Prologue

Shadow Valley - Texas 1866

The war was over, but the country was still healing and it was a slow recovery. Teaspoon rocked peacefully on the porch and watched the sun slowing setting. He had moved to Shadow Valley, a small town in southern Texas a little over a year ago and had often wondered what his boys were doing. He had considered staying on in Rock Creek, but he was getting older and wanted to set down some roots before he was too old.

He hadn't expected to see a familiar face, least of all Buck Cross. Teaspoon scratched his belly and sauntered over to the corral where the younger man stood. He watched as Buck squinted his eyes and raised his hand to shield his eyes from the hot midday sun. Teaspoon couldn't believe the change in him.

"Well I'm sure glad to see you Son." Teaspoon raised his eyes eyebrows.

"It's been a little while hasn't it?" Buck embraced the older man warmly.

"I hear tell you got yerself a nice horse ranch there in Kansas."

"That I do." Buck smiled proudly.

"Well what are you doing in these parts?"

"Thinking about putting down a ranch just over the other side of the creek."

"Well you'll find one of your neighbors is a cantankerous old coot." Teaspoon grinned broadly.

Chapter One

Shadow Valley - Texas 1867

"Honey?" Kathleen called out.

She grabbed her satchel as she dismounted and tied her horse to the railing. No answer. She quickly surveyed the grounds looking for Buck.

"Lookin' for me?"

Buck strolled out of the barn and leaned against the railing in front of her.

"Guess what?" She asked excitedly.

"I give up."

"My friend Grace is coming to visit next week!"

"That's great." Buck smiled at the delight in Kathleen's eyes.

"Oh, she and I use to have so much fun. I can't wait to see her!"

"I think you've mentioned her a couple times, she lives in California right?"

"Oh yes, but her family is from Spain. Her father is actually in line for the throne, or maybe it's her mother." She looked up in thought.

"Well either way I hope this house isn't too humble for her." Buck said sarcastically.

"Stop that Buck Cross! Or I'll, I'll,"

"What?" Buck grinned and picked her up, twirling her around.

"Well I just won't marry you." She said defiantly.

"Well that's a relief." He teased.

"Buck you do want to marry me don't you?" Kathleen pouted.

"Of course I do." He reaffirmed.

"Tell me you love me." She demanded.

"I love you." He kissed her softly.

She smiled satisfied and walked into his house.

"I guess I'll have to clean this house myself. Grace will be staying in town with me of course, but we'll come out and visit. I want to show her the house and you of course. Oh Buck when we are married, can we get a housekeeper. Daddy and I had one, she was simply wonderful. We never had to worry about company coming."

Buck looked out across the sky and let Kathleen ramble on about getting a housekeeper. The closer their wedding day came the more doubts crept into his mind.

Was he in love with Kathleen? He certainly was attracted to her, and he cared about her, but he still had a little part in his heart that didn't trust her completely. He shook his head.

He remembered the first time he saw her, sitting in the grandstands. How she made is heart race with just a glance. But he also remembered the way she broke his heart. But that was years ago. He had changed since then, so had she.

He was surprised to see her after all those years. Six months ago he was in town picking up some supplies and literally ran into her. He didn't see her standing beside the door and he almost knocked her over.

It was an uncomfortable reunion to say the least. In that instant Buck felt like the shy unsure young man that he once was. Over the next few months though, Kathleen had explained that her father passed away and she was free to do as she wished.

She explained her father would never have allowed them to be together and she didn't want to see him hurt more than he was. She was heartbroken when they left town and she didn't see him.

Her father had gotten very sick a year ago and died soon after. Since then she had traveled a little at first, but she grew weary and wanted a home.

Buck was skeptical at first, but there was no reason for her to lie to him now. Going against Teaspoon's advice and some doubts of his own he asked her to marry him last month.

"What do you think?" Kathleen's big hazel eyes stared up at him.

"I'll think about it."

Chapter Two

The next week dragged on for Buck. All Kathleen could talk about was her friend Grace. According to her, the girls met in Paris going to school.

Grace was several years younger, but, as Kathleen put it "when you are practically royalty there's a certain level of maturity and sophistication that one has". Buck laughed to himself when he thought of Kathleen saying that again.

"So tell me again why she aint here waiting for her friend again?"

"I told you Teaspoon. Kathleen is redecorating my house to impress her friend." Buck rolled his eyes.

"Well if this young lady were any kind of friend she wouldn't care how your home is decorated."

"You know that, and I know that, but Kathleen insisted. It's going to be her home also in a few months so why shouldn't she redecorate."

"You sound like a cur dog that's been whipped."

"Or a man in love."

"Mhmmm, more like a cur dog."

"Be nice to her friend." Buck warned.

"When am I not a gentleman when there is a lady around?"

"Kathleen." Buck reminded.

"Like I said, when there is a lady around."

Teaspoon frowned. He just didn't trust Kathleen Devlin. No matter how polite she was, or how she seemed to earnestly want Buck's affection.

"A leopard don't change its stripes Son."

"Spots."

"What?"

"Leopards have spots."

"That's what I said."

"Mhmm." Buck grinned.

Teaspoon stuck his chin out and scratched his head as he watched people disembark the train.

"What's this young lady look like?"

"Kathleen said she's tall and has long dark hair and green eyes." Buck wondered if he would recognize her from Kathleen's description.

"That must be her there." Teaspoon pointed to the tall dark hair woman.

The men stood up and made their way over to the waiting area. She wasn't really what Buck had expected. She was tall though, that was certain. Almost as tall as himself.

She wore a black dress and her dark hair was pulled back tightly in a bun. Her large glasses took over most of her face, it was hard to tell what color eyes she had.

