About the book
Because love is the only thing that can melt an icy heart...
Sierra Marksinson is a woman with dreams and aspirations.
Having worked at the ranch ever since she was a child, she spends her days studying to become a nurse, wishing to protect those who are harmed; Indian or not. But through her missions, she comes across Wyatt, the man her family hates and the man she is supposed to hate. And he slowly steals her heart...
Ever since the loss of his parents, Wyatt Raney is the sole caretaker of his younger sister and the ranch. He would do anything to keep her safe, even if that means fighting anyone who comes her way. But soon, he finds himself falling for the enemy's sister and there is no going back...
Their love can only remain a secret hidden behind doors, but soon scandal erupts. Sierra and Wyatt's families go missing and threatening letters come both of their way.
What happens when the couples' love is enough to melt away the icy pain? And what happens when dark secrets suddenly reveal themselves?
Sierra Markinson was undeniably beautiful. Thick, dense curls of vibrant auburn surrounded her slender face, and no matter whether it was twisted up into a bun or allowed to lie loose across her shoulders, there was always one little strand that fell into her eyes. Her fair skin was covered in freckles, like kisses from an angel. She was, quite frankly, the prettiest woman that Wyatt had ever met.
Beside him, Dana nudged his shoulder and Wyatt was jolted back to reality with a muffled yelp. "Stop staring at the Markinson's and pay attention," she murmured, elbow digging into his side.
Frowning at nothing in particular, Wyatt turned back to the front. The priest, Father Henry, stood at the altar with a gentle smile on his face - but by now, the words were lost to Wyatt. He had been saying something about helping the community and building communal gardens, but now the topic had changed, and he seemed to be finishing up for the morning. "As always, thank you all for coming today. I love to see God's house so full and alive. I'll see you all next Sunday, as always."
Slowly, chatter began to fill the church. It was always so busy on Sundays that sometimes it was difficult to find enough space in the pews to sit everybody. This wasn't the only church in town, but it was by far the most popular thanks to Father Henry. He had a friendly disposition and a more casual approach to service that the younger people liked, but he was still traditional enough that the older generation could enjoy it, too.
Wyatt's own parents had nothing but praise for him, but that was a long time ago. Since they passed, he and Dana had continued to attend the same church, sitting in their familiar spot where they had once sat as a family.
"You know," Dana mused as she squeezed out of the pew, "if you keep staring at Sierra like that, somebody is bound to notice. I can't imagine Hans will be pleased that you're staring at his sister."
Wyatt grimaced - green eyes narrowed. He resisted the urge to snap something smart, if only because they were in church and there were enough people around him to earn some disapproving looks if overheard. Instead he only replied, "I wasn't staring at her at all."
"Do you really think I wouldn't notice? You didn't pay attention the whole service."
Wyatt rolled his eyes as he hauled himself upright. The pews were too narrow for his long legs, and it always left his legs aching, so he took a moment to stretch. The church was emptying now, people eager to get fresh air or hurry home. Some lingered to talk to Father Henry, though, and Wyatt saw a few neighbors hovering by the front.
Adjusting her shawl, Dana pulled it close around her shoulders to ward off the chill. Not that it was cold, but she always seemed to be cold no matter the weather. Wyatt thought it was because she was too skinny, yet she ate just as much as anyone else. "I've known you my entire life," she pointed out, still fiddling with her shawl, "and you're a predictable man. Just talk to her, it won't kill you to say hello."
Maybe that's what Dana thought, but Wyatt had already proven to himself that it wasn't quite so simple. Their family had a long and terrible history with the Markinson's that stretched back to their parent's teenage years, and neither family had been able to let it go. Well, considering that Roy Markinson had poisoned the Raney well almost four decades ago now, Wyatt didn't think he should forgive the Markinson's.
As if sensing his thoughts, Dana grabbed his shoulder and tugged him to her side. "Don't you think it's about time we lay this rivalry to rest?" she hissed in his ear. "I mean, it started before we were even alive, for goodness' sake."
Wyatt only made a noncommittal sort of huff, blowing dark hair out of his face.
"Maybe you and Sierra could be the first people to break this silly rivalry."
Now that was an absurd idea. Shaking himself free from Dana's grasp, he folded his arms and turned to march toward the door. On his way out, however, he caught Sierra's dark, hazelnut brown eyes and he faltered. Her Sunday best consisted of a pale blue blouse with billowing sleeves and a modest neckline, and it accented her hair beautifully. Hair which was currently spilling over her shoulders in uncontained curls, gorgeous red against the dim lighting of the church. When she smiled, her whole face lit up.
