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The scene before them when they entered the meadow would have been comical, if it weren’t for his growing desire for Beth. She stood in the midst of the men covered in filth, holding a bucket and pile of rags. Her chin quivered, but she made a valiant attempt to appear unaffected as the men razzed her. The same way they did to any man wishing to be a part of the Devil May Cares. Except she wasn’t a man. She was Beth. Had any one of his men known her true identity, they’d trip over themselves to give her the moon, right after they ganged up to beat the tarnation out of him for allowing her to be on the river crew.

“What’s going on here?” he demanded. A quick glance at Simon, and Garrett knew he had to take control. The man was hell-bent on defending his sister and ready to pound the first man to speak. One thing was certain, even though Simon couldn’t be trusted with the farmer’s daughter—or even the mayor’s wife—he was fiercely loyal to his sister.

“We’re just teaching the shave tail here the ropes.” Wall and the Devil May Cares chuckled at their shared joke. “Your cousin needs a good whoopin’, Simon. He’s a little weak in the shoulders.” Wall punched the back of Beth’s shoulder and caused her to topple forward. She caught herself with her hands before her face hit the grass. She struggled on to her knees. Her small shoulders shook as she stayed in that position, head bowed, and no doubt fighting back tears.

“Mush-headed bastard!” Simon shouted and jumped onto Wall with fists flying.

Wall ducked, but not fast enough. Simon’s fist slammed into his jaw, sending blood spurting on the green grass as the two men toppled to the ground.

Beth stood to watch, and flinched several times as if she planned to intervene, but thankfully didn’t. As long as she stood back, the men wouldn’t look twice at the tears streaming down her filthy cheeks. He needed to get her out of the meadow before the men took notice.

A quick study of the occupied men, and Garrett grabbed Beth’s hand to tow her a few feet into the brush. The vegetation gave him enough coverage to run an eye over her body.

“My clothes are ruined.” Her voice shook with the tears she now let fall. “I tried to do what a man would. I tried to fight my way out, but when they tipped me upside down over the hole. I…I swore at them. I punched Wall, but I don’t think he felt it. He didn’t flinch or try to whip me for punching him.” She gave an angry growl. “Those mudsills.”

“Follow me.” If it had been a man in her position, he would laugh. Hell, he had laughed in the past when they did that to others. Normally he’d tell the shave tail to muck up or go home. Testosterone-filled days made events such as what just transpired an everyday occurrence, but she was a woman.

He led her to the edge of the water, and moved the ax to his other hand when he let go of her fingers. “Stay here until I get back.”

He waited until she nodded, and then ran to the cabin, leaning the axe against the post of his bed as he walked inside. Normally he wouldn’t touch the personal belongings of a woman, but this couldn’t be helped. He ripped open the top of her satchel and grabbed what he needed.

He’d almost made it out of camp when someone called his name. He turned as Victoria sauntered up to him. “Where have you been? I’m utterly bored. I tried to help Auntie June, but she shooed me away.” Victoria’s bottom lip jutted out in a well-practiced pout. She looped her arm through his and leaned into his side. In town, he’d been more than happy to escort Victoria around at the request of his parents. He’d taken her to balls and teas, even once to the county fair, but now he desperately needed to get back to the lake, and her presence was more of an annoyance than anything else.

“When I return, we’ll take up a game of poker.”

She released his arm and clapped excitedly. “Oh, yes, that would be positively wicked. I’ll be just like the woman who won the poker tournament on the Louisiana paddle boat last year.” She tapped her index finger on her rose-petal-pink lips. “What was her name? Miss Masterson. She was a wicked, audacious woman. Don’t you think, Garrett?”

He dipped his head once in response to her meaningless prattle. “If you’ll excuse me, I have something pressing I need to attend to.” And being away from her was one of those things.

“Of course. Business awaits.” She gave a regal nod so he did the same, and ran to the lake where Beth tried valiantly to hide behind a large bush. Tension ebbed from his core at the sight of her—even covered in human waste, she was more the woman he envisioned when he thought of how his life should be. Not the woman he’d just left at the camp. Fate was a jealous shrew with a thirst for vengeance.

“Come on then. Hop in the boat. I’ll take you somewhere you can wash up.”

“A bath?”


Standing tall, she took a deep breath and started toward the bateau. The ever-present determination she sported restored as she trudged to the water’s edge and climbed in the boat. She sat with a pin-straight back like a princess awaiting a carriage ride to the village—only a princess wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of Simon’s old canvas pants and spiked boots, an outfit she somehow wore with elegance. If the men on his crew hadn’t figured out by now that she was a woman, they were daft fools. How would they react once they found out?

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