Delilah’s Weakness

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Delilah Beaumont is a fiercely independent young woman struggling to make a go of a business and way of life that would be challenging for anyone, much less a woman alone. Her dreams, her livelihood, depend on a productive year with her flock of pregnant sheep.

When Luke MacGregor crash-lands his plane in her sheep pasture, she is furious–until she discovers he’s injured. Then, her innate compassion takes over.
Luke is also struggling to make a go of a business that is in limbo, awaiting a judge’s ruling. When he discovers that Delilah is none other than the judge’s daughter, he calculates ways to use that fact to his advantage. He doesn’t count on falling for this beautiful, headstrong woman.

The truth could douse their growing passion and destroy both of their futures…

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Chapter 1

“Mayday… Mayday, dammit! Mayday!”

Luke MacGregor snarled the distress call into his radio for the umpteenth time. He punched some buttons, then hung up in disgust. Picking up the satellite phone, he tucked it between his ear and shoulder and put both hands on the controls of the single engine plane. He swore again under his breath as he felt the erratic vibration of the engine.

“Pete,” he shouted into the phone, “you still there?”

“Yeah. How are you doing?” The loud but calm voice gave no indication of the tension Luke knew Pete, his foreman and longtime friend, must be feeling, far away in Mammoth with no power at all to help him out of this mess.

“Still flying,” Luke said. “Just barely. Listen, I’m going to have to try to put her down. There’s just no way I’m going to get enough altitude to make it over to Monache.”

“What about Bishop?”

“I’m not even sure what direction Bishop is. My instruments are out. I could fly straight into the side of a mountain. Hey, listen, I’ve been circling a farm of some kind. Looks like a pretty good–sized pasture down there from what I can see through these clouds. I’m going to try to get under them and take a closer look.”

“Can’t you at least find a road?”

“The roads all look like snakes from up here. And roads are apt to have fences. Barbed wire fences. Okay, I’m going down… Uh–oh.”

“What is it?”

“That pasture—it looks like it’s full of rocks. Maybe I’ll have to take my chances with the barbed wire after all. No, wait. The blasted rocks are moving.”

There was a patient silence on the line. The controls in Luke’s hands were jerking violently now, and for a few minutes he was too busy to talk.

“Mac,” Pete said tensely, “are you still there?”

Luke gave a dry, mirthless chuckle. “Yeah, I’m still here. Listen, I’m going to put this baby down in that pasture. Do a couple things for me, will you?”

“Sure thing, buddy.” The hoarseness of suppressed emotion came across the airwaves and crackled against Luke’s eardrum. He felt one electrifying shiver of fear and then went cold and calm.

“Tell Glenna I’m sorry I didn’t make it to the wedding. I’ll make it up to her somehow. Okay?”

“Gotcha. What else?”

A grim smile curved Luke’s mouth as his hand closed around the phone, ready to return it to its clip. “You might take a look at the insurance policy on this bucket. See if we’re covered for sheep.”

Sheep?”

“So long, Pete. Wish me luck. I’ll be in touch.”

He hung up the phone and took the controls in both hands once again, wiggling his gloved fingers and shifting his shoulders as he drew one long, deep breath. “Okay.” he said softly on its exhalation. “Move over, lamb chops. I’m comin’ down!”

** ** **

Delilah Beaumont was under the tarpaulin that protected her haystack from rain and snow, trying with wire cutters and clumsy gloved hands to find the twine that bound a bale of hay. In spite of the light dusting of snowflakes that was falling, she was hot, and sweat kept trickling down inside the collar of her nylon windbreaker, mixing with the leaves of alfalfa hay. She itched.

Finally, swearing under her breath, she pulled the glove from her left hand with her teeth and probed for the twine with her bare fingers. In another few seconds she was backing out into the cold, fresh air of the March snowstorm with her arms full of hay, the glove still clamped between her teeth.

That was when she heard the plane. She’d heard it circling earlier as she was going about her evening chores and had cast more than one puzzled glance at the lowering sky, wondering why an airplane would be circling her pitifully tiny place. She had no runway, unlike some of the larger ranches, with their rich absentee owners. And she’d been wondering, too, if airplanes were supposed to cough and sputter like that.

