Chapter 1:

Samantha Forster rode the black roach mane Quarter horse mare bareback across the playa beneath the hot summer sun. Summer had only just begun but there was already a keen bite in the sun as it beamed down on the Nevada desert. Witch loped with easy grace beneath her. It had been four years to the day since Jake had left for college and in that time Sam and Witch had developed a keen friendship. Personally Sam blamed that on the fact that they both missed Jake so much when he was away, although Sam had refused to admit that fact to anyone other than her horse friends.

Things between Sam and Jake had been a little awkward when he came home during the first breaks he had from college. But then that was to be expected. After a time though things had gotten easier and fallen back to the comfortable friendship they had always shared. Now when Jake came home they caught up and never mentioned what had been between them the summer before he left.

"Should we gallop Witchy?" Sam asked the mare, her black ears flicked back to catch Sam's voice. Sam smiled; about a year after Jake had left Witch had finally accepted that if she wanted any exercise she would have to tolerate Sam. Tightening the muscles in her thighs and leaning forward Sam urged Witch into a gallop, letting loose a wild yell, the likes of which she grew up listening to the cowboys in her life utter. Sam had learned a great many things from the cowboys in her life.

Sam's brown Stetson blew off her head and flew to the end of her stampede string; the one Pepper had helped her make when she was thirteen and re-learning her place in Nevada. Witch's hooves pounded against the desert floor as Sam clung to her back. Nothing could ever compare to riding the Phantom, but riding Witch came awfully close.

They were headed for home after a long afternoon of riding the trails that surrounded River Bend Ranch with Jen Kenworthy. Jen had come home yesterday from her college in Montanna and they had both been excited to catch up. In spite of the quarelling between their mounts due to Witch's awful temper, Sam had also confessed her anxiousness about seeing Jake when he came home this summer, pouring her fears into her best friend's waiting ears. Jen had listened curiously as Sam poured out her nervousness. Sam had no doubt that Jen had been shocked by the amount of babble Sam had spouted at her; babble wasn't her way anymore. But today she couldn't control it. Jake was coming home tomorrow, Sam knew because the Ely's were very excited as Jake and Kit were both coming home tomorrow for the summer, and they were going to have a Bonfire over at Three Ponies Ranch.

In Jake's absence Sam and Quinn and Brian and Adam Ely had formed something of a band when Quinn had walked in on Sam singing to the horses in the barn at River Bend one day last year. Mostly they just played together for fun but Maxine had requested that for some of the evening they play a few songs. Sam was terrified to do it. She'd grown out her stage fright and fear of public speaking at sixteen and most everyone who would be attending had heard Sam sing and watched her play guitar with the Ely boys. But not Jake.

Last summer break when Jake had come home, Sam had been in San Francisco living with Aunt Sue while she took a fast-tracked summer internship that had earned her a Journalism diploma. Meaning that she hadn't been home the last time Jake had and that they now hadn't seen each other in almost two years. They spoke on the phone occasionally, but Jake was still awful at making conversation so most of the time Sam tried to coax him into talking for a while before they hung up.

As River Bend bridge came into view Sam sat up, slowing Witch back to a lope. Then she dropped her reins as she threw her arms wide, clinging to the mare with one the fabric of her jeans and the strength of the muscles in her legs. Sam loved to ride like this because it made her feeling like a mythical centaur. She longed to try it on the Phantom, but so far the only horse on River Bend that had tolerated such crazy behavior was Witch. And the only reason Witch tolerated it was because she had grown accustomed to years of Jake leaning out of the saddle like he might fall so that he could read tracks in the dirt.

As they entered the cool tunnel of the bridge Sam let loose another cowgirl yell, splitting the afternoon silence before enjoying the way the sound complimented the echoing of Witch's hooves as the clopped across the bridge. At almost nineteen Sam had finally learned to trust her body and trust her horse and had accepted that the fear she had of falling did nothing to keeping her from the act. She'd put aside the terror of falling to the ground, the fear of the pain of slamming into the dirt. Somehow Sam had managed to let go of the fear and doubt caused by her accident all those years ago. Now Sam lived by a code that no matter what each day threw at her, be it blizzards, hurricane's floods, coyotes dead cattle or changing dirty diapers for her kid brother, outwardly nothing was of more significance and worth any more worry than a spot of hat hair. Somehow it made life easier.

