For just a moment the force of the hailstones seemed to let up, and Jake wrenched his saddle loose. “Here, grab one side.” He hoisted it over their heads. The sky grew a shade lighter as the hail turned into rain that fell in sheets, driven diagonally by the wind. Nettie stumbled along with Jake, bumping into each other. Both held the saddle up with one hand and led their horses with the other, the storm pushing them from behind.
Lightning slashed through the murky sky. A thunderclap rattled her teeth. The horses shied and tugged at the reins. Barely able to breathe, Nettie could no longer feel her hands. Her whole body was numb. She felt the saddle slip. They wouldn’t make it. She was going to fall. They’d both be hit by lightning.
“Hang on, we’re almost there.” Jake shifted the heavy saddle to take more of the weight himself. “It’s OK. You can do it. Come on. Just a few more steps.” Together they staggered the last few yards to the old shack. Jake dropped the saddle on the refuse-strewn porch and tethered the horses under the roof overhang on the lee side. Then he pushed the door open and helped Nettie through the opening. She nearly fell into the room, relief flooding over her.
He pushed the door shut against the gusts of wind and rain, and struggled to latch it. Then he knelt beside her, his wide eyes examining her face. “Are you all right? Are you hurt? Anything broken?”
“I’m OK.” Nettie looked up at him, gulped and blinked. “Oh my gosh, your eye …” She sat upright and reached up to caress the rapidly swelling bump.
“I’m just fine.”
“Oh, Jake, we coulda been killed.” She shuddered as the realization washed over her, then broke into great hiccupping sobs.
He encircled her with his long arms and drew her face to his chest. He smelled like horsehair and tobacco. It didn’t matter that his sodden denim shirt stuck to her cheek. She closed her eyes and snuggled close inside his embrace as he stroked her wet hair.
The rain beat a vicious tattoo on the roof. Just like those hailstones on her head and back. Her skin still stung, and her hands were raw and tingling. She shivered again. The ice seemed to have penetrated her blood. Her teeth chattered. Never in her life had she been so scared. They were lucky to be alive. Safe in his arms now, her sobs gradually subsided.
Jake hugged her closer, his face only inches from hers. She felt his warm breath on her cheek.
He rubbed a hand up and down her back, sending warm shivers through her body. “I have to let you go for a minute and see if I can get a fire going.”
Murmuring in her ear as if soothing a skittish colt, he eased out of the embrace and off the floor. He picked up an old horse blanket from one corner of the nearly empty room and shook the dust off. Gently, he wrapped the worn, dirty wool pad around her shoulders.
Nettie glanced around the room, wallpaper peeling in strips, cobwebs strung over the windows, the floor rotted and splintered. Wonder what happened to the people who lived here? A wooden chair slumped on its side, a leg missing. Jake stomped on the remaining legs to break them, then the rungs and the back, into pieces. He pried up a loose floorboard to add to the pile of firewood
Nettie watched him squat before the fireplace, moving with such confidence. Gosh, he knows just what to do. He whittled shavings from the wood, then struck a match from a little tin canister in his pocket. He’s so handy. And so caring. He protected me.
Jake blew on the flame, coaxed it to catch. Above the sunburned line on his forehead where his hat usually rode, his skin was fair. His reddish blond hair shone softly.
The flame caught and grew, its flicker kindling a spark of hope in her. She heard the snap as it spread to the other shavings and sticks of wood.
Jake added more fuel to the fire. He coughed as it smoked, but then the smoke drew up into the chimney. He sat next to her again, cradling her in the curve of his arm. He took out a small flask from his pocket. “Here, have a slug of this. It’ll help warm you.”
She coughed at the harsh fire that ran down her throat. But it did warm her, and her shivers diminished as her clothes dried.
“Thank you for saving my life.” Nettie raised her face to his and kissed the corner of his mouth. Then, to hide her blush, she leaned against his strong body. He tightened his arm around her shoulders.
They’d made it. Together. They were together, and that was all that mattered right now.
Cowgirl Dreams and the sequel Follow the Dream are available through my website and as a Valentine’s week special, I’m offering FREE SHIPPING! Be watching for the third book in the series, Dare to Dream, coming in 2013.