Hans was nowhere to be seen, likely already outside waiting for his sister. The middle Markinson sibling, Benjamine, was also notably missing.
"Come on," Dana chastised as she caught up with him, "I want to enjoy this sunshine while it lasts. Do you see those big clouds looming outside?"
His dark eyes flickered to her, then shifted right back to Sierra. She had turned now to wave goodbye to a friend, her easy smile widening. "You go on ahead," Wyatt replied without looking at Dana, "I'll catch up in a minute."
"Suit yourself." Despite her words, there was no annoyance in her tone. She gave his shoulder a pat as she passed, and then she was gone.
The church was virtually empty now. Only Sierra and a few others remained. It was silly to talk to her in the open like this because the whole town knew about the disagreement between the two families. They hardly tried to keep it a secret. Yet Wyatt couldn't ignore the pull he felt towards Sierra, or the way the whole church lit up whenever she was there. There was something about her that he couldn't place, but that something had him hooked.
"Hello," Sierra chirped as he approached, "it was a good service today, wasn't it?" Her eyes flickered past him to Father Henry, who was talking to two young women in matching dresses. Wyatt knew them vaguely as the Hempsey twins, although they had never spoken. "I thought you would have left by now. Where's Dana?"
"Outside," Wyatt replied simply, and he managed to stumble over just that one word. How was it that as soon as Sierra was in front of him, words ceased to work properly?
If Sierra noticed, she didn't show it. That radiant smile never slipped, and when she let out a soft giggle it was the most wonderful sound he had ever heard. "Well, we shouldn't keep her waiting. Or... did you want to talk to me?"
Of course I did, Wyatt wanted to respond, but his throat had dried up and suddenly he couldn't produce a single sound. Instead he only nodded mutely, cursing his incapability.
Big brown eyes gazed at him for a moment, before Sierra beamed. "Oh, really? I thought you were so much like Hans, unwilling to look past our, well… past. It's nice to know that not everyone is so obsessed with history."
The problem was that Wyatt did think like that. The past generation of Markinson's had poisoned the Raney well and killed almost all of their cattle. Or so the story went. It wasn’t just about the family feud, though, but about Hans himself. They had history too, and although Sierra didn’t know it, there was something deeper between Wyatt and Hans. Something borne from an accident years ago, not long after Wyatt was named the family head.
Noticing his silence, Sierra, lip caught between her teeth, let out a soft sigh. "Never mind. You do think just like him, don't you?" As if she could see it in his eyes, she visibly deflated before him. "Hans takes this so seriously, you know. He's forbidden me from talking to a single Raney, and that includes you. I just think that this whole thing is better left alone - it happened so long ago.”
That was true, Wyatt supposed. The Raney's were a small family to begin with - and after Lance Raney accused Roy Markinson of his misdeeds, the family became even smaller. Some moved away, deciding that the ranch was doomed, and they wanted better things. Roy and Lance themselves passed away ten years after the scandal, six months apart.
Shaking his head, Wyatt resisted the sigh that crept up the back of his throat. "I think that this started for a reason, and it would be a betrayal to simply forget about it. Besides, you have nothing to forgive. It was the Markinson's that tried to ruin us."
Sierra's left eye twitched. A nervous habit? She sucked in a breath and straightened her posture. "That's exactly my point. It was decades ago, Wyatt. Why hold a grudge against people that are no longer alive? It's pointless."
Wyatt feared he might have said something he regretted, but then a voice called from outside, "Sierra? Come on, it's time to go."
Although she rolled her eyes, that beautiful smile had returned, and Wyatt felt his stomach flip at the sight. "That would be Hans," she announced, "he always knows just when to interrupt." Sierra offered him a kind smile as she slid past, but she didn't offer any more words of wisdom, thank goodness. "See you next Sunday," she said instead, then wandered down the aisle toward where Hans waited outside, just out of view.
Disappointment settled heavily in Wyatt's stomach. That hadn't gone how he imagined. He had no idea that Sierra felt that way; that she had such strong opinions about the Raney-Markinson rivalry. Yet despite the heavy feeling in his gut, there was also a spark of hope. Hope that, perhaps, she was interested in him. Suddenly, the idea didn't sound as absurd as it had before.
