Hunter woke with a moan the next morning. He pushed himself up off his bed and swung his legs over the side. Cradling his head in his hands, he tried to dispel the images still invading his thoughts. They were the same images that kept him from sleeping last night. His head, throbbing from the lack of sleep, was keeping him from seeing straight.
Nitika had told him she loved him. They had spent glorious nights together. And now, a stranger shows up claiming to be her future husband. Maybe he was the reason that she didn’t want to marry. Maybe what he and Nitika shared was only a fling that she would end when it was time to marry What’s His Name.
Hunter heard the breakfast bell, but wasn’t in the mood to eat. Slowly he dressed, still thinking about what happened yesterday. Never before had he felt like this. Not even when he was forced to leave Irena behind. The men would be waiting for him, so he forced himself to hurry. Lounging around the bunkhouse, the men watched their bedraggled foreman approach. Nitika came out of the main house as he joined the men.
He couldn’t bear to look at her as she gave out orders for the day. Slowly the men began to drift out to do their jobs for the day. Dyami was sitting on the front porch when Hunter finally saddled up and rode out. Nitika joined him once she watched Hunter leave.
“You need to talk to him.”
“I’m not going to beg him to listen to me. When he’s ready to talk, I’ll be here.”
“Yeah, but will he?”
Colton came out nursing a cup of coffee. “When’s breakfast around here?”
“Breakfast is long over Colton. But Anna might be able to scratch something up for you. She’s working on the noon meal now,” Nitika said annoyed with the interruption.
“Is there really a need to get up this early? The sun’s barely up.”
“Son, we’ve already got three hours of work done before breakfast.”
Colton brushed away a speck of dirt on his jacket. “Once we’re married, we’ll just hire a manager to handle such things. There’s no reason to get up before the sun rises,” he muttered heading for the cookhouse.
Doc noticed that Hunter had been sitting in the same position for the past ten minutes. Soon, the herd would be beyond him and the others might know he was sleeping in the saddle. The old surgeon went over and tapped Hunter on the shoulder with his rope. Hunter’s head came up with a jerk, his hand dropping to his hip.
“You’re supposed to do that at night in a bed.” Hunter only stared at him. “I know what’s eating you. You’ve got to go to her Son.”
“And say what? She’s the one who lied.”
“Did you ever ask her?”
Hunter watched the cattle for a few moments. “No. I just assumed she was unattached.”
“Well, she might still be, Hunter. She’s mighty choosy about her men. I don’t see her keeping a man like Colton Dragon.” He continued once he saw Hunter wasn’t going to talk. “You can’t wait for her to come to you, because she won’t. She’s not about to beg a man to do anything.” Hunter grinned. “I don’t even want to know what that’s about, Son. Whatever is between the two of you is your own business.”
Doc rode off, leaving Hunter with images of his nights with Nitika. She had seemed very surprised to see Colton ride into the yard. Maybe she was trying to hide from him. He definitely didn’t seem like her kind of man. Colton was too dandified to want to live out here. Nitika wasn’t about to leave the ranch after having to fight so hard to keep it.
Anna came stomping into the dining room at noon and dropped the dishes on the table. Dyami had to sidestep the elderly cook as she bustled around the room setting up for the few men who were working around the house. Those out in the pastures had taken their lunch with them. When one of the dishes missed the table and shattered on the floor, she began to scream.
“It’s just a dish Anna,” Dyami soothed. “We can have it replaced.”
“It’s not the dish Mr. Brodie,” she said slumping in a nearby chair. “It’s that man, Colton. What’s he doing here anyway?”
“He claims he’s here to marry Nitika.”
“I don’t believe that,” she fumed. “I don’t believe your daughter would be that stupid. Not with a man like Hunter Tilton living under her roof. That man is impossible.”
“What did he do,” Dyami asked now amused at the woman’s tirade.
“He came down looking for something to eat. I gave him what I could, but it wasn’t good enough. He wanted me to carry it up here and serve him. I told him I didn’t have time and that he was just going to have to make due. Then he says that he was going to have me replaced as soon as possible with a more agreeable cook. I just wanted to take that little whelp over my knee and tan his backside.” She stood up and pointed her finger at Dyami. “That boy better be out of here soon, or one of us will be carted out of here feet first.”
“I’ll see what I can do Anna. Just try not to break any more dishes over him, okay?”
Anna managed to wedge herself beside Nitika once lunch was served. Dyami was already seated on Nitika’s right, forcing Colton to sit on the other side of him. The men were silent as they quickly ate their meal and hustle back out to finish their jobs. Nitika began to stack dishes on the sideboard when Colton grabbed her arm.
“Let the help do that, my Dear. We haven’t had time to talk since I arrived.”
“I’ll help you Anna,” Dyami quickly volunteered before the cook could open her mouth.
Colton led Nitika out onto the front porch. “Really, we need to hire more help around here. It doesn’t look good for your father to be doing manual labor.”
“He enjoys working, and so do I. There’s a lot to be done around here.”
“No wife of mine is going to get her hands dirty doing work. I’ll make sure there’s plenty of servants to wait on you hand and foot.”
Nitika pulled free of his grasp. “You are certainly generous with my money.”
“I’m just looking out for your best interests, Love. I only want the best for you.”