Now that intermittent cough was a deafening snarl, directly overhead. As Delilah stood with her arms full of hay and a ski glove hanging from her mouth, a bright orange airplane swept over her like a monstrous dragonfly, its wings waggling a little and then stabilizing, as if affirming its purpose. And its purpose, clearly, was to land in her pasture.

“No!” The sound emerged muffled, more as an inarticulate bellow. Delilah dumped both hay and glove into the waiting wheelbarrow and shouted again, “No!”

Then she was off and running as fast as she could, slipping on the wet, slightly uphill slope, ignoring the pasture gate and hurling herself over the fence so quickly, her feet barely touched the wires. She ran clumsily in her heavy waterproof boots, waving her arms frantically, the way one would try to shoo a hawk away from a brood of chickens. Her knit cap slipped down over her eyebrows, covering her short dark hair and most of her face. She skidded to a halt, flushed and sweating, her breath coming in desperate sobs.

“No…” she cried, almost whimpered, as she stood and helplessly watched the snarling orange monster from the sky reduce her precious flock of ninety–five pregnant ewes to a mindless, panic–stricken stampede. The entire flock broke for the dead end at the uphill side of the pasture and hurled itself against the heavy wire mesh fencing like lemmings against the last barrier to the sea. Finding that escape route blocked, the sheep scattered in ninety–five different directions, only to retreat again before the orange predator advancing upon them, landing gear outstretched like talons.

A small black–and–white bundle of spiky wet fur hurtled past Delilah’s knees. She drew a deep breath and screamed, “Lady! Hold ‘em, girl. Hold ‘em!” and pointed toward the far end of the pasture. Immediately the border collie was streaking toward the flock in her herding crouch, ears flattened.

The sheep apparently were more frightened and respectful of their ancient enemy and protector than they were of the new and unknown menace from the sky, because they stopped their witless dashing about and stood wild–eyed and stamping to face the dog’s snapping, darting attack.

With her precious flock corralled, at least for the moment, Delilah turned her attention to the plane. In her concern for the animals it hadn’t really occurred to her that the small, incongruously gay craft was in serious trouble. Now she simply stopped breathing, her bare hand clamped across her mouth, as she watched it touch the rough, tussocky ground and bounce, touch again on one wheel, slewing and skidding wildly across the pasture. With growing horror she saw the wheel hit something—a rock? a hole? a length of sprinkler pipe?—and crumple. The plane tipped, its wing brushing the ground, then slewed around and ground at last to a dead stop.

With a sound like that of a bucket of bolts being thrown into a fan, the engine protested, and then was silent. The propeller flapped around and around, and then it, too, was still.

Her legs weak with apprehension, Delilah approached the plane.

As she came nearer, the cockpit door on the uphill side of the tilted plane opened, and a pair of jean–clad legs appeared and flapped around, feeling for the ground. A moment later the rest of the body followed, hanging suspended from the cockpit door and then dropping with a muffled oath onto the soggy stubble.

Any relief Delilah had felt at seeing the pilot emerge under his own power faded in a rush of renewed dismay as he lurched to his feet and stood swaying beside the slanted wing. He was wearing a silver flight jacket—the kind with lots of zippers and a designer’s name over the breast pocket—and it was rapidly becoming spattered with the blood that streamed down his face from a wound hidden somewhere in his thick chestnut–brown hair. Incredibly, he was smiling, a ruefully boyish, movie star grin that tugged at her heart in spite of the gory camouflage.

“Hi, kid,” he said. He gestured toward the now–quiet flock, then used the same hand to grab at the airplane’s wing for support. “Sorry about that. Had a bit of engine trouble. Your folks around?”

Delilah shook her head and stayed rooted where she was. Her mind was spinning frantically. She had already decided against panic, but the fact remained that the man was injured, and she wasn’t equipped to render medical aid. She could handle almost any but the most complicated veterinary emergency and had a well–stocked medicine cabinet, but human beings were something else. What did one do for accident victims? All she could remember was something about keeping them warm.

