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By the time evening fell, Andi was out of the hills and heading for the Circle C ranch. The moment the trail widened out, she pushed the horses even faster. They were badly lathered. She knew Diego would have some harsh words for her treatment of Señor Riley’s horses.
No matter. It couldn’t be helped.
The horses would need a good rubdown after this abuse, but right now Andi had no energy left to worry about them. Only Riley mattered. A stab of uncertainty pierced her heart. Riley hadn’t muttered a peep during the whole long, agonizing journey.
Andi kept the horses going. Thank God that the rising moon was full. It lit the hills in stark, white light. Home, home! Mother will take care of Riley. Chad will race to town for the doctor. And I can rest . . .
Andi’s arms felt like two lead weights. Her fingers were numb from gripping the reins. The rest of her body was wracked with pain from jolting along. Not even the wide valley road felt smooth.
Poor Riley! He must be bouncing all over the place back there, even with the blanket padding. She dared not stop to check on him.
Andi knew the quickest way to her childhood home, and she took it. Half an hour later, the lighted windows beckoned a cheerful welcome when she pulled into the long driveway. She slowed the horses just long enough to cool them a smidgen and yanked them to a shuddering stop in front of the porch. Their sides heaved.
“Sorry, fellas,” Andi apologized then crawled down from the seat.
The instant her toes touched the ground, her legs collapsed. Oof! She sat, cold and weary beyond belief, in the chilly December air.
In the distance, Andi saw cowhands mingling in the yard, but she was too tired to call out. It didn’t matter. They couldn’t help but hear the jangling harnesses and pounding hooves tearing up the Circle C driveway. What’s more, above all the noise, Tucker was frantically barking.
Someone would surely come.
A shout filled the air. Then a babble of Spanish and English voices grew nearer. Sid McCoy led the group. When he saw Andi, he raised his lantern and lit into her like she was twelve years old.
“What in tarnation’s got into you, Miss Andi? Runnin’ those horses like their tails are on fire? You shoulda—”
“Riley’s hurt!” She burst into exhausted tears.
Sid’s eyes grew wide. He passed the lantern to one of the hands, ordered two others to help Miss Andi into the house, and leaped into the back of the wagon to see to his nephew.
“I’m fine,” Andi insisted when Jake and Diego gently lifted her to her feet. She tried to brush them off.
Jake snorted. “Sure you are.” He didn’t let go.
“No es la verdad, señorita,” Diego muttered.
Andi gave in. Diego was right. It wasn’t the truth. She felt far from fine. A wave of nausea washed over her. She slumped and let the two cowhands carry her up the wide veranda steps.
Diego didn’t bother to knock. He burst through the doorway yelling in Spanish.
The last thing Andi heard was Sid’s astonished exclamation. “A cougar cub! What in tarnation . . .”
His voice faded, and Andi let sweet oblivion take her away . . .
* * *
“Riley!” Andi shot up from a terrifying nightmare. She had missed the shot. The cougar was mauling Riley! He was screaming . . . screaming . . . begging Andi to shoot the—
“Shhh, darling.” Firm but gentle hands caught Andi before she could leap out of bed. “It’s all right. Riley’s fine. Chad fetched the doctor hours ago.”
Andi threw her arms around Mother and took three long, deep breaths. “Really? Promise me he’s all right.”
Mother drew Andi’s arms away and looked into her face. She was smiling. “I promise. Dr. Weaver said he’s weak as a kitten from blood loss, but the cat did not tear into anything vital.”
Tears of relief dripped down Andi’s cheeks. “Thank you, God,” she whispered.
“Yes, indeed,” Mother agreed with a nod.
Andi threw aside the bedcovers. “I want to see him.”
“It’s the middle of the night.” Mother replaced the covers. “He’s sleeping peacefully”—she paused—“which is more than I can say about you.” Her expression changed to one Andi knew well.
A scolding was in the making.
Mother sat back in the overstuffed bedside chair. “I would like to know, daughter, what Riley was thinking today—letting you go off into the middle of nowhere. I always thought he was a sensible young man, but . . .” She clucked her tongue, just like Aunt Rebecca used to do.