"Buck Cross. You must be Grace?" He held out his hand.

"I beg your pardon." She looked over the top of her glasses at the two men.

"I'm Kathleen's fiancée."

"Who?" She looked curiously at him.

"Kathleen Devlin." He looked back at her with the same curious expression.

"I believe I can clear this matter up."

Buck turned at the voice with the faint accent. He tried to keep his mouth from dropping open when he saw the woman standing next to him.

"Ma'am?"

"I'm Grace D'Agostino, and you must be Buck." She smiled brightly and offered her hand.

"Ah yeah, yes, I'm Buck, and this is Teaspoon." he shook her hand.

"Ma'am. It's a real pleasure to make your acquaintance." The older man took her gloved hand and kissed it softly on the top.

"Thank you. Where's Kathleen?" She looked around for any sign of her childhood friend.

"She had some work that she had to finish up at the house. She just wanted to make sure everything was cleaned up for your visit that's all." Buck made an attempt to excuse his fiancée.

"That's very kind, but unnecessary I assure you." Grace smiled uncomfortably.

"These your bags?" Buck started picking up the luggage as she nodded.

"Yes thank you."

"How was the train ride out here?"

"Pleasant enough. I never seem to grow weary of seeing new places. The land around these parts is beautiful." She took his hand as he helped her up to the buckboard.

"We have a ways to drive, before we get to Shadow Valley." Buck glanced over to make sure she was comfortable.

"Then you can tell me everything that Kathleen has left out about you and how the two of you met."

Teaspoon rode on a head on a horse and let them talk in private. The less he had to hear about Kathleen the better.

"So Kathleen told me you use to be good friends a while ago." Grace grabbed onto his arm with one hand and the seat with the other to steady herself as the horses trudged through the thick mud.

"Sorry about that." Buck slowed down a bit.

"It's alright." She still held tightly to his arm so she didn't bounce off the wood bench.

"We knew each other several years ago." He was pensive about their past and didn't want to rehash bad memories.

"Are you from around here?" She looked him over carefully.

Kathleen hadn't mentioned much about Buck in her letters, other than he was a rancher and they use to be friends. Grace was surprised at her friend's choice for a husband, how much she must have changed.

Grace was surprised; Buck was not Kathleen's typical choice, at least when they were younger. Kathleen was always attracted to softer and more refined men, not rugged and masculine like Buck was.

Grace watched as the muscles in his well toned arms flexed as he snapped the reins. His long dark hair fluttered in the warm wind and occasionally whipped across his bronzed face.

Grace chastised herself for letting her gaze linger so long on him. Though she had to admit he was very handsome.

"I've moved around a lot I guess you could say. Thought it was time I settled down. What's it like in California?" His answer cut through the silence.

"It's lovely. My father's home is near the coast. It's my favorite thing in the world to sit at the cliffs and watch the sunset. I love watching the stars come out and reflecting off the water." She nodded as she diverted her attention to the passing scenery and not the man at her side.

"Sounds beautiful."

"Have you ever been to the ocean?"

"No."

"You and Kathleen should come out and visit sometime."

"Tell me about you and Kathleen in school. She said she has fond memories of Paris."

Grace told him about their school days in France, and how Kathleen was always s up to something that got them both in trouble. She explained that she would live in California if her mother would only move out there, but she insisted on living in England and refused to consider anything else.

"Are you're parents divorced?"

"No, that's not something my mother believes in either. So my father lives in California and my mother London." She laughed.

"Sounds complicated."

"I think she prefers it that way. She has no one to answer to. I don't think my mother was meant to be a wife, or a mother for that matter."

"You sound like you aren't close to her."

"Not particularly. I'm much closer to my father. I visit her only rarely now."

"So is it your mother or father that is royalty?"

"Pardon me?"

"Kathleen made mention that you were in line for the throne." Buck scowled.

"Same Kathleen I see. Sometimes the things that woman comes up with." She laughed so hard tears rolled down her cheeks.

Buck laughed along, but wondered why Kathleen felt the need to lie about something so trivial.

"You're not at all what I expected."

"I hope that's not a disappointment." She leaned closer as they hit another bump.

"Not at all."

He tried to concentrate on the road ahead so he could avoid any more pits in the road. He did not want to be stranded on the side of the road. Though, he couldn't pick better company that was for sure and he didn't mind her soft grip on his arm either.

He glanced over at her, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Kathleen hadn't told him how attractive she was. She had long dark hair, and green eyes as Kathleen said.

But in as the sun set her hair picked up the sun's rays and strands of auburn and copper blew through the breeze as they rode. Her eyes weren't just green, they were the color of moss when it grew on the shaded side of an oak.

Her features were a contradiction. Her golden skin and dark hair were off set by a soft sprinkling of freckles on her nose and cheeks.

"What are you looking at?" She caught him looking over at her.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to, it's noticed your necklace." Buck frowned.

It was like Kathleen's. Still seeing that burned a sadness in his soul. A reminder of a time he wanted to forget. He had convinced Kathleen to put hers away because it brought bad memories.

"Oh, Kathleen and I bought these on vacation,"

"I know, she has her's still as well."

"I'm sorry if it offends you."

"It's just a lot of memories that's all."

"I can take it off if you'd like?"

"Of course not, it was just surprising. That's all." He smiled genuinely. "Kathleen said your family was from Spain?"

"My father is from Spain." She smiled. "My mother's family is from Ireland. I guess I take after both in some ways."

"You're green eyes?"

"Are from my mother's side, as well as my determination. Or as my father calls it, my stubbornness. What about you? Where is family from?"