“Hey,” the man said softly. “Look, son, I’m not going to drop dead or anything. You don’t have to look so—Oh.” He had touched his face and was looking at the dark stain on his glove. “No wonder you look so sick. Sorry.” He probed experimentally at his scalp, and winced. “I guess I banged my head on something. This pasture is rougher than it looked from up there. Look, I’m going to need a little help. Got a cell phone on you?”

She shook her head and mumbled, “No service up here.”

He exhaled, swayed, and croaked, “Better go get your Dad, okay?”

Finding her voice at last, Delilah said gruffly, “I’m the only one here, I’m afraid.” Having him mistake her for a boy had had the effect of restoring both her wits and her anger. She decided not to enlighten him. Stepping forward, she put her arm around his slender waist and drew his arm across her shoulders. “I’m stronger than I look,” she muttered when he protested.

Keeping her own face averted from the mess of his, she leaned into his body, encouraging him to put more of his weight on her. She suppressed a shudder. There was something disturbing about the dark eyes that glittered down at her.

Steady, Lilah, she told herself. It hasn’t been that long since you were this close to an attractive man.

How did she know he was attractive? She didn’t know—unless it was that straight–toothed grin and the thick dark hair, glossy and clean where it wasn’t wet with blood, and skillfully cut just long enough to suggest an air of recklessness. Or it may have been something else entirely—an aura of relaxed self–assurance that was downright awesome, considering the circumstances. It was the attitude of a man who was accustomed to being liked and admired, a man who was used to having his needs met and his orders obeyed—willingly.

Stiffening herself against automatic dislike, Delilah concentrated on the lean body she was half–supporting with her own. He was not a big man, thank goodness. Not terribly tall, not heavily muscled, just slender and naturally well built, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip and possessed of natural grace and coordination.

And how on earth did she know that? Was it just by the way his body moved against hers? The thought made her stumble, and she tightened her arm on his waist. He patted the shoulder he could reach and muttered thickly, “That’s okay, kid, you’re doin’ fine. You really are stronger than you look, aren’t you? How old are you?”

“Older than I look,” Delilah said grimly.

They had reached the pasture gate, and she had to release his waist and use both hands to untie the double length of baling twine that kept the gate fastened. He shifted his weight, trying not to lean too heavily on her, and she heard the sound of his breathing, ragged in her ear. A shiver skittered over her neck and ran down her back.

“Not much farther,” she said, grunting as she took up her burden once more. She noticed his legs had developed a tendency to buckle. What will I do if he passes out here in the mud? How will I ever get him into the house? And what in heaven’s name am I going to do with him once I get him there, anyway?

He did not, fortunately, pass out in the mud. Once inside her sparsely furnished but cheerfully cluttered little house, she helped him to a chair beside the kitchen table and left him to lower himself into it while she rummaged in a drawer for a towel. As she let the water run, waiting for it to become warm, she cast uneasy glances over her shoulder at the man, half–expecting him to topple out of the chair into a bloody heap at her feet. She watched him touch his scalp again, then drop his hand to the oilcloth covering the tabletop and look about him with bright–eyed interest, taking in the richly colored Navajo rugs that warmed and softened the wood–plank walls and covered the threadbare patches on the secondhand sofa. When his wandering gaze encountered the rough Navajo loom beside the bookcase in the far corner, he turned to regard her with open curiosity and a touch of puzzlement.

“You all alone here, kid?” he asked as she approached him with the warm, wet towel. “Listen, I’m sorry about the sheep. I hope I didn’t cause any damage.”

“I hope so too.” She caught her lower lip between her teeth and began to dab at the blood on his face.

It was such a strange thing to be doing, washing a grown man’s face, and a stranger’s at that, that it had very little reality for her. She found that if she imagined him to be a small child it was quite possible to steady his chin with one hand and draw the towel gently across his forehead, down the side of his face, and along the line of his jaw. But that jaw was pugnacious and stubbly, like no child’s jaw she had ever seen. His eyes closed as the towel passed over them, and she saw that here, at least, in the long sweep of dark lashes, there was a kind of vulnerability that was almostchildlike.

