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The Lost Springs Ranch for troubled boys is at stake, and it's a man's duty to give back
After eight years of always doing the right thing, wealthy widow Jessica Fremont is ready to rebel against her mother-in-law's upper-crust interference into how she's raising her son. Nine-year-old Sam desperately wants to be a cowboy—to his grandmother's horror—and Jessica's going to help him. So she bids on gorgeous rancher Matthew Winston, who inherited his struggling spread, a home for...
The Lost Springs Ranch for troubled boys is at stake, and it's a man's duty to give back
After eight years of always doing the right thing, wealthy widow Jessica Fremont is ready to rebel against her mother-in-law's upper-crust interference into how she's raising her son. Nine-year-old Sam desperately wants to be a cowboy—to his grandmother's horror—and Jessica's going to help him. So she bids on gorgeous rancher Matthew Winston, who inherited his struggling spread, a home for retired circus animals. Jessica is hoping he'll show Sam the ropes. Except, she's about to discover that Sam's not the only Fremont with a weakness for cowboys .
"I just got back from Lost Springs—I wanted to make sure the extra bleachers are all ready for the auction this weekend." Jessica Fremont cradled the telephone between her ear and her shoulder as she fixed her son, Sam, a peanut butter and banana sandwich on wholewheat bread for an after-school snack.
"You've been a real lifesaver, Jessica," her friend Lauren DeVane said breezily. "Lindsay will be forever in your debt. I hope Fremont Construction's generosity is going to be mentioned during the auction."
"Not to worry. Lindsay's already given us a full-page ad in the brochure."
"I know, but it doesn't hurt to keep donors happy," Lauren replied. "Lindsay must be thrilled at all the support she's received. Who would have believed a bachelor auction in Wyoming would generate so much good will? I'm really glad I've been able to play even a little part."
Jessica knew that Lauren's "little part" involved a substantial financial contribution to their friend Lindsay's auction.
Underneath her polished veneer, Lauren had a well-developed social conscience and had worked hard for a lot of good causes on the charity circuit. At one time, Jessica had been headed in that direction herself.
And then one snowy day, on a ski slope in Switzerland, she'd met one Samuel Fremont from Lightning Creek, Wyoming, fallen madly in love and that was that. Just over a year of absolute bliss had followed before
But that was nearly nine years ago. "Lindsay is a saint to take on running that boys' ranch after her parents died," Jessica said. "And now that her uncle's retired, it can't be easy for her, though she'd never say so."
"Oh, I know, but truly good people make me nervous. Listen, I have another favor, which is actually why I called."
Jessica smiled to herself as she screwed the top back onto the peanut butter jar. Lauren's almost fiance was going to be one of the bachelors auctioned. Since Lauren wasn't going to be at the auction, Jessica had been expecting a request for her to bid on him.
"Liz and Tara promised to come to the auction and someplace called the Starlite is full. Is the Starlite the only hotel in Lightning Creek?"
"Actually, it's more of a motel."
"Well, there you are then," Lauren said, as though everything were settled. "They'll have to stay with you."
Liz and Tara, the McNeil sisters. Jessica shifted the phone to her other ear as she got the milk jug out of the refrigerator. She, Lauren and the McNeils had been roommates at school before Jessica had dropped out to get married at nineteen. Jessica hadn't seen them for a long time—since her husband Samuel's funeral in fact. She hadn't seen any of her old friends but Lauren since then—and that was only because Lauren had made the effort.
Liz and Tara how many times had they nearly been expelled because they were out after curfew? Jessica tried to imagine them here. "I don't know, Lauren. We live awfully quietly."
There was a potent silence. "Jessica, I'm going to be frank."
Jessica rolled her eyes. Lauren was never less than frank.
"Liz and Tara would be doing you a favor. You've spent years holed up in the middle of nowhere with your kid and your mother-in-law. It's it's not natural. We've all been talking about how you've become so drearily domestic—"
"Drearily domestic? "
"Admit it. In your wildest nightmares, did you ever think your life would turn out the way it has?"
"I'm not unhappy, Lauren."
"You're not anything."
"I beg your pardon!"
Lauren laughed. "You just need a good shaking up, and since you won't come to us, I'm going to send Liz and Tara to you. You can thank me by bidding on one of the bachelors for yourself. Maybe even my Rob wait, have you put on any weight since I've seen you last?"
"Then you better not bid on him. He really likes the tall, slender, blond type."
"Lauren!" Jessica laughed in spite of herself.
"I know, I'm being ridiculous, except about Liz and Tara. Can they stay with you?"
"I don't know," Jessica hedged. She did need a good shaking up.
"Come on, Jessica, you'll love having them there. Remember when we were in school and we'd stay up all night in each other's rooms?"
"And fall asleep during morning assembly, yes."
"It sounds like such fun, I'm almost sorry I'll be in the Bay Area, but I've had this trip planned for ages."
Sam would be home from school soon, so Jessica was going to have to cut Lauren off in a minute. After-school snacktime was her special time with Sam, and nobody and nothing, except soccer practice, interfered.