"I don't know anything about my father or his family. My mother was Kiowa. That's an Indian." He explained.

"Yes I know what Kiowa is. You're not the first Indian I've seen before you know." She smiled.

"Books don't count." He teased.

"Very funny." She rolled her eyes.

The pair chatted easily for the next hour until they pulled into town. Buck explained that he lived just outside the town, but that Kathleen lived in town and she had a room all ready for her. They said goodbye to Teaspoon and Buck carried her bags to her room.

It was only five in the afternoon by the time they made the edge of town. Buck pointed to the grove of trees in the center of the valley and told her that's where they were headed.

Grace imagined it was an easy ride on horseback, maybe only thirty five minutes, but on the buck board it was almost another hour she was certain. She shifted uncomfortably on the hard bench.

Soon enough they rounded the bend and Buck helped her down. She had ridden for so long sitting in the same position he helped stabilize her until she got her footing.

"Grace!"

Kathleen jumped up off the porch and ran to her old friend, hugging her tightly.

"You look exactly the same, if not prettier than last I saw you." Grace kissed her cheek.

"Come in! You must be starving."

"I'm just going to take care of the horses, I'll be a few minutes." Buck announced.

"Alright." Kathleen grasped Grace's hand and pulled her towards the house.

"Your fiancée is a very nice man." Grace walked up the large porch steps.

"Oh yes, he is." She stated bluntly.

Kathleen pushed open the doors and took Grace room by room showing her the house.

After dinner Buck drove Kathleen and Grace back to town for the evening and said good bye. He was actually dreading Kathleen's friend coming to visit, though he would never have told Kathleen that. He had expected someone completely different and he was pleasantly surprised.

Grace was well mannered and very lady like, which he imagined her being considering her upbringing. However, she was very down to earth and she had a true humbleness to her. She was very educated, as he also assumed she would be, but not just book learned. Possibly it was from her travels and tastes of different cultures.

Buck realized as he walked into his quiet home, that once he and Kathleen were married he was certain the home would never be quiet again. He wasn't sure if that was a blessing or not. He did get lonely at times, but he enjoyed time to himself.

Chapter Three

It had been three weeks since Grace first arrived at Shadow Valley. Kathleen had already shown her every dress in her closet and every piece of jewelry she owned. Grace had to admit that Kathleen was little overbearing at times.

Every morning after they had breakfast, the women would head out to the ranch and spend the day riding horses or swimming in the large pond on the north side of the ranch. Buck had joined them for a ride a few times in the late afternoon when he took a break from his daily activities.

It was a bright and sunny Saturday and Grace had told Kathleen she had a headache and would not be going to the women's quilting society with her that day. She had other plans that did not involve gossiping about the townsfolk with the ladies.

It was too nice a day to be cooped up inside quilting that was for certain! Grace tightened her boots and pulled down her skirt and underskirts. She had considered taking one of Kathleen's horses, but she thought a walk would do just fine. She noticed the other day, on the way to the ranch there was a large field of wildflowers only a short walk out of town.

Packing a small satchel with some bread and a couple apples she headed towards the field, smiling politely at a group of women before she hit the edge of town. She hoped she would remember how to get there, she had seen it on the way out to the lake the other day when Buck and taken her and Kathleen.

She walked for almost an hour until she found the clearing. She smiled with satisfaction and took off running through the field with abandon. Several minutes later she pulled out an apple and meandered under the large patch of oak trees in the shade.

She enjoyed her time with her old friend, but she missed having time just to be alone with her thoughts. And lately her thoughts had been mostly centered around one particular individual. She was confused about her feelings towards him and she admonished herself for feeling the way she did.

It wasn't though she didn't have plenty of gentlemen at home to choose from, why didn't she feel this way about any of them? Why Buck? He was her friends fiancée for goodness sakes! She took a deep breath and chalked it up to just being bored, though deep down she knew that wasn't the case.

"Aren't you suppose to be quilting this morning?"

Grace jumped slightly as the deep voice cut through her thoughts and she turned around quickly. Breathing a sigh of relief when she saw Buck dismount and drop his reigns letting his horse nibble at the cool grass.

"Sorry I didn't mean to startle you." He smiled.

"What are you doing out here?" She collected her composure.

"Just out for a ride. I saw you down here and thought I would ride over and say hi." He sat down on a low branch and leaned against the tree.

"Would you like an apple?" Grace offered him some bread and an apple.

"Thanks. Kathleen said you and she were quilting today." He took a large bite and wiped away the juice as it dripped down his chin.

"I told Kathleen I had a headache. I just wanted to enjoy being outdoors today. Promise you won't tell her." Grace admitted.

"Your secret is safe with me. Have you been down to the brook yet?" He grinned.

"No, is it nearby?"

"Yeah we'll take a ride over there. It's really beautiful. I'll help you up." Buck mounted his horse and then reached out for her hand.

Buck helped her onto his horse behind him and told her to hold on. He had been out ridding with Kathleen and Grace just a few days ago, so he knew she could ride.

He felt her hands gently grip his waist as he nudged his horse along. He told her to hold on tight as he urged his horse to pick up speed.

Grace wrapped her arms tighter around his waist and peeked around his shoulders as they sprinted across the land. She didn't usually enjoy riding double with most people, mostly because she didn't trust their riding abilities.

With Buck she didn't have to worry. He rode well, better than most anyone she knew. Possibly even better than her father, who taught her how to ride when she was just a child.

She had to admit she took advantage of the situation and she held him a little tighter and leaned a little closer than was really necessary. When he slowed the horse down to a slow canter she rested her head on his back and closed her eyes.

Buck dismounted then helped Grace down as well. He held on to her hand as he they made their way across the slippery rocks to the other side of the creek and sat in the shade.