Sam was midway across the ranch yard when she saw the truck the color of washed out denim. Witch saw it too and when she did the mare skidded to a stop, causing a huge cloud of dust to engulf the yard as Sam tried to peer through it at the truck. Sam couldn't believe her eyes. Surely it couldn't be. But it had to be! Witch's reaction confirmed what Sam's mind had presented her but was too shocked to believe. Sam gulped.

That was Jake's truck.

Jake Ely leaned against the round pipe corral next to Wyatt Forster. They had both looked up as they heard a cowboy yell that was too high pitched for a cowboy and the sound of hooves as a horse clopped across the bridge. Jake had knocked his black Stetson back out of his unbelieving eyes. The rider had dropped their reins onto the horse's neck and had her arms flung wide like she could fly as the mare loped across the bridge without fear.

They cleared the bridge and loped all the way into the middle of the yard before the mare skidded to a stop and Jake realized that the mare was Witch. Surely it couldn't be. No-one but him was crazy enough to ride Witch bareback. The mare was viscous; she'd eat anyone who tried. Yet there before his eyes stood his mare, with a young woman sitting bareback astride her. Wyatt Forster began to chuckle at the disbelieving look on Jake Ely's face. Sam had come a long way with Witch and with her skills in riding. Wyatt had even given in to Sam's nagging after she expertly trained her filly, now they worked together schooling young horses for resale. Sam was equally good at it as Jake had always been.

The men watched as the mare began a prancing walk like a dressage horse towards Jake's truck, no doubt hoping she would find her favorite master. The girl astride her flicked her head from side to side, eyes furiously searching the ranch yard. When her blue eyes landed on the men where they leant against the round corral she raised her eyebrows and let a slow smirk light her face. Wyatt noticed that his daughter had learned to imitate Jake's lazy tomcat smile as she'd grown into the sassy, quick-witted young woman. She murmured to the mare as she used her legs and a slight pressure on the reins to direct the horse towards the men at a walk.

Jake stared.

The rider had to be Sam, but it just couldn't be Sam! Her hat hung down her back, as did her long thick wavy auburn hair. The red tank top she wore was tight fitting, revealing her toned, tanned arms and clinging to her every curve. And shoot, did that girl have some nice curves. Her blue jeans, torn over one knee, encased her legs that clung to the mare as the mare walked slowly towards him. Her heart shaped face was tanned and she smirked in a way that Jake had never seen her smile. She'd perfected that lazy smile. Sam's warm blue eye's laughed at him as he stared in shock.

"Well if it ain't Jake Ely." She drawled at him as she threw her legs over Witch and slid to the ground next to the sleek black mare. "Still shy as a shadow at midday aren't ya Jake?"

Wyatt outright laughed when Jake's jaw dropped. Sam had picked up a slight western drawl a while ago, but she emphasized it now, letting her words twang in a way that was almost irritating, when years ago Jake doing the same thing had driven her mad. Sam winked at her father as she ground tied Witch ten feet away from the men.

Then she was running. Sam flat out sprinted at Jake before he could recover from his shock at her appearance and demeanor. Jake only had time to take one step forwards, away from the fence before Sam threw herself at him. Launched herself right at his chest, slamming into him with enough force to almost wind him as she wrapped her arms around his neck. And she was laughing about it. Jake spun around on the spot from the impact as she hugged him, his arms automatically latching around her to keep her from falling to the seat of her jeans in the dirt at his feet.

"Sam?" Jake asked still not entirely certain it was her, but unsure who else it could possibly be. Over her shoulder Wyatt nodded at Jake that it was her because Sam was too busy laughing at him to answer. Jake squeezed her against him, feeling that she was every bit a young woman now, rather than a sassy, irritating fifteen year old.

Two years it had been. Two long years since he'd last seen her and shoot she'd changed. Jake gave her a final squeeze before setting her on her feet in front of him. She'd grown too. Sam stood at 5 foot 8", skinny as a rail in front of him with that lazy smile back in place as she gazed up at him.

"What's the matter cowboy, don't recognize your oldest and favorite friend?" She drawled at him, an amused glint in her blue eyes. Jake fixed her with a lazy tomcat smile of his own.

"Naw, jus' thought you'd always be shorter than a fence post." He drawled back at her, his eyes laughing as they flicked over her from head to foot "Still wild as a rooster in a rattler pit though aren't ya?" He said when she stuck her tongue out at him.