There was no time to dwell on it though, because at that moment Dana appeared in his field of vision. She darted forward and slipped her arm through his, expression stern. "I've been waiting outside for ages, stuck with Hans Markinson, of all people. If it could have at least been Benjamine, then I wouldn't have been so tempted to pull out my hair."
Wyatt managed a snort of laughter, nose crinkling. "He is a bit much," Wyatt agreed as they began to wander back outside. It was a clear day, although not too sunny - but the dark gray clouds looming over to the North didn't look good. "We should go home before it rains," he concluded with a grimace.
"That's what I said," Dana said with a huff, "but no, you insisted on talking to Sierra."
"Didn't you also say to talk to her?"
"Yes, but I didn't mean now!" She threw her hands out as if to say obviously! but there was a grin creeping along her lips. "Anyway, we'll have to hurry if we want to eat dinner at a sensible time, because I have a roast planned."
Wyatt's stomach growled at the very mention of food, and he found himself suddenly starving. Yet those thoughts lasted only as long as it took to see Sierra, her hair even brighter in the morning sunshine, standing with her two older brothers. He waved without thinking, then cursed himself when Hans' narrow eyes turned to glare.
"Someone's in a bad mood," said Dana with a sigh, tugging Wyatt along down the cobbled path. "It's a shame that someone like him is head of the family. Sierra and Benjamine deserve better than that."
"What is it with you and Benjamine at the moment?" Wyatt teased as they turned down the street, "I didn't know you cared one way or the other."
Dana only flushed crimson and ducked her head, and Wyatt decided to drop the subject. Even if there was something between Dana and Benjamine, who was he to criticize when he was falling head over heels for Sierra?
Sierra knew as soon as she saw Hans' face, that something was wrong. He was the kind of man who wore his heart on his sleeve, his emotions laid bare for everyone to see. Sierra had long come to know what each twitch of his face or flicker of his eyes meant.
Padding across the grass, Sierra didn't have the chance to enjoy the weak sunshine filtering down through the clouds. Not when Hans turned that harsh expression to her. She offered a wave hello, although couldn't quite muster a real smile. "Hello Hans. Sorry I took so long inside. I was talking to someone."
"I know, I saw you with that Raney boy, Wyatt. As if talking to the Raney's wasn't bad enough, you had to catch the eye of the head of family."
Benjamine, Sierra's older brother by two years, hovered awkwardly by Hans' side. "It's all right," he said with a frown, "they were just talking-"
"Don't think I didn't notice you talking to Dana, too. I swear, it's as if you've forgotten what that family did to us."
Decades ago, Sierra wanted to snap, but she had no energy to argue. It was all she ever seemed to do with Hans these days, reiterating the same argument over and over without ever getting anywhere. It was exhausting, and she was tired of it.
"Those Raney's nearly ruined our livelihood," Hans continued, his eyes narrowing further with each word. "They accused us of killing their cattle and nearly drove us into the ground over something we didn't even do." He jabbed a finger at Sierra's chest, eyes narrowed dangerously. "And you two are talking to them as if you're closest friends. This has to stop."
Sierra's cheeks colored as her eyes darted about the street. Her chest jumped when she noticed a handful of neighbors nearby. "Calm down," she hissed, "you'll cause a scene."
"Maybe I should cause a scene. Then perhaps you'll listen to me for once."
"Hans," Benjamine muttered, and his own cheeks had turned scarlet. He looked like he wanted to melt into the ground and disappear; Sierra knew the feeling. "Do we have to do this here?"
Hans' scowl never faltered, but his shoulders slouched as the tension drained from him. "Fine," he snapped, "we can continue this discussion at home."
They were about to leave when Sierra caught movement from the corner of her eyes. She turned to see none other than Wyatt and Dana themselves, wandering down the cobbled path that led from church to street. Wyatt paused when they locked his, and his were such a rich, bright teal that stunned her every time.
Wyatt waved, and she returned it without thinking - only to drop her hand as she felt Hans' hot gaze on the back of her neck. Stomach fluttering anxiously, she turned away. With each passing day it was more and more difficult to ignore the feelings she had for Wyatt, but Hans would never have allowed anything between them. Better not to think about it at all, then.
"I'm going home," Benjamine muttered, now descending the little steps that led to the road. They lived only ten minutes away, and there was hardly any need to rush, but he quickened his pace and looked impatiently back. "Come on."
