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Emma Chisholm heard the ruckus from clear back in the ranch kitchen. She wiped her hands on her apron as she walked toward the front of the sprawling house to peer out over the wide porch to the yard.
After a whirlwind courtship and marriage, she hadn't been prepared for her new home. Hoyt had warned her that his ranch was in the middle of Nowhere, Montana, but she hadn't been able to imagine anything this isolated or this huge.
She remembered thinking that day two weeks ago, when they'd driven north for three hours after picking up one of his ranch trucks at the airport in Billings, that she didn't really know what she was getting intonot with her new life. Or her new husband. After all, what did she really know about Hoyt Chisholm?
And what did he know about her? Very little since she had purposely skimmed over the past. It was a given that both being over fifty, they had things in their pasts they wanted to forget.
The thought that Hoyt might also have something in his past he wanted to hide had never occurred to her. That was an unsettling thought, she realized as she headed for the front of the rambling ranch house.
Even through the cloud of dust they were kicking up, she recognized the two young men brawling by the corral. Emma sighed, shaking her head as she watched two of her stepsons fighting. When Hoyt had told her that he had six sons, she'd been shocked. Funny how that hadn't come up when they met in Denver and found themselves flying to Vegas for an impromptu wedding.
She'd expected them to be boys, since that was what he called them. To her surprise, they were six grown men from twenty-six to thirty-three years old. But they definitely behaved like boys. Her six, big, strapping stepsons were typically involved in one squabble or another on a daily basis and she'd come to realize that Hoyt was usually the reason. The boys, all adopted, had apparently been raised without a woman in the house to give them any guidance and Hoyt dang sure wasn't providing any.
Emma saw her husband standing in the shade at the other end of the porch watching two of his sons rassle in the dirt.
"You just going to stand there, Hoyt Chisholm?" she asked as she stepped out on the porch.
He shot her that grin that had stolen her heart and clearly her senses, as well. How else could she explain marrying a man she barely knew to come to this ranch so far from civilization?
Hoyt took off his Stetson and scratched the back of his neck. She could tell that he wasn't going to do a darn thing about this. Just as she could see that he wanted her to accept the way things were on the Chisholm Cattle Company ranch. By now he must be realizing that wasn't going to happen.
Stepping off the porch, she walked around to the water faucet at the side of the house, snatched up the hose and turned the faucet on full force.
Hoyt, seeing what she was up to, quickly abandoned the porch as if he just remembered he had something to do in the barn.
Emma was tempted to turn the water on him, but she knew it wouldn't do any good. He'd just laugh and hightail it out of range.
His two sons were still rolling around in the dirt as Emma dragged the hose over and sprayed them.
"What the hell?" Colton said as he leaped to his feet.
"Don't you be using that kind of language around me, Colton Chisholm," Emma snapped and sprayed him again.
Tanner was on his feet, same as his brother, both now soaked to the skin, the dust on their clothes turning to mud.
Emma shook her head as she looked at the two of them and their hangdog expressions. Both were handsome to a fault.
"This is all your doing, Hoyt Chisholm," she called after her husband. "You're the reason they're always squabbling, each of them trying to win favor with you." She'd seen that within the first twenty-four hours of moving into the main house even though the "boys" had their own houses on the huge ranch that was Chisholm Cattle Company.
Of course, Hoyt pretended not to hear, but she could tell by the way he ducked his head as he stepped into the barn that he'd heard just fine. His sons were brought up wild. And he thought that was a good thing?
She turned her attention back to the two young men standing before her. They had both retrieved their hats and stood looking sheepish and wet and worried about what she might do next.
"I'd best not catch you fighting like tomcats again," she said, scowling at the two of them. "Now get on out of here before I give you another good soaking."
They tipped their hats and took off in the direction their father had gone. But within a few feet she could hear them arguing again.
She shook her head. It was time for Hoyt's "boys" to grow up, and she knew exactly what each of them needed. A woman.
Not just any woman. It took a special woman to domesticate a Chisholm man, she reflected, thinking of Hoyt.
As she turned off the water and coiled up the hose again, she told herself the hardest part would be finding the right woman for each of them. Since marrying Hoyt, she'd been thinking about how to bring this family together. It was clear that her stepsons had been more than surprised when their father had brought home a wifeand less than pleased. But she was determined to change all that.
She'd have to be careful, though, Emma thought, as she turned back to the kitchen and the apple pies she was helping the cook make for supper. If Hoyt or her stepsons got wind of what she was up to, there would be hell to pay.
But she was willing to take that chance. She smiled, thinking of her husband. The key was gentling a man, not breaking him. Love could accomplish the most amazing things, she told herself, hoping that was true.
She set her mind to which of her stepsons would be first to have his life changed forever with her helpand possibly a cattle prod.
Colton Chisholm wiped blood from his split lip as he limped to his pickup. He told himself he'd gotten the best of the fight, but as he slid behind the wheel, he felt the pain in his ribs and wasn't so sure about that.
As he started the engine and roared down the road away from the ranch, he thought about just striking out and leaving Whitehorse and the Chisholm Cattle Company behind. He had plenty of reason most days.
But when he glanced in his rearview mirror, he knew he could no more leave this land than he could quit fighting his brothers for it. He was as much a Chisholm as the rest of them and he wouldn't be pushed out.
Not that his father didn't have him thinking twice about it, though. Everyone in six counties was talking about how Hoyt Chisholm had gone to the cattleman's convention in Denver and brought home a wife. And not just any wife. Emma McDougal Chisholma fifty-something buxom redhead with green eyes and a temper.
"The damn fool," Colton said to himself. What made it worse was that his father was plainly head over heels in love with the woman. And Emma well, she seemed set on changing things on the ranch. He shook his head. Emma McDougal Chisholm had no idea what she'd signed on for. If she did, she'd be hightailing it out of town before sundown.