Grace lazily dangled her feet in the calm running stream letting the water splash on her legs. The sun was warm, but not burning hot. Sitting on the bank of the stream in the cool shade just relaxing, she couldn't imagine a more perfect day.

Conversation flowed easily as they shared stories of their youth, and hopes for the future. Growing up the way she did Grace wasn't accustomed to feeling jealous or wanting something she couldn't have, until now. She had to admit this was the first time she really felt the bitter taste of jealousy and she didn't like it.

Though she was she was going to walk back to town Buck wouldn't be deterred and insisted on taking her himself. It was already dusk and he mostly wanted to make sure she got back safely, but part of him just wasn't ready to say goodbye yet.

As they rode back to town he slowed his horse down slight, hoping she didn't notice. If she did, she didn't say anything. He had sat behind her this time and she was sleepily leaning against him now. He could hear her rhythmic breathing. By the time they reached Kathleen's house it was almost dark out.

Kathleen sat in the parlor when she heard a horse ride up, then voices outside. She was already fuming that Grace was gone all day and just left a short note saying she was going on a walk. When she opened the door and saw Buck's arms around Grace as he lifted her off the horse she felt the fire of insecurity boil.

"Where have you been all day?" She stood on the top of the porch with her hands on her hips.

"You didn't get my note? I left a note on the table that I was going out for a walk." Grace walked up to the porch.

"All day? What were you doing together?"She looked at Grace then over at Buck.

"Buck just saw me walking and it was getting late so he offered to take me to town."

Grace knew that Kathleen was suspicious, and though they hadn't done anything wrong she thought it best to only give her a half truth. He did after all see her walking earlier, and she was going to walk home but he insisted on taking her.

"It was a lucky for me, I didn't realize I had stayed out so long."

Grace walked past her into the house. If Buck wanted to tell Kathleen the whole truth that was his choice. She listened at the door for a few minutes until she hear Kathleen walking towards her. Buck had only reaffirmed her story. Grace smiled. Apparently he didn't want to have a long drawn out discussion either.

Grace quickly ran back to her bedroom before Kathleen opened the front door and caught her. She waited and listen to Kathleen walk back and forth in the hallway.

Grace reminded herself, that she shouldn't feel guilty for her thoughts. The fact was she spent the day with a friend, they did nothing inappropriate. She smoothed her hair and opened the door. She was headed towards the wash basin when Kathleen stopped her.

"What did you really do today?" She pinched her lips together.

"I went out the field with all the wild flowers. I felt a little better this afternoon and wanted to be outside. I would have waited for you if I thought you wanted to go also."

"That's not what I'm asking."

"Well that's what I did today. I don't know what else you want to know." Grace knew what she was asking. She pushed passed her into the kitchen.

"Are you using Buck to get back at me for Jon Luke?" Kathleen grabbed Grace's arm and held her against the wall.

"Who?"

"Jon Luke, don't pretend you don't know who I'm talking about!"

"Kathleen I was fourteen and barely had a crush on that boy, don't you think I would have gotten over that by now?"

Grace almost laughed at the memory that Kathleen was dredging up. She had been hurt for a few days, at the most, when her friend started dating the boy she had a crush on, but she was a child herself. She hadn't thought much about it since then though. Kathleen obviously still carried some guilt with her, though Grace couldn't have cared less.

"I'm sorry Grace, I don't know what's wrong with me. I just saw you together and assumed the worst." Kathleen burst into tears.

"Buck loves you." Grace said more to remind herself than to comfort Kathleen.

"I know. I'm sorry I doubted you Grace." She wiped tears off her face with the sleeve of her dress.

"It's alright." She smiled and hugged Kathleen.

"I guess I still feel bad for stealing Jon Luke from you when we were kids."

"Kathleen, that was years ago and you couldn't take what I didn't have. It was a silly school girl crush that's all. Look, we've been friends for years, why would I harbor such animosity over something so trivial?"

"I don't know, I'm just being stupid."

"Well I won't disagree with you on that. Now let's get some sleep. I was out in the sun all day and I'm exhausted."

"Night Grace." Kathleen hugged her and retreaded to her bedroom.

Grace was right. Why would she want Buck anyway? She probably had several beaus to choose from at home. Probably more wealthy, good breeding, things like that mattered to some people. Kathleen settled into her soft bed and fell into a listless sleep.

Chapter Four

Buck stacked the last piece of wood on the pile before putting his axe away. He had been splitting logs for the last hour trying to keep his mind focused on work and not things it shouldn't be. Somehow she kept creeping into his thoughts though.

He hadn't seen much of Grace since they spent the day at the creek. Apparently she had several headaches lately which prohibited her from coming out the ranch. Buck squinted against the sun and wiped the sweat off his forehead. He wasn't sure if it was because she felt uncomfortable with him or if Kathleen was still mad.

Whatever her reasons it was better that she stayed away though. He hadn't ever felt the way he did when he was with her and it concerned him. It's like she consumed him. It was all he could do to keep himself from pulling her into his arms and kissing her senseless.

He was sure it was just pre wedding jitters and nothing more. He looked up at the sun, guessing it was a little after two. He made his way back to the house and cleaned up. There was a town dance that evening and there was no way he was going to be able to get out of it. Kathleen already bought a new dress and had been talking about it for a week now.

He sat on Kathleen's porch and waited. As usual she was running late. He couldn't figure out what took women so long to get ready to go out. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair and looked up to see Grace standing impatiently at the doorway.

Her long dark hair was pinned at the sides, and cascaded in full curls down her back. She wore a deep green dress that made her eyes look brighter and greener than usual.