Going home meant facing Hans, and Sierra was hardly in a mood to bring that on quicker. She lingered behind as Hans and Benjamine walked on ahead, nose crinkling in disgust. Why did Hans have to be so angry all the time? Why did he have to obsess over something that happened before he was born? Wasn't it enough to accept that the past was the past, and they couldn't change it?
"Do hurry, Sierra," Hans called, waving a hand without looking back at her.
Grimacing, Sierra let out a heavy sigh and dragged her feet along the path to catch up. She had no desire to walk by Hans' side, and just because Benjamine had accepted the scolding didn't mean she had to. They were all adults here, and there was no need for Hans to be treating them like children.
The walk back to the house was filled with tense silence. Nobody dared speak, not even Hans, and the quiet seemed to consume them bit by bit. The looming overhead clouds didn't help, darkening the sky and telling of rain to come. It was turning out to be a horrible morning, not least because of the weather.
They finally reached the house, and Sierra followed her brothers up the little wooden steps that led through the gate. Their ranch was a sprawling expanse of green pastures and enormous barns, with the old farmhouse right in the middle of the huge patch of land. No matter where you looked there was some kind of nature - the cows grazing in the fields or the horses peeking out of their stables, or the multiple vegetable gardens dotted throughout the fields. It was beautiful, and no matter how many times she saw it, Sierra never tired of the wonderful sight.
To their left, cows grazed lazily in the pasture. A few looked up as the family walked past, their tails flicking in agitation. Cows weren’t the friendliest of animals, but Sierra loved how each and every one had its own personality. She recognized them all by sight alone and had named all of them. Not that Hans or Benjamine knew that, or they’d be sure to laugh.
Past the lush green fields was the house itself; built by her grandfather when he first arrived here. It towered above everything else, even the barns - huge and magnificent in the sunshine. It sprawled out across the dirt, massive and majestic, but it didn’t look foreboding. Rather the big wooden porch and plant pots lining the railing made it homey. Comfortable. Big windows overlooked the ranch, so that no matter what room you were in, Sierra was able to admire her surroundings. The whole thing was made of dark wooden timber that turned a beautiful dark honey shade when the light hit just right.
Sierra loved her home, and she loved it a little bit more each time she saw it.
Hans, however, didn't pause to admire their home. He strode through the gate and marched down the long path that led to the house. Unwilling to wait for either Sierra or Benjamine, he made it to the porch before either of them had made it halfway there.
"He's in a foul mood today," Benjamine murmured as he closed the gate. He shot a glare at Hans' retreating form in the distance. "I mean, worse than usual. You really shouldn't have spoken to Wyatt."
"I didn't realize he had seen," Sierra replied honestly. If she had, she would have been more careful. "Besides, he caught you talking to Dana."
"I only said hello!"
Unfortunately, that was enough for Hans. A simple hello to the rival family was enough to bring out the worst in him, and he wouldn't let it go for days. Sometimes she wondered if this was less about family rivalry, and more about Hans' own personal vendetta. What that was, she had no clue, but so much as seeing the Markinson's unleashed some horrible anger within him. He was waiting on the porch steps now, no doubt wanting to continue his scolding now they had privacy.
"I'm not looking forward to this," Benjamine muttered, "Do you think that if we just stay here, he'll leave us alone?"
Sierra wished that were the case, but of course it wasn't. They could only put off the inevitable for so long, and with each passing second Hans only grew more impatient. Taking in a deep breath, Sierra prepared herself. "Let's get this over with."
Together, Sierra and Benjamine strode down the path towards the house, steeling themselves for what was to come. Bit by bit, Hans' looming figure came into view, arms folded stiffly across his broad chest.
"Now that we're home," he said as soon as Sierra set foot on the porch, "we need to talk."
Sierra cast Benjamine a look from the corner of her eyes, and he met her gaze with a helpless shrug.
"Haven't I already forbidden you from talking to the Raney's? Haven't I already said that they aren't worth our time?" His dark eyes shifted from Benjamine to Sierra, expression twisting into one of anger. "I expected better from you both. Especially you, Sierra. Do neither of you have any pride in this family?"
Sierra felt heat creeping under her skin, growing more with each word from Hans' lips. She clenched her hands and bit down on her lip, willing herself to stay quiet. Anger never helped anybody, but God, Hans made it difficult for her.