Uh-oh. Mother sounded angry at Riley. Very angry.
Andi reddened. “What do you mean?”
“Do not give me that innocent look, Andrea. You know exactly what I mean. I asked Dr. Weaver to look at you also.” She paused.
Andi felt her cheeks explode in heat.
“I was worried,” Mother said when Andi kept quiet. “You looked ghastly when Diego and Jake brought you inside. It’s not like you to react like that—fainting and ill—from an all-day adventure in the mountains. Even if you did have to shoot a cougar.”
“How did you know I shot the cat?” Andi asked in a tiny voice.
“Oh, it wasn’t hard for Chad to figure out. The used rifle, Riley’s condition, an orphan cub.” Her blue gaze bored into Andi. “Do not change the subject.”
Andi swallowed. Did mothers know everything? Apparently so. Or . . . they had ways of finding out the things they wanted to know.
Like Andi’s secret. She’s sneakier than Justin. And just as relentless.
Andi ducked her head and fingered the blanket binding. “Riley doesn’t know,” she whispered without looking up. “I wanted to surprise him on Christmas Day about the baby.”
“I see.” Mother paused. “Well, that’s the only good thing in all of this. My faith in Riley’s good sense is restored.” She shook her head and sighed. “But what were you thinking, daughter? You wanted a tree in the Circle C tradition. I understand that. But not at the expense of your little one.”
“I felt fine,” Andi protested. “And I’m—”
She broke off. She wanted to snap at Mother, to say she was a married woman now and could make her own decisions.
Andi knew better. She’d felt fine, true, until the adventure had turned upside down and demanded all of her strength. What if I’d ended up reacting like Lucy did when she was carrying Gracie? Lucy could hardly function at times. What if I couldn’t take another step? What if I had keeled over halfway home? What if—
Mother caught Andi up in a tight embrace. “It’s all right, sweetheart. All’s well that ends well. But please, let this be a lesson to you.”
Just then, Chad poked his head through the doorway. “Riley’s awake. He wants to know if Andi’s all right. I told him you were fine, but he’s a stubborn one, that boy.” He grinned. “Better haul yourself out of bed for a few moments, little sister, and assure him you’re none the worse for your adventure.”
This time Mother did not prevent Andi from flying out of bed. She drew on a housecoat and hurried to Riley’s side in the guest room three doors down.
Riley’s eyes lit up when he saw her. “You’re okay.”
“Yep.” Andi smiled and sat down beside him.
Riley looked much better now. Almost as good as new, so long one only looked at his uninjured head and hand.
Andi picked up his hand and squeezed it. Then she kissed his cheek. “I wanted to wait until Christmas, but I have something to tell you. I think it will help you heal faster.” She glanced toward the doorway. No one—not even Chad—was lurking around.
“Good news, I hope?”
“Oh, yes.” Even though nobody was spying, Andi couldn’t bring herself to shout her news out loud. She whispered in Riley’s ear.
The tight squeeze on Andi’s hand and his murmured “best Christmas gift ever” was music to Andi’s ears. If he was angry that she hadn’t told him before they left for their adventure, he was gentlemanly enough not to bring it up.
Andi sat holding Riley’s hand until she felt his grip loosen. She tucked his hand under the covers and brushed a final kiss across his forehead. He was sound asleep, a contented smile on his face.
Andi suddenly felt more than fine. She tiptoed out of the room and made her way downstairs for a midnight cup of chocolate. To her surprise, Chad and Ellie were already there, sipping tea and chatting.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Ellie confessed.
“Been waiting for you to wake up,” Chad said. “The men are in a quandary. They want to know what in blazes they’re supposed to do with that cougar cub you hauled home.”
Andi’s mouth dropped open. Oh, dear! What am I supposed to do with it?
Then a delightful idea tickled her thoughts. She knew the perfect recipient for that little Christmas cat. She smiled at her brother. “Merry Christmas, Chad!”