"She's almost ready. It's warm out today." Grace fanned herself with her hand.

"Yeah."

"Is something wrong?" She asked.

"No. It's just hot out here." He took a step towards the buckboard.

"I hope it cools off tonight."

"Everyone ready?" Kathleen stepped out of the house in a bright blue dress.

"You very pretty tonight."

Buck took Kathleen's hand and headed towards the town square where they were having the dance.

Grace would have been content to sit and just watch everyone, but being the new lady in town she seemed to have a partner for every dance. Being one of the most attractive women there didn't hurt either.

After an hour Grace excused herself from her dance partner and took a seat at one of the tables. She looked around and didn't see Kathleen or Buck. They must have slipped out to get some private time. Since she had been there they hadn't had much time alone she was certain.

Though Kathleen had asked her to stay and be her maid of honor at the wedding, Grace knew it was time to go home. She was going to check in with the train station in the morning and find out when the next trip to California was.

"Feeling up to a dance?"

"Thank you but," Grace looked up and saw Buck standing with his hand out to her.

Buck took her hand and led her onto the dance floor. She was only an inch or two shorter than him with her small heels on.

"Where's Kathleen?" Grace looked around the courtyard for her.

"She wasn't feeling too well so I took her home."

"I should go, she might need something." Grace pulled away slightly.

"She didn't want to interrupt your evening. She's just going to sleep and I'll check on her later." Buck held her tightly.

On one hand Grace really didn't want to dance with him. She didn't want to have his arms around her, have him so close. His simple nearness was intoxicating. She turned and looked over his shoulder and tried to ignore the occasional brush of his hair on her cheek. No man had ever made her feel so out of control as he did.

The dance couldn't have ended soon enough. She couldn't stand to be that close to him any longer. Buck tried to keep up with her as she walked briskly back to Kathleen's house.

"Thank you." Grace smiled and leaned her back against the front door.

"Why don't you and Kathleen come out the ranch tomorrow?"

"Good night." She quickly opened the door and slipped in.

She leaned against the closed door and took a shaky breath. She had to leave town as soon as possible. She knew she was falling in love with him, and she needed to leave before she completely lost her heart to him. A solitary tear rolled down her cheek as she felt her heart breaking at the thought of never seeing him again, but she knew it was the right thing to do.

Chapter Five

Grace had gotten up early the next day and left a note for Kathleen that she would meet her at the ranch later that day, but she had a few things to do in town. Only one thing really, she needed to get a boarding pass back home. She had hoped to leave that weekend at the latest but the next train to California was another week away.

She could always take the stage up to Dallas and stay for a few days until the train came through. She frowned at herself. She was acting ridiculous. She just needed to be polite and avoid being around him as much as possible.

That shouldn't be too hard, she thought to herself. She was going to meet Kathleen and Buck for lunch at his house and see the new foal. One of Buck's mares had the baby just a few days before and she was excited to see it.

She looked at her watch, it was already noon. She promised she would be there by now. She made her way quickly to Kathleen's house and saddled up one of her horses. Kathleen's horse was still in the stall though, that was strange.

Grace unlocked the door and looked from room to room. Kathleen wasn't at home. Buck must have come by and picked her up already because her horse was still there.

She rode out quick hoping that Kathleen wouldn't be too upset that she was so late. Sometimes she could get a little testy at small things and Grace did not want to set her off.

She lightly tapped the horse to get her to go faster. Grace let her hair loose as she rode down the dusty road. She was tempted to forget going to the ranch and just riding until night fall. For her, ridding was the most freeing feeling. She didn't have to worry about anything when she was ridding.

She missed her midnight rides along the cliffs, smelling the salty sea air. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. The air was fresh and had almost a sweet grass smell, but it wasn't the same.

Grace slid off her horse and looped the reigns over the railing. She knocked on the door a couple times but no one answered. She peeked in the windows and then walked towards the large barn next to the house.

"Hello? Anyone here?"

"Yeah I'm in the barn." Buck yelled.

He was wondering when the ladies were going to show up he was starving.

"Oh my goodness she is so precious!" Grace bit her lip and walked over to the stall with the mare and her foal.

"She's doin' real good too."

"Did you name her yet?" She leaned over and reached her hand in, letting the mare nuzzle her before reaching over to the foal.

"Not yet. Come here." Buck knelt down when the foal came to the side of the stall.

Buck moved so Grace could pet the foal. She was a natural with horses. He smiled as she softly rubbed the new foal.

"She's beautiful." Grace reached for his hands to stand up.

Feeling the pulsing energy as soon as their hands touched, she instantly wished she could draw her hand back. Not wanting to be rude she casually took her hand back and brushed off her skirt.

"Is Kathleen already in the house?" Buck plucked a piece of straw out of her hair.

"I haven't seen her yet." Grace frowned. "I wasn't that late, you two could have waited until I got back."

"What do you mean?"

"Didn't you pick Kathleen up in town today?"

"No, you and she were coming out together."

"Well we were. You didn't ride into town and pick her up?" She looked up at him curiously, wondering if he were playing a joke on her because she was late.

"No, I haven't left the ranch all day."

"Where is she then? I checked the house before I left, she was not home."Grace's brows furrowed with concern.

"Maybe she went to the store."

"You don't seem concerned."

"That's because I'm not." Buck laughed. "Maybe she got sidetracked, maybe she's buying a new dress. This ain't New York, I'm not concerned she's gotten mugged or something."

"No, I guess not." Grace still frowned.

"Come on." Buck waived her towards the corral.

"What?"

"Let's take a short ride until she gets here."

"I'm sure she'll be her any minute. We should just wait for her." Grace shook her head.