"In case you have forgotten, the Raney's tried to destroy our ranch. Jealous, they were, that our ranch is more successful than theirs. We have been doing this for far longer than them, and we'll continue long after their ranch has turned to dust. Us Markinson's remember, and we do not forgive."
Sierra scoffed - she hadn't meant to utter such a sound, but it slipped from her lips without thought and echoed through the silent ranch. When Hans' gaze swiveled back to her, she shrank under his stare.
A smarter person would have stayed quiet. Somebody with more self-preservation would have apologized or changed the subject. Yet Sierra had always believed in speaking her mind, and now was no different. So she forced herself to meet his gaze, bright green and wary, and said, "You take this too seriously, Hans. Hating them doesn't help anyone, not even us."
It was the wrong thing to say, and that became evident as Hans whole body went rigid. For a long moment he didn't move, didn't even seem to breathe, and Sierra felt as if she could feel the gears turning in his mind. When he did speak, his voice was dangerously low. "Everything I do is for the benefit of this family. The benefit of you. It isn't my fault that neither of you ungrateful children can see that."
Anger sparked in Sierra's chest, hot and painful as it erupted. She parted her lips to snap, the unkind words on the tip of her tongue-
"It isn't our fault that you're stuck in the past. How about you focus on making the future better, instead of living for something that happened twenty years ago!" Benjamine's voice shattered the silence, echoing out into the trees and fields. His chest heaved with the efforts of his breath; hands clenched tightly at his side.
"He's right," Sierra cut in before Hans could say a word, "you've lived with this grudge for your entire life. It's time to let go. Or at least admit that it's unhealthy for everyone involved." This stupid thing between the families had dictated her life for as long as she could remember. When Papa had been the head of family, it was all he ever spoke about; but at least it had been about the ranch and not this personal hatred that Hans seemed to feel.
"You don't understand," Hans snapped, and it only made Sierra's anger flood faster through her veins. "Lance Raney destroyed our family name for years, made fools of our parents and claimed that our own father poisoned their well. The townspeople despised us for years."
"Yes," Sierra snapped, and suddenly the words were spilling from her lips without consent. She couldn't stop them, didn't want to, because the more she looked at Hans the more she wanted him to just shut up. "The townspeople were angry at our family for a long time, and yes, our ranch suffered. But nobody remembers that now - they only know that we're still fighting a battle that should have been abandoned a long time ago. People still buy our meat, don't they? Our ranch is still flourishing, and we overcame that disaster. So what do we have to complain about?"
Hans didn't reply. For a long time, he simply stared at Sierra with narrowed eyes and a dark scowl. Not even Benjamine dared to speak this time, simply hovering between the two with nervous eyes.
If nobody had anything else to say, then Sierra wasn't going to stay here. The dark clouds drifting ever closed told her to go inside, lest they be caught in a downpour, but instead she turned on her heel and marched down the porch steps. Her boots clicked with each step, and she made a point of slamming her foot down as she reached the dry earth. "I'm going into town," she said softly, pushing that anger deep down inside, "I don't know when I'll be back."
She only made it a few steps when she heard a second pair of footsteps behind her. She nearly spun around to shout go away, but then her eyes landed on the slender frame of Benjamine. When she looked toward the porch, Hans was nowhere to be found.
"He went inside," Benjamine explained tiredly, "I think he's had enough of us for today."
"Good," Sierra replied, but now that Hans was gone the energy had been sapped from her, and she couldn't even manage to be annoyed any longer. Pressing a hand to her temple muted some of the dull ache settling in the back of her skull, but the throbbing pain told her that a headache was on its way.
Although Benjamine was older, he wasn't particularly tall and so matched Sierra's pace with ease. "He's doing what he thinks is right," he mused, although he rolled his eyes at the thought. "Maybe just stay away from Wyatt, okay?"
She shouldn't have had to, because all she did was talk to him for five minutes, but she had lost the desire to argue. Instead she replied, "Fine. If it means that Hans will leave it be, then I will. It isn't as if I even talk to him regularly."
Benjamine's reply was a sympathetic shrug, and a gentle hand on her shoulder. They were approaching the gate now, the one that separated the property from the roadside. It was the only entrance and exit unless Sierra counted the trail by the woods at the back of the house. "Just give him a while," Benjamine said kindly, "I'll take care of dinner, and by then I'm sure Hans will have calmed down."
