inches. “We had a good time, but why would you expect me to come back?”
Why? He was really asking why? Sucking in a deep breath to fight the blackness creeping into the edges of her vision, she forced herself to collect herself. “For me.”
“For you?” he repeated, his brows knitting in a frown.
“Why would I do that?”
“Why indeed?” Recognizing the hysteria creeping into her voice, she turned away from his confused gaze. Reaching into her reticule, she plucked out a piece of paper and handed it to him with trembling fingers.
“What’s this?” he asked, unfolding the paper and scanning the print. His brows lifted.