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Dawson Chisholm reined in his horse to look back at the ranch buildings in the distance. This was his favorite view of the Chisholm Cattle Company. He'd always felt a sense of pride and respect for the ranching empire his father had built.
Today, though, he felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders for the ranch and feared for his fatherand the future. Someone wanted to destroy not only what Hoyt Chisholm had built, but Hoyt himself.
"I'm going to ride up into the high country and check the cattle on summer range," he'd told his five brothers. They knew him well enough to realize that as the oldest brother he needed some time alone after everything that had happened.
They'd been at the main house sitting around the kitchen table this morning, avoiding the dining room since their father had been arrested for murder and their stepmother, Emma, had taken off to parts unknown.
The house had felt too empty, so they had all moved back in even though they had their own houses on the huge ranch. When their father's new bride, Emma, had come to the house two months ago, she'd required them all to show up freshly showered and changed for supper every evening.
No one questioned Emma's new rules, which included no swearing in the house and bowing their heads in prayer before supper. In the weeks since she and Hoyt had wed, she'd made a lot of changes at Chisholm Cattle Company.
That was until the body of Hoyt's third wife turned up and he'd been arrested.
Dawson still couldn't believe it. There was no way his father was a murderer. Unfortunately, given the evidence against him and his wealth, the judge had denied bail and Hoyt was now sitting in jail in Whitehorse awaiting trial.
Emma Well, she'd packed up and skipped town with only a short note saying she couldn't do this. It had broken their father's heart. Hoyt Chisholm had looked older than his fifty-six years when Dawson had visited him yesterday evening. He'd taken the news about Emma even worse than Dawson had thought he would.
"Emma wouldn't just leave," his father had argued. Emma had been nothing like his father's other wives. Redheaded with a fiery temper, plump and annoyingly cheerful. Her stepsons hadn't wanted to like her. But she'd won them all over and their father clearly adored her.
"She left a note, said she couldn't do this and packed up all her stuff and was gone when we got home," Dawson said, unable to hide his own anger and not just at Emma. His father had gone off to a cattleman's meeting in Denver two months ago and, after a quick stop in Vegas, had come back with a wife. Why was his father surprised the woman would leave, under the circumstances?
"Listen to me," Hoyt said, leaning forward behind the thick piece of bulletproof glass as he spoke into the phone provided for inmates to talk to visitors. "Emma wouldn't leave. You have to find her."
Dawson didn't need this. He and his brothers were having a hard enough time running the ranch without their father. He had a lot more important things to do than find his father's fourth wife.
But, he had to admit grudgingly, he'd liked Emma and maybe that was why he was so angry with her for bailing on their father.
"Where would you suggest I look? Is there family I can call? Friends? Is she even from Denver?" When his father didn't answer any of the questions, he said, "You really don't know anything about her, do you?"
"I know she wouldn't leave me," Hoyt had snapped.
Dawson sighed now, took one last look at the ranch and spurred his horse into the thick cool darkness of the pines. The ride up from the main house had taken most of the day. The big blue sky overhead was tinted pink to the west where the sun had dipped behind the Bear Paw Mountains.
He breathed in the sweet scent of pine. Since he was a boy, he'd always come to the high country when life got to be too much down on the prairie. Having five brothers, all of them adopted by Hoyt years ago, not even a ranch as large as this one felt big enough sometimes.
"I need one of you to see if you can find Emma," he'd told his brothers before he'd ridden out.
"Dad just doesn't want to believe that she deserted him," Marshall had said. "What's the point in finding her? She won't come back."
"I'll go," Zane had said, speaking up. When they all looked at him as if he was crazy, he said, "Dad loves her. He has enough problems without worrying about Emma. I'll see if I can find her. Did he give you any place to start?"
"All we know is that he met her in Denver," Dawson had said. "I suppose you could start there."
None of them had any hope that Zane would find her. Even less hope that if he did, she would come back and stand by their father's side during his trial.
