Wyoming Rugged

By: Diana Palmer


CHAPTER ONE

NICOLETTE ASHTON’S FATHER was always trying to get her to go out on dates. She loved rocks. Men, not so much. She was an introvert, shy and quiet with people she didn’t know. She had a lovely face, a complexion like peaches and cream with long, soft, platinum-blond hair and eyes the color of a foggy September morning. Her figure was equally pretty. But she refused dates right and left. There was a man in her life. He just didn’t know it. He thought she was too young. Sadly, that didn’t keep her from longing for him.

Because of that, she kept to herself. She’d avoided dating all through college by going out with her girlfriends. But her friends said she needed involvement. They insisted that she needed to get out in the world and date somebody. They meant well. Perhaps she did need to get out more. It wasn’t as if the object of her affections was ever going to reciprocate them.

So as the end of the semester neared, they set her up with this man. She didn’t know him. He wasn’t from Catelow, Wyoming, where she lived on her father’s cattle ranch. Her date was from Billings, Montana, where she went to college. At the moment, she wished she’d never agreed to the blind date.

He was inconsiderate and frankly rude, especially when she insisted on being brought home to the family ranch, instead of going to her date’s apartment. The ranch wasn’t so far away, just about a twenty-minute drive. But Niki knew what was likely to happen if she agreed to go home with the man. However out of fashion it might be among her fellow college students in Billings, she didn’t go with the crowd. Harvey, her date, refused to believe that any girl would refuse his advances. After all, he was a football star at the college both he and Niki attended, and he was very good-looking. He was used to women falling all over him. But Niki wouldn’t.

“You have to be out of your mind,” the young man, Harvey, muttered as he pulled into her driveway and raced up to the front steps of the grand Victorian mansion. “There aren’t any women left in the country who don’t sleep around these days, for God’s sake!”

“There are some. I’m one,” she said. “I agreed to go to dinner with you, Harvey. Only to dinner.”

He made an angry sound in his throat. He pulled up at her door. He studied her in the light from the front porch.

“Your old man home?” he asked.

“Not yet,” she said without thinking. “He had a business meeting. But a friend of his is coming to stay with us for a few days. He should be here any minute.” It was a calculated lie. There was a friend, named Blair Coleman, who owned a multinational oil corporation. Niki had seen him infrequently when he came home with her father. In fact, she’d had a flaming crush on him since she was seventeen, but he treated her like a child. So Blair Coleman was coming to stay. She just wasn’t sure when. “I have to go in,” she added.

“I’ll walk you to the door,” he said. He even went around the car to open her door for her. There was a calculating look on his face, but Niki was too relieved to notice it. She’d unlock the door, go inside and she’d be free.

“Thanks,” she said.

“No problem,” he said, with an odd, smug little smile.

She put her key into the lock, noticing with a frown that it wasn’t needed. The door was unlocked. Maybe her father was home after all.

She turned to tell Harvey good-night and found herself pushed inside the house. He closed the door behind them.

“Now,” he said menacingly, “you frigid little tease! Girls who date me always give out. Always!”

He grabbed her and wrestled her into the living room, down onto the sofa.

Niki was frail from a hospital visit that had left her weak and breathless. Even though she wasn’t a tiny girl, she was slender, and she had no martial arts skills at all. Harvey was a football player, with the muscle that came with the game. He had her on her back on the sofa, her long blond hair fanned around her oval face with its delicate complexion and pale gray eyes. She was flushed from the illness, and breathless from the aftereffects of it. She did fight him, but she knew she’d never get away in time. He was trying to take something from her that should be her right to give. She was furious. Being helpless made her even more angry.

“Let go of me!” she raged. “You idiot! I am not going to let you...!”

“You can’t stop me,” he panted, ripping the bodice of her dress as he held her down with his formidable weight. “And there’s nobody home who can.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t bet good money on that,” a deep, gravelly voice mused from the doorway.