Sierra hoped that was true, but she didn't dare hope. Hans was unpredictable and stubborn, which was honestly a family trait that all three of them shared, so perhaps she had no right to criticize. Letting out a dull sigh, Sierra pushed open the gate and stepped onto the path. "I'll be home in a while," she promised, "once I clear my head."
Nodding, Benjamine stepped back to let the gate swing closed. "See you soon. Don't leave me with Hans for too long," he teased.
After a quick goodbye, Sierra descended the little steps and turned to wander down the road towards town. If she kept going straight, she would have eventually come across the Markinson ranch, which was separated from their own only by fields. Yet instead of doing so she turned right, back the way she had come not so long ago, to the route that would take her past the church and into the town proper.
Sierra blinked as a figure came into view. At first, they were just a dot on the horizon, a silhouette bordered by thick foliage. As she ambled closer, however, she realized with a jolt who that tall, broad shouldered figure was. Wyatt. Her stomach turned and she felt the urge to disappear, but short of walking back to the ranch there was no way to avoid him now. Without another choice, she had to walk past him.
A small part of her, however, was glad to see him here. Her chest fluttered as she caught sight of his friendly smile, as she noticed the easy stride in which he walked. As much as she didn't want to admit it, seeing him always improved even her worst days.
He finally came to a stop beside her, hand raised in greeting. "Good morning, Sierra. What are you doing out here?"
For a moment, Sierra only blinked dumbly at Wyatt's raised hand. His little wave had been so sweet, so innocent, and the corner of Sierra's lips twitched into a smile. "Hello," she said softly, eyes downcast. Hans' words echoed in her mind, and she was all too aware of what could happen if someone saw them out here together. These country roads were rarely used, and nobody lived here except those on the Raney and Markinson ranches, but it still made her stomach twist in concern.
Wyatt's brows furrowed as he regarded her quietly. "Are you all right?" he asked, and he almost reached out to touch her shoulder before letting his hand drop back down to his side. "You seem distracted."
"That would be one way to put it," she replied tiredly. There was no sense in pretending, after all. Just like Hans always wore his anger openly, Sierra had never been good at hiding how she felt. Tugging at a loose auburn curl, she turned her head away. "About earlier when we spoke at church... I was impatient with you, and I'm sorry."
Now it was Wyatt's turn to fall quiet in surprise. He blinked, realization slowly dawning on his features. He had a handsome face, Sierra had always thought, with a strong jaw and high cheekbones that weren't quite hidden under a layer of softness. Not to say that Wyatt was big, because the majority of his bulk came from his impressive height and thick, ropey muscles. Not that she was paying attention to his muscles, obviously, and oh. Was he talking?
"...nothing to apologize for. I just hope Hans didn't get you in trouble for saying hello." He frowned, and Sierra's heart lurched at the sweet expression. "I was the one who came up to you, after all."
Although she had only caught the latter half of what he said - and even now, she was admittedly distracted by how his tightly fitting shirt fit those thick arms - but she managed a small smile and ducked her head. Perhaps the redness of her hair hid her flushed cheeks? "He certainly isn't happy," she replied with a shrug. That was nothing new. "He shouted at Benjamine and I both, although I suppose I should be happy that his anger wasn't directed solely at me."
Wyatt hummed under his breath, then turned to the sky. Those heavy clouds had passed over them without shedding a drop of rain, and now fluffy white clouds drifted overhead in their place. Although it was far from a sunny day, at least now they could see the clear sky.
"Would you like to take a walk?" Wyatt asked suddenly, head snapping back to look at Sierra with imploring eyes. "If you don't mind, that is." He seemed to want to say more, lips parted even though no words came out, but instead of voicing whatever those thoughts were he simply offered a hesitant smile.
If this had been anyone else, Sierra would have answered in a heartbeat. If it had been a day ago, she might have even agreed - albeit hesitantly - to take a walk with Wyatt, too. Now, though, Hans' words swirled in her mind, and she had to think about the consequences of such a thing.
"Of course," Wyatt said after a moment, "you don't want to. I wouldn't either if I had just been scolded over saying hello. Forget I asked-"
"No," Sierra cut in, perhaps too quickly. Yet her face lit up when she saw Wyatt's smile, and in that instant, she knew she couldn't turn him down. "I'd love to take a walk with you. To the river, perhaps?" It was her favorite spot to sit and think, and sometimes she and Benjamine used to play there as children. Now, the only person who ever walked by the river was Sierra herself, and it offered the privacy of thick trees to hide themselves away.
