Bowden Ranch, Montana
Eleven years ago
Dane was flying.
One moment he was riding his horse across the far reaches of his family’s land, the next his horse reared up and kicked his massive hooves in the air, spooked by some unseen threat. Dane let loose the reins and fell sideways, hoping the horse didn’t trample him. Dane’s left foot hit the ground first, his ankle twisting painfully as his body slammed into the packed dirt and weeds. His shoulder hit next, breaking most of his upper body’s fall, but his head smashed into a jagged rock. Pain exploded through his head.
Hombre galloped away. Alone now, Dane rolled and lay flat on his back, staring up at the canopy of tree branches overhead. The sound of the rushing river next to him added to the thrashing heartbeat in his ears. He rubbed his hands over his eyes, hoping that cleared his spotty double vision. His left hand came away wet and sticky with blood from the gash swelling on his head.
He closed his eyes tight, his hands falling limp on his stomach. When he opened them moments later, he stared into a pair of dazzling blue eyes. The young girl’s dark hair hung down, covering most of her pale face as she stared at him. The most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
“Are you okay?”
Such a soft, sweet voice. Where had she come from? No one lived out here. He liked the peace and quiet. The solitude.
“I must be dead. You’re an angel.”
Those ethereal eyes went wide with surprise. “Trust me, I’m no angel.” She filled those soft words with as much shock and disbelief as showed on her pretty face.
Calling her a liar probably wouldn’t make her like him.
She crouched, opened her hand, and set a long blue feather on his chest before touching her fingers to his aching head. The sting made him hiss in pain. Definitely not dead. Which meant she was real. Despite his prone body and inability to think clearly, one thing came through loud and clear. He wanted to know this girl.
“I need to stop this bleeding.”
He must have torn his T-shirt when he hit the ground. She ripped a piece free, walked to the edge of the river, and dipped it in the icy water. His vision blurred. He closed his eyes and moaned when she pressed the cold cloth to his head.
“There now. You’ll be okay.”
At fifteen, the last thing he wanted to do was ask for help, but his head swam and his ankle throbbed in time to his heart and the headache pounding in his head. No way he’d get home on his own. “My ankle hurts. Please, you have to get my dad. Find one of my brothers.”
Her soft hand settled on his chest over his heart. She snatched it back, like touching him burned her. He missed the sweet contact.
She reached for his foot and carefully pulled off his boot. He tried to bite back the groan, but it burst from his tight lips when the pain shot up his leg. Not cool to look like a wuss in front of a pretty girl, but with his head busted open, he was in bad shape.
She ripped his shirt again and used the long strip to bind his ankle. It actually felt better.
She sat beside him, her hands clenched in her lap. “I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t have touched you. I’m sorry.”
He didn’t understand her distress. He tried to sit up and comfort her, but he fell back to the ground, his eyes closing as blackness swamped his dizzy mind.
A hand settled on his shoulder and shook him. He groggily moaned and tried to open his eyes. The bright sun blinded him until his father leaned over and blocked the light as he stared down at Dane.
“Are you okay, son? Is anything broken?”
“My head hurts. Ankle, too, but nothing is broken but my pride. I fell off my damn horse.”
“Okay, now. I’ll get you home. Can you get up?”
“I think so.” Dane pressed his hands down at his sides and rose to sitting. The wet piece of fabric fell from his head and landed on his bare belly, along with the blue feather that fluttered into his lap. “Where is she?”
“Dane, no one is here.”
“She helped me. She’s got to be around here somewhere.”
“There’s no one for miles.”
“How did you find me?”
“Your horse came home without you. I know you like to ride along the river, so I followed your trail.” His dad cocked his head, his eyes taking on a thoughtful gleam. “I did think I heard you whistle for me.”
“I passed out.”
“Must have been the wind in the trees.”
Dane didn’t think so. He pinched the end of the feather between his thumb and index finger and stared at it. He scanned the riverbank and out toward the hills. He didn’t see her anywhere. He didn’t understand the way his chest went tight and the sadness that overtook him. Nothing but his regret that he didn’t get to thank her or say goodbye. He never got her name.