As Colton neared the highway on the long dirt road out of the ranch, he saw the postman, Albert Raines, pull up to the huge mailbox marked Chisholm. Albert waved to him and Colton slowed, pulling alongside as the postman got out and walked toward his pickup.
"Got a bunch of mail as usual," the tall, skinny postman said. "I was told to see that you got this personally, though." He handed Colton an envelope from the Postal Service.
At first he thought the postman was joking with him. "This about some new stamp designs?"
"Nope," Albert said with all seriousness. "It's a letter addressed to you that got lost. I brought it special."
"Thanks." He tossed it on the seat. He'd gotten other mail that had been caught in some machine and mangled and had ended up in an envelope just like the one Albert had handed him. No doubt it was a bill of some sort, since Colton rarely received anything else.
"Aren't you going to open it?" Albert sounded disappointed. "I heard it's been lost for fourteen years."
Colton chuckled. "I'm sure it will keep if it's been lost that long." He waved goodbye as he left and headed down the road to his house. He'd taken over one of the houses when his father had purchased a neighboring ranch a few years back. The house needed work, but Colton had needed space.
While the Chisholm ranch house was huge and rambling, it wasn't big enough for him and his brothers. All of them had moved out when they'd heard about their father's marriage, but they all still returned to the main ranch house for meals. Emma had seen to that.
After cleaning up, Colton headed into Whitehorse, anxious to get his errands done and get back for dinner. Emma had announced that she and the cook were baking apple pies. The way his brothers put away food, the pies wouldn't last long. Emma demanded that they all sit down to dinner each evening at the huge log dining room table at the ranch.
Crossing Emma had proved to be a bad thing, he thought, smiling at the memory of her turning the hose on him and Tanner. Emma wasn't very tall, but she was feisty as a badgerand just as dangerous when she was riled up. He figured that was one reason his father had fallen for herand the reason this marriage didn't stand a chance in hell.
It wasn't until later, after picking up supplies, stopping to see if his saddle was fixed yet and having a cup of coffee while he waited at the local café, that Colton climbed back in his pickup and saw the envelope.
He thought about just tossing it. What was the point in looking at a bill that had gotten lost in the mail years ago? Hell, fourteen years ago he'd been eighteen, too young to have bills and who would have sent him a letter?
Curious now, he tore open the envelope and dumped out the contents.
A once-white small envelope tumbled out on his pickup seat. The moment he saw her handwriting, his heart stuttered in his chest and he found himself heaving for breath, the effort almost doubling over from the pain of his banged-up ribs. He stared at the handwriting, the return address and finally the postmark. The letter had been mailed fourteen years ago in Mayright before Jessica left Whitehorse without even saying goodbye and he'd never seen her again.
He felt the heartbreak as if it had been only yesterday as he carefully eased open the back flap and took out the handwritten letter inside.
I'm sorry we fought. But I can't stay here at the house any longer. It's only getting worse. I'm running away. I hope you'll come with me. I'll be waiting for you at our special place Friday night at midnight. If you love me, you'll meet me there and we'll go together. I have a surprise for you and can't wait to tell you.
Colton felt as if his heart had been ripped out of his chest all over again. He let out a howl of pain as he reread the words. Jessica hadn't just taken off without a word. She'd sent this letter. Only he hadn't gotten it.
They'd had a fight the day before she left school, left Whitehorse, left him. He had been beside himself. He'd even braved going over to her house, knowing the reaction he'd get from her father.
Sid Granger had answered the door, his wife, Milli, behind him. "What the hell are you doing here? Haven't you done enough, you son of a" His wife had grabbed his arm, trying to hold him back, but she was no match for her husband.
Sid had grabbed a baseball bat and chased him out to his pickup. "Jessica's gone and if I ever see your face around here again, I'll kill you."
In the days following, Colton had called the house, begging Sid to tell him where Jessica had gone. But the phone calls had ended with angry words and the slamming down of the receiver. They blamed him for Jessica leaving? He couldn't understand why. She'd loved him.
It was whatever was going on at home that had made her run away.
A few weeks later, he'd seen Mrs. Granger coming out of the Whitehorse Post Office.
"Please. Tell me where she's gone," Colton had pleaded.
"Go away." Millie Granger had glanced around as if she was afraid Sid would find out she'd talked to him. "Jessica's gone. She isn't coming back. And even if she was, she wouldn't want anything to do with you."
Colton hadn't believed it at first. He'd been inconsolable for weeks.
"She obviously wasn't the right woman for you," his father finally said after watching him mope around. "Trust me, her leaving is the best thing that could have happened. You both were too damn young to be so serious."
As weeks had turned into months, Colton had been forced to accept that the first woman he'd ever loved no longer wanted anything to do with him.
Now he stared at the letter and understood what had happened, why she'd never tried to contact him. She'd reached out to him, gone to their secret spot that night, only to have him fail to show.
How long had she waited for him, thinking he would come for her? The thought of her alone there that night, waiting for him, broke his heart all over again. He couldn't bear that she'd gone away believing he hadn't loved her, that he wouldn't have been there for her. He had promised to take care of her, look out for her, and when she'd needed him, he hadn't been there.
I never got the letter.
He hadn't been to their special place for fourteen yearsnot since their fight and her disappearance from his life. As he drove out of town toward the ranch, he remembered the times they'd met there in secret. He would spread a blanket out for them beneath a stand of huge old cottonwood trees alongside the creek.
Even after all these years, he could remember the sound of the breeze in the leaves overhead, the sweet scent of the wild grasses, the cool coming up off the creek, the heat of her body against his.