"Suit yourself." Buck closed the corral gate and headed with Grace towards the house.

"I could start lunch. Do you know what she was planning on making?"

"I have no idea but you are more than welcome to take a look." He held open the front door for her and waited until she went in before he followed her.

"Well let's just see what you have in here." She busily began searching his cupboards.

"So do you have a beau waiting in California for you?" Buck asked out before thinking.

"A few interests I guess." She said honestly.

Though she wasn't particularly interested in them, they expressed interest in her and she promised her father she would consider them. She smiled broadly up at him.

"You aren't like most girls are you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well most girls your age, and as beautiful as you are would be married, or looking forward to their prospects."

"You think I'm beautiful?" She looked up coyly at him.

"Grace, you know you're beautiful." He raised his eyebrow at her, knowing she was playing a game with him.

"They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

"I doubt many would question your beauty."

"It means more coming from you."

"So why is it you don't have a husband yet?" He cleared his throat.

"I'm barely twenty, and it's too soon to settle down."

"Kathleen told me you were younger than her, I didn't realize you were that much younger."

"Only six years." She shrugged. "She was actually a friend of my elder brother, before we became friends."

"Your brother?" Buck's interest piqued.

"Armand, he's thirty now." She nodded. "A year older than you right?"

"I'm twenty seven."

"When you are that old, what are a few years?" She teased.

"You are a brat you know." He rolled his eyes at her.

"Yes, sometimes."

She laughed and pulled some vegetables out of the basket and began chopping them and tossing them in a pot of water.

"Tell me about your brother."

"He's very handsome, a little too handsome for his own good."

"How long did he and Kathleen court?"

"I don't know if you could really call it courting. He liked her quite a bit, but Armand was very young then, and he was quite captivated by her. Like I said, they were very young. Things didn't work out. Which I guess is good for you. Right?"

"Yeah." Buck smiled briefly and looked out the window.

"You know Buck, to be honest with you I was very much surprised in your match with Kathleen."

She noticed a flicker of emotion play across his face, though she couldn't read him well enough to know what it was.

"What do you mean?"

"Well you are a strange match don't you think?"

While she continued chopping the vegetables she could see him out of the corner of her eye walking closer to her.

"How so?"

"Well your backgrounds are so different,"

"Some people aren't as concerned with a person's background as others." He interrupted her.

Grace turned around quickly and almost fell against him. She was at a complete loss of words. He was angry, she could see the rage boiling just under his skin, but she could see he was hurt as well, by what he had presumed she meant.

"That's not what I meant at all Buck."

She tried to control the overwhelming urge to kiss him. He was so close she could inch towards him slightly and feel his lips on hers.

"What exactly did you mean then?"

He was angry. Not as angry by what she said, he had heard it for years, and would continue to hear it for the rest of his life.

He was angry because of what he felt for her, and that she thought so little of him. She was not as she seemed, and he felt like a fool.

"It's not hard to see why she chose you. You're an amazing man, generous, kind, and very handsome. Any woman would be happy to spend her life with you."

The nagging thoughts in her mind kept screaming at her to shut up, but her mouth wouldn't stop talking. Grace tried to control her ragged breathing as she licked her bottom lip and took a step back. No sooner did she step back, he took a step towards her.

"My point was, I'm surprised you chose Kathleen. I know that sounds horrible as her friend I shouldn't say such things."

Buck knew he was completely out of line but in that moment he couldn't care less. He had been thinking about her almost every second since they met.

He drew her into his arms and paused a brief moment. His lips so close to hers he could feel her breath on his face. He could feel her heart beating quickly and as her eyes fluttered shut he felt her lean into him and meet his lips with hers.

He pulled her closer and deepened their kiss. Though her kiss was gentle there was urgency that just added fuel to the already blazing fire. He leaned her against the wall and trailed kisses down her neck, nipping at her earlobe softly. His hands encircled her small waist and held her tightly to him.

"We can't," Grace whispered breathlessly but did not pull away.

Her words only repeated what he was already telling himself, but he didn't want to listen, to her or his better judgment. He knew by her continued kisses that she was feeling the same way, but felt obligated to say something of that nature.

She teased him seductively by pulling her head back and keeping her lips just out of reach. She felt one of his hands leave her waist and make its way up to her neck, then intertwine in her hair pulling her lips back to his.

His soft and gentle kisses became more demanding. As he grew bolder he traced her collarbone and lower, to the neckline of her dress. He felt her quick intake of breath as she wrapped her arms around his neck.

At the sound of a horse approaching the both pulled away from each other like fire from water. His breathing was erratic as was hers. They stood in silence and stared in disbelief at each other, neither knowing what to say.

Grace came to her wits first and made a bee line to the kitchen and began going through his cupboards again, at lease feigning the look that she was busy. He still had the bread wrapped up next to the ice box she made a couple days earlier. For being a bachelor Grace was surprised how neat and orderly Buck was.

She didn't have a habit of visiting single gentleman, in their homes. Though she had seen many times into the small homes of some of her father's employees, and had heard many of the women speak of how messy their husbands were.

Buck was right Kathleen had lost track of time in the dress shop which caused her to be late. Grace could hear Kathleen talking to Buck on the porch and she felt pangs of jealousy creeping into her heart again. What was she thinking? Her behavior was completely out of character, and Grace was disappointed with herself.

Grace continued to work on the soup she started while Buck showed Kathleen the new foal. She was grateful for a few minutes to collect herself. She stirred in bits of chopped meat and let the soup simmer.

If it weren't for the steady ramblings of Kathleen during the meal it would have been an awkward silence. Grace looked over at Buck a couple times but when he made eye contact she quickly looked away.