Samantha couldn't keep from grinning at her oldest buddy for his drawling cowboy sayings. True she had picked up a few of her own now that she took more instructions from Dallas, the foreman of River Bend on the work for the ranch she performed every day when she wasn't in class at the community college in Reno or schooling young horses for resale with Dad.

"Dunno what you're talkin' 'bout Ely." Sam drawled with that slow lazy grin as she looked over her friend. Jake had grown again. He was now around 6 foot 5" tall, his mahogany skin glowing warmly in the afternoon sun. His Indian black hair was tied back in the leather throng he liked to use, but it was only just long enough to tie back at all. He wore washed out blue jeans and his boots with a black t-shirt and his old black Stetson.

Sam grinned, wondering how Jake, who never went anywhere without his hat, went at college. Did he wear it for all four years he was there, or did he put it away, only wearing it when he was home.

Jake chuckled at her evasiveness while Sam glanced at Wyatt. Dad just grinned a little, he didn't seem shocked at all that Jake was here, though Sam thought he wasn't going to be back until tomorrow. Sam felt something behind her a moment before Witch lowered her head over Sam's shoulder. She peered at Jake as though she longed to go to him, but wasn't certain she should.

Sam grinned as she murmured to the black mare "Come on Now, baby, don't be pretending you're all shy or Jake'll be thinking I took all the uppity right out o' ya." She drawled to the horse. Witch just flicked her ears at Sam and kept peering at Jake. "Go on now, he didn't drive all this way to see me Witchy, get on over there!" Sam told her firmly as she stepped out from beneath the mare's neck leaving a clear path to Jake.

Jake stared. He'd never seen his mare do that. Squeal offense or lunge for a bite maybe, barge her way in sure, but never in a million years would his mare have been so polite with Sam before now. Jake stood with his thumbs hanging in his pockets as the mare stepped closer to him until she butted her head against his chest. Then a mile wide grin split Jake's face. Sam smiled, knowing that no matter how much Jake had missed his horse he wouldn't pamper her in any way. Not like Sam did. Slowly Jake reached up and rubbed the mare's face beneath her forelock.

"She sure missed ya Jake." Sam murmured to him as he petted his mare. She longed to tell him that she'd missed him too, more than Witch had, but that just wasn't somethin' a cowgirl went around telling a man. Jake glanced at her with his lively eyes. Mustang eyes. That one look had Sam's stomach doing a somersault. Jake conveyed that he'd missed his horse, but that he hadn't driven all this way for just the mare in that look.

Sam handled her tumultuous feelings like any cowgirl would. She tugged her hat back up onto her head and low over her eyes before saying. "You wanna ride?" Wyatt Forster watched the face of his only daughter, then the man who'd been like a son to him. Things between them might have fallen back to comfortable friendship while Jake was off at college, but Wyatt knew something of what had transpired in the summer before Jake left. No doubt Samantha would marry Jake Ely one day. His Louise had said that as they watched Sam in her pigtails holding Jake's hand following Jake around like a puppy.

Now Sam stood there with her thumbs hung into her pockets, pulling all the tricks a cowboy used to hide any kind of expression or emotion. She didn't get that impatient look she used to when Jake took his time answering her question; she didn't fix him an irritated look at how long he took to reply. She just waited with her thumbs hooked through them pockets of hers, the image of patience and restraint. Wyatt couldn't tell for certain when his daughter had grown into a woman who matched every cowboy on this ranch for their grit and impassive expression designed to hide any sort of feeling, but he knew for certain that if Jake didn't get round to answering 'til next week Sam still wouldn't have asked him again.

Sam stood there waiting for Jake to answer her, acting like an iceberg in that she kept all her emotions beneath the surface. He kept stroking Witch as he watched her with his dark eyes. Sam knew he was looking for the impatience he'd come to expect from her, the anger and irritation at him for not talking much. Well good luck to him. She'd learned to cover any feeling with a nod or a composed expression the day he drove away to college with her heart in his back pocket.

The screen door of the house slammed closed and Sam heard footsteps scurry across the porch. Those were too light and too fast to Brynna's, who was pregnant again, and didn't have enough shuffle to them to belong to Gram. The little boy ran across the yard until Sam felt him collide with her leg. He was completely oblivious to the fact that Sam stood directly next to Witch who was known for her temper.

