LILY AND MESQUITE JOE
Arizona Territory 1872
Ranch hand Mesquite Joe Riordan has always considered Lily Kingston out of reach. As the daughter of a prominent rancher in the Arizona Territory, she'll one day inherit an empire. When Joe's past threatens not only himself, but Lily and everything her father has built, he knows he can't stand by and do nothing. But can he give Lily his heart when he believes she deserves better?
Lily Kingston has long loved Mesquite Joe Riordan, but when he doesn't step forward to protest her betrothal to another man—arranged by her papa—her heart breaks. When Joe is blamed for the murder of a ranch hand and disappears, Lily knows exactly where to find him. Facing the truth of his past will test her resolve, but only her stubbornness can win his heart.
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Through the night Lily watched Joe, a knot firmly wrenched in her insides. What if he dies? No, no, no. Please hang on, Joe. Please. Gently rolling him from side to side, she placed a blanket beneath him and wiped the sweat from his brow, pushing his brown-blond hair back with her fingers, letting her hand linger for a moment. She did a preliminary cleaning of his wound, but nothing further could be done until daylight.
She stayed beside him, watching and worrying, holding his hand. It was a touch they’d never engaged in, their friendship in waking life remaining behind a boundary neither of them had crossed. Lily had wanted to step past that line many times; but deep down, she simply wasn’t certain that he felt the same. And then, her papa had insisted she marry Rusty. If there had ever been a time for Joe to step forward, it was then. But he hadn’t. And for a long while, Lily had refused to forgive him for it; so she’d remained betrothed to a man she didn’t love, convincing herself again and again that it was for the best.
Even as Joe lay unconscious on the ground, he still exuded the strong and clear presence that she had come to know in him. And she quietly wept, wondering how in God’s name she could live without him in this world, even if she wasn’t the woman to walk beside him.
When the sun rose, she cut a portion of his trousers aside and set to work cleaning the gunshot wound, then removing the bullet. Thankfully, he remained asleep, and thankfully, she had some skill with such things, having worked with the horses, cattle, goats, and dogs on the ranch, ministering to their ills and setting bones. She had Elan, an old Apache her papa had taken in, to thank for her education.
The following day and night she stayed close, waiting for the fever and delirium to break. That evening he awoke.
Relief blanketed her, along with anticipation. She scooted close to him.
He opened his eyes, trying to focus on her but his confusion was clear.
“Lily? You’re…still here?”
“I came to help you.”
The flash of anger he directed at her took her by surprise. Her fingers halted mid-air; she’d been reaching for his arm as she spoke, wanting to touch him just as she had all these past hours. Slowly, she lowered her hand to her lap, and swallowed against the flush of humiliation that heated her cheeks. Deep down, she’d been certain he’d be happy to see her. Now, she wondered if she should’ve come. But if she hadn’t, he’d likely be in worse shape, his wound festering and no one to care for him.
“What happened?” he asked, his deep voice worn-down and hoarse. “I don’t remember…”
“You were shot,” she replied, trying not to feel angry herself. “I’ve been here with you, taking care—”
He tried to sit up. Now she did make contact, pushing him back down, his broad shoulders still formidable in his weakened state. “Not yet,” she said quietly. “You need to rest.”
“I can’t stay here. And neither can you. How long have I been out?”
“A day and a night.”
“Shit.” He moved upright again.
“No, Joe. You’re not going anywhere. We’re safe here. No one knows about your hideaway.”
Copyright © 2014 Kristy McCaffrey
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Darkness enveloped Joe as he lay in his niche in the cliff. He tried to rest, but his breath came fast, and he couldn’t stop sweating. He’d cleaned his wound with what little water he could spare, but couldn’t remove the bullet; it was embedded too deep. He needed to get to a doctor— but in the meantime, he thought to rest.
He heard movement. He grabbed his rifle, cocked the hammer, and pointed it into the darkness, unable to see anything. Was he going mad?
“Joe.” The whisper floated to him, the voice of an angel. It was Lily. It had to be Lily. If he was going to die, his only wish was to see her one last time. He groaned in agony as he leaned his head back.
“Joe, my God.” The voice was much louder. “How did this –” Suddenly, she was beside him. Lily—the woman who’d branded his soul from the first moment he’d seen her all those months ago, carrying a dog bitten by a rattlesnake into the barn. Her dark hair, flowing behind her like a mare’s mane, had made her seem wild and of the land. He soon came to know her generous spirit and restless nature, sprinkled with determination and stubbornness, all the while igniting a fire in him that he’d tried in vain to ignore.
When he learned she was to marry, he could hardly stomach it—all the more worse because it was McCoy. The man would never understand her nature. He’d crush her, slowly and surely, like a predator who first captures a bird, then clips its wings, then siphons the life from it before the creature ever realizes what has happened.