A loud rustling in the trees made Zane surge to his feet and draw his pistol.
“Don’t shoot. It’s me,” Jilly said.
Zane almost fell over backward. Almost shooting a woman shook him badly enough he missed his holster when he tried to shove his pistol into it.
“I made noise deliberately, afraid you’d be jumpy.” Jilly came in. Her red hair glowed against the green leaves. Her eyes were so green it was like the trees had shared their color.
She led the pinto gelding she seemed partial to.
“What are you doing up here?” Zane heard the snap in his voice. That wasn’t fair.
“Wow, that’s a rich vein of gold.” Jilly barely glanced at Michelle or Zane. He noticed she only had eyes for the gold, and who could blame her?
Michelle gave Zane one very sassy glance, then went to walk with Jilly to study the gold.
“I estimate we’ve found around three thousand dollars’ worth of gold this morning.”
Jilly picked up one of the rocks Zane had busted the quartz off of. She studied it, turning it in her hand. “I’d say more like four thousand five hundred.”
Michelle picked up a rock. “Really? What makes you say that?”
“It’s just a guess.”
Jilly and Michelle both turned to look, then they grinned at him.
“Jilly is the mathematician in the family,” Michelle said. “If she says four thousand five hundred, I’d bet she’s right to within a hundred dollars.”
“You can’t know that.”
“Well, I don’t know.” Jilly grinned again. “But I can estimate, deduce, round to the next highest factor, multiply by the price of gold, which is steady on the commodity market as a rule, and, you know, guess.”
Zane held back the next snort.
“By the way,” Jilly continued, “you have ten thousand seven hundred and, oh, I’d say about fifty head of cattle.”
Zane arched a brow, but neither woman looked at him this time. “I keep a tally book. You must’ve seen it.”
“No, but I’ve ridden out to two of your meadows. The largest and one your cowhand called a regular-sized one. I counted the number of cows in one section of the large meadow. They were spread quite evenly, so I felt able to extrapolate the number of cattle. Then I judged the size of the meadow and multiplied to get a total. Your hand said you have five regular-sized meadows, the big one, and three small ones. I assumed—and that can be dangerous in mathematics—you spread your cattle evenly between the pastures. So beyond extrapolating, I multiplied, corrected for meadow acreage, rounded down to the nearest fifty, and so on.”
“And so on? There’s more to it?”
“Well, what I really did was take into consideration some geographical anomalies in your pastures, assumed the land was generally the same, and then I created an equation, solved for the nearest—”
“Stop.” Zane cut her off. “You don’t need to tell me how you did it. You’re within ten of the number I have in my tally book.” He tugged it out of his breast pocket so she could see the book but shoved it back in. “I get this number by actually counting the cattle.”
“You count to ten thousand? Every day?”
“Not every day. But we don’t ride out to each pasture every day.”
“I honestly figured about ten higher, but to be so exact is just showing off.”
Zane closed his eyes, then they popped open. “So, girl geniuses, what am I supposed to do with all this gold without causing mayhem?”
Michelle and Jilly shared a long look. They seemed to be communicating without words . . . sister magic or something. But he knew what they were both doing was thinking while they stared through each other.
“I wanted to see what we were dealing with,” Michelle said. “Is this a huge strike that’s going to require years, possibly a lifetime, of managing? Or is it a pocket that could be dug out, and Zane could be done with it?”
Nodding, Jilly said, “No way to be sure of that yet. If it’s a pocket, you’re not to the end of it. It’ll be a nice pocket. Tens of thousands of dollars, Zane. You already seem like a prosperous man, but now you’re going to be rich.”
“I’ve got enough cattle to last a lifetime. Enough money, too. What am I going to do? Buy more land and more cows? Buy fancier guns and horses? Hire more servants and cowhands?” Avenge his sister’s husband?
That was in his head day and night.
“I guess you could build a bigger house.” Jilly grinned mischievously. “I’d be glad to help you.”
He surprised himself by smiling back, then looking at Michelle, probably for a little too long. A man who didn’t need a thing, who’d soon fill his pockets full of gold. He probably could marry Michelle.
Tearing his thoughts away from that, he looked at the gold. “We’ll dig awhile. A few more days, but I can’t come every day.” He glowered at Michelle. “If I could be sure you’d be safe, you could come out alone. There is a trail you can ride that no one in the cabins would see.”
Michelle almost wiggled with pleasure.
“I said if I could be sure you were safe. I’ll have to think more about that. After a few more days digging, we’ll know if it’s a big strike or not.”
Frowning, he added, “I need to do something about Annie. She’s willing to just walk away from her ranch, give it all up. But that’s her grief talking. I can’t let a land grab and the murder of three men stand and call myself an honorable man.”
Michelle said quietly, “Don’t start a fight you can’t win, Zane. You can take care of Annie and Caroline here. I heard your sister say powerful men are siding with the tyrant who is behind the land grab and murders.”
He looked right in her eyes. Dark, lively blue. Her hair pulled back into a bun, but after a morning of gold mining, curls had escaped and danced around her neck and over her ears.
“Aren’t you and your sisters involved in a plot to take on a tyrant? Weren’t you all willing to risk everything by jumping in a flume and riding down it to escape him?”
“You’re right. Look into it, then, but be careful. Don’t just go charging down there, guns blazing. Find out what you’re up against first.”
Nodding, Zane said, “Jilly, you’ve got to go back to the cabins, or one of those builders will be up here wondering where you’ve gone. Michelle, it’s time for us to get back to gold mining.”
Jilly looked mutinous for a few long moments.
“You want to dig for gold, too, don’t you?” Zane asked.
She gave a sullen shrug. “Sure I do.”
“How long until the cabins are done?”
“And you ladies can both handle a gun?”
They both smiled.
“You two really resemble each other.”
Michelle looked at Jilly. “We are as different as can be. We have completely different hair and eye color.”
Jilly piped up. “I’m taller. And smarter.”
Michelle whacked her in the arm with the back of her hand. “Jilly’s got those dreadful freckles while my skin is pure as cream.”
“Those smiles,” Zane said. “Especially when you’re getting your own way.”
“We should always get our own way.” Jilly plunked her hands on her hips. “We’re very smart.”
Zane snorted. “So I’ve been told and told. When you smile at the same time, you’re alike as two raindrops. Now let’s get back to work.”
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No part of it may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission from Baker Publishing Group.
Lumber Baron's Daughters #2
Her heart seeks safety. But will trouble find her even here?
After her sister's marriage, Michelle Stiles is left hiding at Two Harts Ranch with the handsome but stubborn Zane Hart. She's managed to stay one step ahead of her stepfather and his devious plans, but if he finds her, she will no longer be safe.
Zane has problems of his own. Having discovered a gold mine on his property, he must figure out how to harvest it without kicking off a gold rush. Michelle, educated and trained to run her father's business, wants to manage all aspects of the mine, but Zane thinks for a person so smart she can have some misguided ideas. Running the mining operation will be a dangerous job, and he can't risk putting her in harm's way.
But danger finds Michelle anyway when she's suddenly attacked. If they go to the sheriff, they'll reveal her location, but if they do nothing . . . their troubles have only just begun.
Romance Historical | Romance Western [Bethany House Publishers, On Sale: July 5, 2022, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9780764239595 / eISBN: 9781493437337]
Mary Connealy is an award-winning, bestselling author known for her fun and lively historical romances. An author, teacher, and journalist, Mary lives on an eastern Nebraska ranch with her cowboy husband and has four daughters and two grandchildren.
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