"The river?" Wyatt asked, turning his gaze down the road. "Sure. Please, lead the way. I'm not entirely sure how to get there."
They walked in silence for a while, broken only by the click of Sierra's heeled shoes and the odd birdcall high above them. There were many birds here, from crows and magpies to the dainty little wrens, and even the occasional red-tailed hawk.
It wasn't until they reached the little bank that either of them spoke. It was steep, leading past a copse of trees to the river below, and the soft bubble of water was audible even from here. He offered out a hand to help Sierra down and said, "I don't know your brother well, but it seems to me that he was unfair. He can't tell you what to do."
As head of the household, Hans absolutely could. Although the three of them were the only Markinson's left, he was the eldest and therefore the head of the entire family, too. The title didn't hold much official power now, but Hans was a traditional man, nonetheless.
Sierra said nothing as she took Wyatt's hand, and he carefully eased her down the slope until they both stood on solid ground. Her shoes sank into the mud, but she had long grown used to it after years of hiding away here. All she needed to do was pick up her skirt so that the edge didn't get dirty and take her steps carefully.
Wyatt allowed her to lead, walking easily by her side. The soft earth didn't seem to bother him, nor did the overgrown tangles of grass, and Sierra found herself admiring how elegantly he walked.
When they reached the riverbank, the hum of running water was musical to her ears. Oh, she had missed that sound! Usually she came here with a book to read or some craft to occupy her hands, but today it was just herself and Wyatt. Smiling fondly, Sierra knelt to dip her hands into the cool, fresh water.
Unwilling to get too close, Wyatt settled for perching on a rock and peering into the crystal-clear water. "Do you come here often?" he asked, nose crinkling, although not in disgust. Curiosity perhaps?
"I used to come here every day as a child," she replied, smiling as a little yellow fish swam over her palm. "Not so much anymore, but sometimes I still like to visit when I have a quiet moment. If you follow the trail, you'll eventually arrive around the back of the ranch."
"I never realized how close our ranches were," Wyatt murmured. He gazed into the water, only to wince as droplets splashed across his face. Wiping them away with the back of his hand, he added, "we're right next to each other and both so close to town, yet we avoid each other at all costs. You would have thought that after everything that happened, one of us would have moved away."
"Ah," Sierra replied with a quirk of her lips, "but that would have been admitting defeat, and giving up the ranch. I think both of our families are too stubborn to ever let that happen."
"You're right. This whole thing is doomed to continue on forever, isn't it?"
It was such a depressing way to look at it, and yet Sierra had to agree. The Raney's were a much larger family with aunts and uncles and all kinds of relatives - most of whom didn't live on the ranch but carried on the family hatred. Sierra's own family consisted of just three now, but Hans held enough of that grudge to keep it going long after he was gone. Would he teach his own children the same disgust he showed towards the Raney's now?
The water was too cold now, numbing Sierra's fingers as she gently swirled them in the water. She removed her hands from the river with a splash, shaking them free of the remaining droplets that soaked into the ground. "I honestly can't say what will happen," she replied quietly, "but I do know that I'm tired of it. This is all I've ever known; first it was Papa, so angry and bitter over what happened; and then Hans, who obviously learned it all from Papa himself. Even Mama, the sweetest woman I've ever known, held a terrible grudge."
"I don't even remember most of my family," Wyatt confessed with a scowl, "most of them died or moved away before I was born, but to his dying day, Papa insisted that your father poisoned the well."
Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. The whole thing was so convoluted now and neither side ever had any concrete evidence. Anything they did know for fact had been twisted and ruined by decades of hatred and mistrust. Sierra wasn't trying to say that her family hadn't done wrong, because she simply didn't know; she was just trying to say that fighting over it after all this time was pointless.
Climbing to her feet, Sierra wiped her damp hands on the side of her dress. Most women would have cringed at such a thing, but she had grown up with hard ranch life and wasn't opposed to a bit of dirt. Turning to Wyatt, she smiled when she noticed him perched on the rock. "I don't want to fight," she said softly, "not anymore. I just wish that everyone else agreed with me."
Wyatt fell silent, eyes drifting past Sierra to gaze at something far off in the distance. Then he stood, dusting the dirt from his legs, and said, "I know, but it isn't that simple."