She was relieved that Kathleen didn't seem to notice any uneasiness between them. Grace insisted on riding home alone after lunch was finished. She wanted time to think, and to start packing before Kathleen had a chance to stop her.

She took off riding through the prairie. It didn't matter where, she just needed to ride. The wind whipping in her hair and the warm sun on her back helped her gather her thoughts.

No matter how hard she tried she couldn't push the thoughts of him out of her mind. It didn't help that she could still feel his hands on her body, taste his lips on hers.

The sun was starting to descend in the sky when she turned back to town. She had waited up for Kathleen to come home and told her she was leaving in the morning.

Grace explained that when she had gone into town earlier she stopped to get a few things at the mercantile. The owner had just gotten a telegraph in that morning for her. She explained that her father sent word to hurry her return home. Grace felt a little guilty for lying but she really didn't know what to tell her other than she was in love with her fiancé.

Grace tossed and turned until late in the evening. She couldn't get him out of her head. She lay there for twenty minutes or so debating whether she should ride out to his place and pour her heart out or keep her trap shut and get on the train the next day. Finally good sense and exhaustion won out and she drifted into sleep.

Chapter Six

Grace left Kathleen's early in the morning, before he friend was awake. She figured it would be easier that way. She wouldn't have to rehash again with Kathleen why she was leaving. She knew it hurt her friend's feelings that she wasn't staying for her wedding, but that couldn't be helped.

"You ain't leavin' so soon are you young lady?"

"I'm afraid so." Grace smiled as Teaspoon walked towards the stage coach stop. "I have to get back home."

"I'm guessing Kathleen isn't too happy you aren't staying for the wedding." He was fishing for information in a roundabout way.

"No, she's not." Her smile faded slightly.

"I hope there's no trouble at home."

"Would you do me a favor?" Grace changed the subject.

"There's a good chance I just might. For a price." He leaned his cheek towards her and tapped it a couple times.

"You old tease." Grace kissed his leathery cheek bristled with a couple day old beard growth. "I wrote this letter to Buck, and it's kind of personal. I'd prefer Kathleen not to see it."

"Love letter?" Teaspoon wiggled his eyebrows.

"Just a farewell letter. But, you know how Kathleen can be." She assured him.

"I know exactly what she's capable of." His voice turned hard and serious.

"What do you mean?" Grace pried. Surely Kathleen wasn't up to her old antics.

"It's not my place." He smiled.

"I know she can be a little difficult at times. I'm hopeful that she realizes how lucky she is to have Buck." Grace turned and smiled hoping to hide the tears that were brimming in her eyes.

"When does the coach get here?"

"I think an hour or so. I didn't want to miss it."

"Well my dear I hope you have a wonderful trip."

"Thank you Teaspoon."

Teaspoon nodded at her then mounted his horse and headed towards Buck's house. He wasn't about to let this one get away. He was going to have a little talk with his young friend and hope that he could convince him he was making a mistake. There was no mistaking the look in Grace's eyes. She was in love, and Teaspoon knew that look better than anyone.

Buck was fixing a fence when Teaspoon rode up and waived to him. He had considered him like a son for many years, and for the last few they had gotten to be even more like father and son. Teaspoon smiled with pride. He was impressed that Buck seemed to have matured a lot in the last few years.

He had seen him go from a shy and uncertain youth to a strong and courageous man. Teaspoon wasn't sure what Buck did for the several years during the War. He knew he was living with the Kiowa for a while. It seemed as though he was comfortable in his own skin finally.

He knew it was a difficult line to walk, both white and Indian, but whatever happened while he was living with the Kiowa seemed to bring him a kind of peace within himself.

For the last couple years Buck had worked at building his reputation as a horse breeder. He was very quickly becoming a much sought after breeder.

"It's about time you came out here. Come on in, Grace made some Lemonade yesterday and I still have some." Buck stopped pounding the stake into the ground and waived Teaspoon towards the house.

"Speaking of your pretty little friend. She asked me to give this to you." Teaspoon cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Why didn't she just ride over with you?"

Buck frowned. He had wanted to talk to her about what happened yesterday. He was hoping she would have ridden out earlier this morning before Kathleen woke up.

"She left this morning."

"What do you mean left?"

"She went back home."

"She didn't say goodbye." Buck said unable to fathom that she was really gone.

"I imagine that's what the letter is for Son."

Buck leaned up against the railing and opened the letter carefully. As he continued to read he turned his back to Teaspoon so the other man didn't see the reaction he had to the letter.

Dearest Buck,

Please forgive my leaving so suddenly and without saying a proper good bye. I wouldn't have left this way, had I not thought it was absolutely necessary.

Surely my feelings for you are evident. I tried my very best not to lose my heart to you, but I'm afraid I was not successful in that. Though I am not ashamed of how I feel for you and I wish things could be different I know they cannot be. I apologize most sincerely for my very brazen behavior.

I will love you with all of my heart, and I doubt that a day will go by that I don't think of your handsome face, your tender touch, or our brief conversations. You should know you have touched my heart like no man has or will ever. I hope you will always think fondly of me. I sincerely wish you a most happy future.

Love always,

Grace

Buck folded the letter and put it in his pocket. He frowned as he looked across his land. He hadn't given much thought to the predicament he was now faced with.

Grace had come into his life so quickly, and his feelings for her were so strong, but they barely knew each other. Whereas he had known Kathleen for years and though they had some rocky times they moved passed it.

"Whatcha thinkin' Son?" Teapsoon broke the silence.

"Nothing." Buck lied.

"You would have to be blind not to see the way that girl feels about you. You shouldn't let her get away." He hopped back up on his horse.