Dawson couldn't really blame Emma when he thought about it. Rumors had circled around Chisholm Cattle Company for years after Hoyt's first wife, Laura, had drowned on a Fork Peck Reservoir boating trip.
The rumors only got worse after his second wife, Tasha, had been killed on a runaway horse. When his third wife, Krystal, had disappeared, never to be seen again, people who knew him were convinced Hoyt Chisholm had the worst luck with wives. Others weren't so sure.
There was at least one personan insurance investigatorwho suspected that Hoyt Chisholm had not only murdered all three wives, but would also do the same with his latest, Emma.
Dawson knew better. Hoyt was his father, the man who had adopted three motherless boysColton, Logan and Zane when the triplets' mother had died in childbirth, father unknown. He'd adopted Dawson, Tanner and Marshall when their mother had abandoned them, father also unknown.
Hoyt probably would have adopted even more children who needed homes if it hadn't been for the trouble with his wives.
Dawson, the oldest, was three when his father married his second wife, Tasha. They had been married only a short time before her death. He was five when Krystal came into their lives. She'd stayed an even shorter time. He doubted his brothers, who were all a few years younger, remembered any of them.
After that their father had raised them alone. All six of them now ranged from twenty-six to thirty-three. And then Hoyt Chisholm had met Emma.
A new wife had spurred all that old talk about Hoyt's other wives and brought former insurance investigator Aggie Wells back into their livesuntil she'd gone missing. That was when their father's third wife's body had turned up. Aggie was still missing.
Dawson felt the temperature begin to drop up here in the mountains. He loved this ride from the sagebrush and prairie to the rocky mountain range, the towering pines and rush of snow-fed creeks. He'd been raised on a horse and felt as at home there as he did in the high country.
At heart he was a cattleman, he thought as he heard the comforting sound of cows lowing just over the ridge. There was nothing like that sound or seeing the herd scattered across a wide meadow.
He stopped a short way into the meadow and leaned on his saddle horn to admire the black cattle against the summer-green meadow. Chisholm Cattle Company raised the finest Black Angus beef there wasand lots of them.
At that moment he realized what a loner he was. Before Emma had left, he'd noticed that she'd seemed intent on seeing each of her stepsons settle down with the perfect woman. He shook his head at the thought. Was there a woman alive who could understand his need to ride up here and camp out for a few days with only cows as company?
He laughed at the thought, remembering some of the women he'd dated. Even hard-core country girls weren't all that up for roughin' it. He thought of the one woman he'd known who might have and quickly pushed the painful thought away.
A cold breeze stirred the deep shadows that had settled into the pine boughs. He glanced across the meadow to the spot where he usually camped and saw something move in the trees.
A hawk burst from a high branch. The cattle began to moo loudly and move restlessly in the bowl-like meadow. Something was spooking them. A mountain lion? A grizzly?
Dawson stared into the trees across the meadow and started to pull his rifle from the scabbard on his saddle, thinking it had to be a large predator for the cattle to get this nervous.
The first rider came out of the trees at a gallop. Dawson pulled his rifle as the rustler came into view and fired a shot into the air as warning before taking aim to fire another. The cattle began to scatter.
A second rustler appeared, then another and another broke from the pines; shots rang out across the grazing land as the rustlers tried to circle the now stampeding cattle.
Dawson realized the cattle were headed right for himand so was one of the riders.
With the stampeding cattle headed directly at him, Dawson realized there was nowhere to go to get away from them, and it was too late to try to outrun the herd. He was about to be caught in the middle of the stampede.
He reined his horse around in time to see one of the rustlers turn the herd at the last momentand just enough that he was able to get out of the way. The cattle thundered past in a cloud of dustthe rustler with them.
Dawson sheathed his rifle, spurred his horse and took off after him. The rider was moving fast, bent over the horse and riding as if his life depended on it. It did, because Dawson was gaining on him. Just a few more yards
Riding up behind him, Dawson dived off his horse, tackling the rustler. Both of them hit the ground at the edge of the thundering herd of cattle and rolled into the tall grass. Dust boiled up around them as they came to a stop at the base of a large pine tree, Dawson coming out on top.