Her breath caught in dismay as fresh runnels of blood trickled across his forehead and onto the bridge of his nose. “You’re still bleeding,” she said, dabbing at the new stream. “I’d better take a look at that cut. Where is it?”

He pointed, tilting his head so she could reach the spot.

“Here,” she said breathlessly. “Hold this.” He took the towel and mopped at his face as she stepped closer, her fingers gingerly parting the blood–sticky hair as she peered at the injury. A three–cornered flap of scalp about the size of a postage stamp still welled darkly, just above his left temple. She shifted her gaze slightly and coughed as she encountered his bright eyes, inches from her own. There was a frown between them, as if he were trying to remember something important.

She jerked involuntarily, and her fingers grazed the torn scalp. His breath hissed through his teeth, and he caught at her wrist, pulling her hand away.

“Sorry,” she murmured.

He was still holding her hand, staring at it, the frown deepening. Her gaze followed his. She saw a small, grubby hand, square and red–knuckled, with short, uneven nails. Not a pretty hand, true, but not the hand of a half–grown boy, either. She jerked it away.

“Uh…look,” she said, tugging her knit cap farther down over her eyes, “that cut is going to need some attention. And I’ve got to get my sheep fed and shut up for the night. Do you think—” She hesitated, chewing at her lower lip and fighting with her conscience. Then, taking the towel from his hands, she folded it into a fat square and clamped it firmly over the injury, ignoring his inarticulate protest.

“Hold that—tightly,” she instructed, guiding his hand to replace her own, noting, as she did so, the clean, square–cut nails, the long, graceful fingers, the slight roughness of calluses on the palms.

But, she told herself as she turned to the sink to retrieve her single glove, you can get calluses playing tennis and driving sports cars.

“Stay there,” she ordered tersely, turning at the door to give him a glare born of unreasonable anger.

As she hurled herself out the door into the freshening snowstorm, she was fully aware her anger was nothing but defense against guilt. I’m leaving an injured man to attend to a bunch of sheep!Surely, as these things are tallied in the celestial ledger, that must be a colossal blot in her debit column.

But damn it, those sheep are all I have!  Her whole future was riding squarely on their fat woolly backs. And that man wasn’t going to expire in her kitchen, not in the next half hour, anyway.

Up in the pasture she could see her flock still huddled against the far fence while Lady stood patiently on guard, her jaws stretched in a tongue–lolling canine grin. Delilah squinted at the darkening sky, gauging the time left before full twilight, and went to retrieve her glove from the wheelbarrow. Two more armloads of hay filled the barrow to top–heavy unwieldiness. She gathered her strength and pushed it doggedly uphill to the pasture gate. It was too muddy in the pasture for the heavy wheelbarrow, so she made several trips to deposit the hay in small piles across the lower end of the pasture.

“Okay, Lady, bring ‘em down!” she called, and added the high–pitched and very distinctive cry she used to call the flock: “Shoo…eee!”

As the flock came hurtling down the slope in a single– minded rush for the hay, Delilah leaned on the gate and counted, watching for signs of ill effects from the stampede. As the sheep settled in small, busy huddles, she walked slowly among them, her fingers trailing lightly over an occasional damp, dirty gray back marked with streaks of colored crayon and the remains of last autumn’s black numerals. Now and then a head was raised to stare at her—sleek black lop–eared Suffolk heads, with high–bridged, almost patrician noses, and the cold yellow sheepish stare, as flat and characterless as a stone. They all seemed fine. Some of them were so big they looked ready to give birth at any moment, but they were all fine—all ninety–five of them.

Delilah released a shaky breath, only now aware of how worried she’d been, and went to feed the rams and milk the goats.

Half an hour later the ewes were once more shut securely in the holding pen, where open–sided shelters would provide escape from the worst of the wet spring snow.

Satisfied that for tonight the animals were secure, Delilah whistled for Lady and turned wearily toward the house. The heavy boots dragged at the muscles of her legs; the socks on her left foot had worked down and were bunched uncomfortably around her instep. Her nose was numb and her eyes were streaming from the cold; her fingers and toes ached with it. And worst of all, she itched.

And she still had to figure out what to do with the man who had fallen out of her sky.

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