Reluctantly, Sierra had to agree. She shrugged her narrow shoulders and folded her arms, only now noticing the chill in the air. Surrounded by thick trees, there wasn't enough sunlight filtering through the foliage to offer any kind of warmth, and now she wished she'd had the foresight to put on a cardigan or shawl. Well, that would have meant going inside and continuing to listen to Hans' harsh words...
"Where does the river go?" Wyatt asked after a moment. His green eyes were as bright as the grass around them, and now they turned to look out across the water.
The river itself wasn't wide or deep, but it went on for miles in both directions. Once, Sierra had walked for hours trying to find its end, before Benjamine had told her that all rivers went to sea. Well, they were a very long way from any beaches, so who knew where it eventually led? "I don't know," she confessed, "but I know it runs right by our ranch and probably yours, too. Maybe it just keeps on going forever."
"Why don't we walk by the water and see? I don't think I'm ready to go home just yet." Wyatt offered out his hand, although he hesitated to close the last bit of space between them.
Sierra's heart swelled with delight as she saw his open hand. It was like an offering, a promise of peace. The fact that he probably only meant to help her over the mud was irrelevant, because to Sierra it meant so much more. When she reached to take his hand, she couldn't help but smile. His fingertips were thick with callouses from working on the ranch, but his palms were surprisingly soft. His skin was tanned year-round and even now, while Sierra shivered, he was so warm.
Carefully, like he was holding something fragile and precious, Wyatt helped her climb over the mud and rocks that littered the side of the river. Up ahead it was less treacherous, but they had picked the wrong place to pause for rest. Even with her skirt bundled in one hand, the bottom still dredged up mud and water, and her boots were soon stained with dirt.
Yet there was something soothing about it all; the river flowing downstream, spraying up cool water that splashed against her hand. Wyatt beside her, holding her by the elbow as if she was delicate. Something to be protected. Sierra felt a surge of warmth for him then, such a soft and gentle feeling that she was stunned.
"Something wrong?" Wyatt asked, and his brows furrowed in concern. He had thick eyebrows, not exactly bushy but hardly well maintained compared to some that Sierra had seen. It was endearing, how when Wyatt was concerned his whole brow fell across his eyes.
Covering her smile with the back of her hand, Sierra nodded. "Fine," she replied softly, "actually, much better now that I'm with you. I don't know if it's the fresh air or the excellent company, but I feel almost back to my old self."
Wyatt's smile was self-conscious, his eyes downcast. "You must be the only person here in Brook to think so," he replied with a snort. "I don't think anybody else here trusts me, or anyone else in my family."
"Don't be silly," Sierra replied, nudging his shoulder playfully. It was such a casual thing to do, inappropriate perhaps, but she enjoyed her new closeness with Wyatt. "Nobody except our two families cares to remember what happened. It was too long ago."
His features scrunched, nose crinkling in a way that might have been cute, if he hadn't looked so disappointed. "Perhaps for you, that's true," he replied softly, "but for the rest of us, that simply isn't true. Do you not notice how people stare in church? Do you not hear the whispers about the Raneys and the Markinsons whenever one of us shows up in public?"
Of course she did - Sierra couldn't avoid it no matter where she went. The suspicion was always something that lingered in the back of her mind, and she knew that people talked about her behind her back. So what, though? People still did business with the ranch and treated her with respect. So what if a few odd people were cruel?
Clearly, though, Wyatt didn't have such as sunny outlook. Hers was the family accused of poisoning an entire ranch, so what did he have to feel bad about?
Before she could say anything more, however, they came to a set of squat wooden stairs embedded into the bank. It led to the road above, the one that ran from one end of town to another. This was the spot where Sierra usually sat, on the steps or by the river if it was dry enough.
"I should get home before Hans thinks I've ran away," she said with a roll of her eyes. She was being dramatic, of course, but she really couldn't put this off forever. Holding back her wince, she added, "It was nice to see you, Wyatt. I mean that. Perhaps we could meet up again sometime." In secret, of course.
Although she expected Wyatt to decline - he wasn't a social person, not like his sister Dana - she was surprised to note the smile that spread across his face. "That sounds lovely," he answered.
She might have hugged him, but she had taken enough risks for the day and settled for nudging his shoulder, instead. "Goodbye, Wyatt. I hope to see you again soon!"
Sierra heard him murmur goodbye as she turned to climb up the steps, and it warmed her to know that he was just as eager for this as she was.
She knew, however, deep down in her soul, that nothing was that easy. Sierra was deluding herself if she thought everything was going to work out as she hoped.
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