As the dust settled, he got his first good look at the rustler. He blinked. A pair of big Montana-sky-blue eyes glared up at him from a face framed in blond curls.
A woman rustler?
"You have to let me go," she hollered as the roar of the stampeding cattle died off in the distance. "So you can finish stealing my cattle? I don't think so."
"You don't understand."
"The hell I don't." He looked over his shoulder to see the last of the rustlers and cattle disappear through a gap in the trees. The rustlers had scattered the herd, but would still be able to cut out at least a hundred head.
He jerked the woman to her feet. "Where are they taking the cattle?"
She tested her left shoulder and grimaced, then she reached down to pick up her battered Western straw hat from the dirt.
"I think you'll survive," he said sarcastically.
She shot him a dirty look. "You could have killed me."
"It crossed my mind."
"Even after I saved you?" She narrowed those eyes at him.
"I beg your pardon?" He couldn't believe this woman.
"Do you think those cattle just happened to turn on their own?" She raised her chin as she said it, her gaze full of challenge. "I saved your life. Now you owe me. Let me go."
He laughed as he knocked the dust from his Stetson and settled it back on his head. "The only place you're going is to jail."
"That would be a mistake," she said meeting his gaze. Her eyes were a heartbreaking blue in a face that could stop traffic with its surprising beauty. She looked too sweet and innocent to be a rustler.
"What the hell are you doing rustling my cattle?" he demanded, although he'd bet it had something to do with a man. It usually did.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," she said, and glanced toward where the cattle had disappeared through a wide spot in the trees.
Something came into her eyes, a subtle look that warned him. He mentally kicked himself for not thinking of it sooner. She reached for the gun strapped to her hip, hidden under her long barn jacket.
He grabbed the weapon before she could, his eyes narrowing as he assessed her. So much for sweet and innocent.
She wasn't just a woman whose boyfriend had talked her into some crazy stunt of rustling up a hundred head of cattle. The woman was armed and he'd already seen the way she could ride.
"How many others are there?" he demanded, grabbing a fistful of her jacket. "I think you'd better start talking before I tear into you."
She smiled. "I'm not sure you want to do that."
"Why is that?"
"You might not like the outcome."
He laughed again. He had a good ten inches on her and seventy pounds. She wasn't serious, was she?
Apparently she was, because before he could react, she punched him.
The blow caught him by surprise, breaking his hold on her and allowing her to take off running toward her horse, which had stopped a few dozen yards away.
Dawson went after her, bringing her down in the tall grass. She tried to fight him off, but he was onto her tricks this time and pinned her to the ground. He was suddenly aware of the soft curves.
"You have to listen to me." She ground out the words from between her gritted teeth. "You have to let me go. If you don't, they will come back for me and they will kill you. There are too many of them for you to fight off alone. You won't stand a chance and I don't want your blood on my hands."
"I'm touched by your concern for me. Especially after you just tried to pull a gun on me."
"I wasn't going to shoot you."
"You don't mind if I don't take your word on that, since you just punched me."
"You gave me no choice."
"Well, I'm giving you a choice now. Tell me how many of them there are."
She struggled under him for a few moments, then gave up and sighed. "Seven. How are those for odds?"
Not good. He'd heard about a large rustling ring that had been operating down in Wyoming and had only recently moved into southeastern Montana. He assumed it must be the same band of rustlers. Apparently they had now moved into north central Montana.
"When they realize I'm not with them, they will be back for me," she said.
Once the rustlers had the cattle settled wherever they planned to keep them for the night, they would come looking for this woman, sure as hellif they didn't notice her missing sooner.
He wondered how badly they would want to find her and how long they would look when they didn't. He figured only one or two of them would return. The others would stay with the cattle. That at least would even the odds.
Also it would be dark soon. It got dark fast up here in the mountains. He had to make sure the band of rustlers didn't find them until he decided what to do.