"Sissy… up?" he said hopefully as he tugged on Sam's jeans.

Sam looked down to see the auburn hair of her kid brother, Cody. He looked up at her with their father's eyes, pleading her with puppy dog looks to pick him up. He was a shy kid, so no doubt he wanted the comfort of Sam's arms before he considered Jake, who he had undoubtedly forgotten since his last visit.

"Hey Codster" Sam drawled at her brother before scooping down to lift him up and prop him on her hip. "Whatcha been doin' kid?" She asked him, it was strange for him to be out of the house without his hat on, he loved his kid sized Stetson as much as any range weary cowboy.

"We baked cookies Sammy, Gram said for y'all to come eat 'em." He told her with a little drawl of his own as he leaned into the circle her arms made so he looked into the face of his big sister.

"Is that right kiddo? Well now, you better run on back in there and tell Gram that Jake's here but he's comin' for a ride with me and we'll eat so of your delicious cookies after dinner tonight." Sam told him with a grin at the cute expression on her brother's face as he kept sneaking suspicious glances at the man he didn't know.

"Is he Jake?" Cody asked her in a whisper, flicking his four year old towards Jake before glancing back at Sam. Sam grinned.

"Now Codster what's Gram taught you about whisperin' in company, eh?" Sam chided him. He frowned and then looked sheepish as he said

"Ta not to!" Dad chuckled at his children and Jake looked on with interest at the way Sam handled the kid.

"That's right 'Ta not to' now would you like to ask him properly?" Sam asked him, smiling to soften the reprimand.

Cody blushed a little bit before he turned in her arms to face Jake and say "Are you Jake?"

Jake chuckled at that. "I am kiddo. But surely you can't be Cody Forster?" he asked the little boy. Cody beamed and puffed his chest out

"But I am." He said proudly, before he held out his small hand for Jake to shake.

"Well now Cody Forster, you're sure getting big. I remember holding ya when your head fit into my palm." Jake said rubbing the back of his neck with one hand while he held out his other one and shook hands with Cody.

"Dad are you done out here and headin' in?" Sam asked Wyatt, still holding her brother. Wyatt nodded

"Yeah, was on my in when Jake pulled up." He said, not wasting a word more than he had to. Sam nodded and set Cody back on his booted feet. "You run on now and tell Gram that Dad's comin' in for some o' them cookies, alright?" She told the little boy. He grinned at her and nodded before he took off running back to the house.

"Dad, I'll see you at dinner ok?" Sam told her Dad looking at him sideways as he moved past her towards the house.

"Sure, honey. You two have fun. Don't be long though, it's nearly dark. Brynna will be getting' hungry for her dinner soon, and you know she'll eat you share, Jake's too if ya take too long." Dad said, smiling at the appetite of his pregnant wife. Then he continued on into the house.

Sam turned away from Jake, who had taken hold of Witch's reins again and was watching Sam with curiosity in his lively brown eyes. She pretended not to notice before she strode towards the barn to find Ace's halter. It would take far too much effort to saddle him before riding out for such a short time, so Sam only grabbed his bridle before heading into his stall.

"Hey there my pretty boy." She smooched at the horse as he whinnied in greeting. "Now, do you think you'll forgive me for fibbing to you earlier Ace? It seems we'll be going for a ride after all." Sam told him as she let herself into the stall and put on his halter.

"You still babyin' that little mustang and embarrassin' him?" Came a deep voice from behind her. Sam glanced over at the stall door to see Jake leaning there peering in at her while Witch stood patiently behind him, whuffling her lips against the fabric of his shirt as her nostrils flared to catch his scent.

"Naw." Sam replied with a shrug at Jake before leading Ace out of the stall. "You comin' or what?" She called over her shoulder to Jake as she led her horse out of the barn.

"Yeah I'm comin'" Jake mumbled, following her out and watching the ease of her movement as she leapt onto Ace's back. She sat staring at him, waiting for him to mount up.

"Used to be you couldn't do that, without a leg up, a rock to stand on, or without laying all over him first, Brat." Jake told her as he leapt aboard Witch. The mare flattened her ears at the different weight of her rider compared to Sam's weight, which she had grown accustomed to in Jake's absence. Sam looked at Jake with hooded eyes before saying

"Used to be a lot of things I couldn't do Jake." She said seriously before nudging Ace into an easy lope and angling him toward the bridge.