"Now give me directions to your house so I can tell them," Lauren said.
Jessica hesitated. "I should check with Rachel. I can't just spring houseguests on my mother-in-law."
"It'll be good for her, too."
Lauren was right. They could stand a little variation in their routine. And the auction was the only event on the calendar this weekend.
Rachel shouldn't object. Jessica knew that the Fre-monts used to have house parties all the time. In fact, as she understood it, that had been the point of building such a huge house in tiny Lightning Creek to begin with.
"Come on, Jessica," Lauren urged softly. "It'll only be for a couple of days."
Jessica capped the milk jug and looked out the window on her way back to the refrigerator. "Let me think about it," she said as she caught the blur of yellow through the trees—her signal that the school bus had dropped Sam off at the end of the long driveway.
"While you're thinking, think about how it will look if Liz and Tara come all that way and don't stay with you."
Lauren had a point. "Okay," Jessica agreed with some of her old impulsiveness, and was surprised to find she was already looking forward to seeing her friends again.
They decided Jessica would call the McNeils herself, and the next thing Jessica knew, Lauren had hung up, leaving her with the telephone in one hand, the milk jug in another and houseguests coming in less than forty-eight hours.
"Mom!" The door slammed open as Sam burst in, shed his backpack, kicked his shoes across the foyer and headed for the kitchen. "I'm hungry! What have we got to eat?"
"Peanut butter and banana." Jessica pushed the impending house party to the back of her mind and put the milk away.
"Aw, Mom." Sam slid across the tile in his stockinged feet and slouched into a chair. "Gramma lets me have pizza pockets."
"Too much fat and too many additives," Jessica replied automatically. Putting the sandwich and milk in front of him, she sat at the table.
Drearily domestic or not, Jessica lived for these few minutes as Sam wolfed down his snack and babbled about his day. Then he'd go upstairs or over to a friend's house to play, and Jessica would return to her office at Fremont Construction until dinnertime. The end of the school year would soon be here and she knew she'd miss the routine.
Sam swallowed half the milk and swiped at his mouth. "Kevin is going to go to sleep-away camp. He's going to learn how to ride horses, and then when he gets back, his parents are getting him a horse! I want to go to that camp. Then when you and Gramma see how good I can ride, it would be stupid not to get me a horse, too."
It was an old argument and Jessica was running out of excuses. Rachel had forbidden Sam to own a horse and, secretly, Jessica had been relieved not to have the responsibility of making the decision herself. In the past when she'd refused him, she had pointed out how much time and energy a horse would require and that Sam wasn't old enough to be able to give the animal that kind of care. She had a feeling that this time the excuse wouldn't work.
"Sam." she began gently.
"Kevin is three months and six days younger than me! He's getting a horse—why can't I have a horse?"
Because your father was killed on a horse and your grandmother and I don't want the same thing to happen to you. But she couldn't say that to a nine-year-old. She didn't even like admitting it to herself because she knew she'd grown too safe, too bland. Too predictable. "I'll talk to Gramma about it, okay?"
A voice sounded from the mudroom. "Talk to Gramma about what?" Rachel came through the back door of the kitchen.
"Me getting a horse!"
Rachel met Jessica's eyes and a look passed between the two women. "His friend Kevin is going to a riding camp this summer," Jessica explained. "Sam thinks it's something he would like to do, too."
"And a horse afterward!" Even muffled by peanut butter, Sam's voice sounded shrill.
Rachel carefully placed her purse on the telephone table and picked up the stack of mail Jessica had dropped there earlier. "Horses are very large animals, Sam. They're dangerous—"
"Kevin's parents don't think so!"
She looked at him, her expression revealing the grief she still felt. "Kevin's father didn't—"
"That wasn't the horse's fault! You said it was the camera flash that scared him!"
"Sam, stop interrupting your grandmother." Jessica wanted to head off Rachel, too. Her mother-in-law's face had paled and the letters she held quivered in her hands.
Sam visibly gathered himself, then said with determination, "I want a horse." He raised his chin just the slightest bit, and Jessica was instantly reminded of his father saying to Rachel, "I want to marry Jessica."
"No," Rachel said now, just as she'd said then.
"I'm going to be a cowboy and own a ranch like my father. I need a horse."
"You are not going to be a cowboy. Fremonts are not cowboys."
"Then I don't want to be a Fremont!" Sam's face reddened. "I never get to do anything! You treat me like a baby! I hate you—both of you!" Shoving back the chair, he bolted from the table.
Jessica was so shocked she could only stare after him. His footsteps thudded up the stairs, across the landing and into his room. The door slammed. The last time a door had been slammed in the Fremont mansion, Jessica herself had done it.
She'd been angry at Rachel then, too.
Now she looked apologetically at the woman who'd become her partner in raising Sam. "I—he's never I'll go talk to him."
"Wait and let him cool off."
Jessica was surprised. After Sam's outburst, she would have expected Rachel to follow him upstairs and deliver a lecture on the proper behavior for Fremonts. Controlling emotions was a basic tenet of the Fremont family.