"I'm engaged Teaspoon." Buck shook his head.

"You aint married yet." The older man nodded.

"Soon enough." Buck muttered softly.

"You better get her in your life, or out of your head for good."

"What do you mean?"

"A woman like that will get under your skin. If you don't talk to her, end it or find out if there's something there, the thought of what may have been will eat you alive." Teaspoon raised one of his bushy eyebrows.

"I guess so."

"It will definitely ruin any chance you have at a marriage with Kathleen." Teaspoon really laid it on thick.

"I suppose your right. I can't just take off to California. I mean, what would I tell Kathleen?" Buck rubbed his forehead.

"If you hurry you can catch the stage before it gets too far."

Buck didn't need any further encouragement. He quickly saddled up and rode like the wind to town. He was in luck the stage coach just pulled in. He saw Grace had a man on of her satchels.

"Grace!" Buck yelled across the street and dismounted before his horse came to a stop.

"What are you doing here?"

"I read your letter." He caught his breath from ridding hard.

"I have to go." She looked at the stage coach.

"Five minutes?" Buck looked up at the driver.

Upon the driver's small smile and nod Buck grabbed her hand and walked her into the nearby library. As usual the library was empty and very quiet. Grace followed him as he pulled her towards the back behind a bookcase.

"Why didn't you come to say goodbye?" Buck whispered.

"You weren't meant to read that until I was gone."

"I don't understand you."

"Are you blind or just an idiot?" She asked as tears began to fill her eyes.

"Grace," he tried to calm her down.

"I'm in love with you!" She exclaimed.

She didn't realize she had been so loud until an elderly woman peeked around the bookshelf and glared at her. Grace composed herself then turned back to Buck.

"I'm in love with a married man, or just about."

Buck didn't wait for her to continue. He leaned her against the bookcase and kissed her eagerly. Her lips tasted salty from her tears.

Grace felt her resolve fade away as his tender kisses sent her emotions whirling. His strong work roughened hands pulled her demandingly closer to him.

"Tell me you love me." She whispered between kisses.

"You know I do."

"And what of Kathleen?"

As soon as she said her name Buck pulled away and caught his breath as well as his wits. He did love her, but he loved Kathleen too didn't he?

"I need some time."

"Time for what? Either you love me or her." Grace demanded.

"It's not that simple."

"It shouldn't be a hard decision Buck." She spun on her heel and headed out of the library.

"Grace." Buck followed her out of the library.

"Do you think this is easy for me? Kathleen is one of my oldest friends. I didn't plan on falling for you." Grace whispered. "It comes down to this though, you either love her or me." She whispered.

"Grace, I love you more than I've ever loved anyone." He pulled her around to face him. "But things aren't that easy. I made a promise to Kathleen and,"

"I love you." She said calmly and quietly. "But I won't be your mistress, or the woman that comes between you and Kathleen. I won't settle for anything less than all of you." She turned and opened the stage coach door.

"Don't leave."

"I don't have a choice." She stepped one foot in the coach and turned to kiss him on the cheek.

Grace shut the door and turned from the window with tears in her eyes. She couldn't bear to watch him disappear as the coach road away from town.

Grace was glad she was the only one on the coach that day. She didn't need an audience. She leaned back on the well worn seats and let the hot tears fall down her cheeks. She had never fallen so much in love with someone before, and never had her heart broken either.

Epilogue

It took less than an hour for Buck to make up his mind, but a couple days to hire some people to tend his animals. He didn't take a coach he just rode straight through to California. He didn't know exactly where she lived, but he would find her. Teaspoon had seen the entire event at the stage coach and convinced him he would be a fool to let that woman walk out of his life.

He had mulled it over in his head the entire ride. He wanted closure or, no, he needed closure. Buck frowned at his thoughts. He couldn't control how his mind wandered to her every moment he had a few minutes of rest. Secretly he didn't want to end it, and he knew it.

He was balancing a fine line between the two women, one wrong step and he'd lose it all. Going back to Kathleen or moving ahead to Grace. He knew how she felt about him and he felt the same about her.

His heart raced as he rode up to a large gate, the name D'Agostino was engraved above the archway. He had gotten directions in town, and the man had said it was a large house, but that didn't describe it well at all.

Buck sat back and gawked at possibly the largest home he had ever seen. Large archways and decorative iron window bars was the first thing he noticed, followed by richly colored tiles.

He slowed his horse and waved to a man watering some rose bushes by the large fountain in the center of the plaza like entrance.

"Sir, I'm looking for Grace D'Agostino."

"La vi cerca de los acantilados con su hermano."

"Sir?"

"El océano."

Buck smiled and nodded. He headed across the rocky terrain towards the ocean. Within a few minutes he made out Grace's form walking along the winding pathway from her home towards the cliffs. Though the ocean was calm the breeze was surprisingly chilly. Buck felt the cool wind whip across his neck.

He was just about to call out to Grace when he saw another person come into view behind her. He watched in disappointment as the two people embraced each other. He watched the man put his arms around her and hold her close.

Buck must have starred at them for several minutes before finally turning to leave. He was a fool for going all the way to California over a kiss. He chastised himself, but it wasn't just a kiss. He felt the harsh reality of jealousy. He felt the dreaded feeling of betrayal creep into his heart.

She had looked him straight in his eyes and lied twice. First about loving him and secondly about not being serious about anyone. What a fool he was. He started to wonder if there were any women who were completely honest.

Furious with letting his emotions overrule his rational thinking he rode like the devil was on his tail. It was a long way home to Shadow Valley and he got plenty of time to remind himself why he was marrying Kathleen.

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