During the early weeks of her marriage, Jessica had struggled to subdue her natural spontaneity and to think carefully before she spoke. Being a member of a wealthy family with political aspirations meant any offhand remarks might end up out of context in the newspaper. It had been difficult for her, but until now, she hadn't believed her son had inherited any of her volatility, as Rachel had once referred to her temper.
"Are you all right?" she asked her mother-in-law.
Rachel nodded and scanned the mail. "He's a lot like his father."
He was? Jessica had never heard her husband raise his voice.
"I think we ought to send him to camp with his friend," she suggested. "Maybe he won't like horses. He's bound to get tired of caring for them. This whole cowboy thing is probably a phase, anyway. I mean, every other boy his age is playing computer games."
"No," Rachel said. "He will go to Marshallfield Day Camp as usual. He'll meet boys from good families there. He'll form lifelong friendships that will provide a network of support for him in the future."
She sounded like the brochure, Jessica thought. Probably because Rachel had written the brochure thirty years earlier.
Sam's father had attended Marshallfield. Now that Jessica thought about it, her husband hadn't ever spoken of good old Marshallfield and the wonderful memories it held for him.
Something in the tone of Rachel's voice and the way she spoke grated on Jessica, but she didn't want to argue now.
"Lauren DeVane called me a few minutes ago," she said, deliberately changing the subject.
"Dare I hope it had nothing to do with that vulgar auction?"
"No." Jessica hid a smile by turning to clear away the remains of Sam's snack.
Rachel chaired the annual Lightning Creek Ladies Auxiliary fund drive. The Lost Springs Ranch for Boys was one of the recipients that split the modest amount raised each year. Lindsay, the ranch's owner, and Rex Trowbridge, the director, had enlisted outside help in planning the auction and there were obviously still ruffled feathers.
"Liz and Tara McNeil will be in town for the auction and Lauren thought it would be fun if they could stay here." Closing the dishwasher, Jessica added, "It's been years since I've seen them. I'm looking forward to it." She reached for the hand towel.
Rachel was silent. Jessica glanced at her as she hung up the towel and saw that the older woman's lips were pressed in a grim line. "It's out of the question."
A pang of disappointment shot through Jessica.
"Surely I don't have to tell you."
The past ten years evaporated and Jessica once again felt like the new bride eager to please her stern mother-in-law.
"I don't understand what's wrong with them staying here," she said. "We've certainly got the room."
"It isn't appropriate," Rachel pronounced in a low voice.
"Why not? You used to have house parties all the time!"
"That was before."
Now Jessica understood. Walking over to Rachel, she put her arm around the older woman's shoulder. "It's been nearly nine years since Sam and his father died, Rachel, though I know it sometimes seems like yesterday. Just because I want to see a couple of my friends doesn't mean that I'm forgetting Samuel."
Rachel stiffened and Jessica dropped her arm. "I should hope not. As a Fremont, you have certain obligations."
Jessica stepped back. "Supporting this auction is one of those obligations, isn't it?"
"You've supported it plenty."
"I know." Jessica waited, her expression as Fremontlike as she could make it.
Rachel scrutinized her, then nodded slightly. "Have your friends here, if you must. But, Jessica, do try to maintain some decorum. Remember, you're a Fremont."
Jessica hadn't been reminded that she was a Fremont in quite a while and was irritated that Rachel did so now. Hadn't she proved herself yet? "I'm aware of my responsibilities and one of them is upstairs, very upset that he can't have a horse."
Rachel shot her a sharp look. "I'm surprised you can even contemplate it."
But Jessica was contemplating it. This was the latest in a series of escalating disagreements between her and her mother-in-law on how to raise Sam, and it was by far the biggest. The others were small—just differences of style mostly. Like the high-fat snacks Rachel let Sam eat more often than Jessica thought was reasonable. She yielded on that, as she did on most issues when it came to Sam. After all, Rachel was more experienced. She'd raised Sam's father, the man Jessica had fallen in love with.
"Let's at least look into this camp that he wants to go to," Jessica suggested. "I'm going upstairs to talk with him."
Her footsteps sounded loud as they crossed the polished wooden floors to the grand double staircase with the banisters and railings carved by local craftsmen. The designs didn't match, though they were all carved from ponderosa pine. Ever mindful of potential votes, Samuel's father had used more than one local carver. At first, Jessica had thought it too obviously political. Now she liked the differing styles.
As she reached the top of the stairs, her footsteps slowed. It was past time she returned to work, but she didn't want to leave Sam while he was angry.
She knocked on his bedroom door and waited, not expecting an answer. She didn't get one. Turning the knob, she pushed open the door. "Sam?"
"Go away." He was standing by his dresser. On the top, framed in rough wood with barbed wire embedded in it, was a photograph of his father and grandfather, dressed in fancy Western outfits and sitting on their horses as they prepared to ride in the Frontier Days parade.
Jessica walked over to join him, encouraged when he didn't tell her to go away again. "No promises, but I'll talk to Gramma."
Sam gave her a bleak look. "She'll just make me go to Marshallfield."