For widow Louise Porter, a temporary marriage to cowboy Nate Hawkins seems the only solution to protect her unborn child. Especially when she's threatened by her late husband's business partner. She needs a safe havenand Eden Valley Ranch, where Nate works, is supposedly just the place. And yet, in Nate's care she feels secure and cherished as never before.
The protection of his name is all Nate can offer Louise. He's not cut out for family life long-term. However, he'll risk anything to keep Louise safe during their perilous journey. Perhaps an early Christmas arrival will show them both just how preciousand how permanenttheir new family can be
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Twenty-year-old Louise Porter cupped her hands to her rounded belly. How was she to protect this baby, as well as herself and her eighteen-year-old sister-in-law? Where could she go? Where could she find help?
No answer came to mind, but she must get away from that vile man who grew bolder and bolder with his threats and advances.
She turned the corner. Without thought, she'd walked toward the church. Head down, watching her footing carefully on the rough ground, she made her way toward the spot where they'd buried her husband six months ago.
Not until she was almost there did she look up and nearly fell backward. Nate Hawkins stood at Gordie's graveside. She'd gotten a fleeting glimpse of him last year on his annual visit to his mother, but still she stared at him, taking in his rumpled dark blond hair and his blue eyes that always made her feel as if he pinned her to the spot where she stood. He'd filled out in the three years since he left, but he was still tall and slim. His muscular body spoke of hard work and strength.
"Nate, I never expected to see you." Too late she thought to pull her shawl closed to hide her belly.
Nate held his hat in his hand. "I had to come say goodbye to Gordie." His gaze skittered to her stomach and away. "You married again?"
"Hardly. This is Gordie's baby."
"Oh." He shifted from foot to foot. "Don't know if I should say sorry or congratulations."
"Don't say anything." She wouldn't tell him that she struggled with similar feelings. A baby to bring up on her own presented challenges. Some she dreaded, but that didn't mean she didn't look forward to welcoming the little one. "I'll leave you to say your goodbye." She turned back the way she'd come.
"Wait. Don't let me chase you away."
"I can come back anytime." She continued on her way, not slowing until she knew she was out of his sight. Then she paused to catch her breath. It was getting harder and harder to move about with her growing size. She patted her tummy as the baby kicked up a storm. "Not much longer, little one," she murmured. She expected the baby would be born Christmas Day. A Christmas baby. Her heart swelled with anticipated joy.
Her gaze turned over her shoulder, though she wouldn't be able to see Nate. He'd been Gordie's best friend. Hers, too.
In the past, both she and Nate had found a warm welcome in the Porter home along with the Porter children Gordie and Missy. Nate and Louise had had their own homes, but in her case it had been unwelcoming and Nate had been mostly alone in his, so they'd spent all their free time with the Porters.
Louise's mother had left when she was little and her father had raised her on his own, usually in mining camps. When she turned thirteen and he noticed how the men began to stare at her, he had sent her to live with Aunt Bea here in Rocky Creek, Montana. Aunt Bea was well, she didn't care to make any effort on Louise's behalf and was openly grateful that Louise spent so much time at the Porters'.
At first, Louise resented her father for sending her away, then, after she'd fallen in with Nate and the Porter family, she secretly thanked him. It was the best thing that could have happened to her. The Porters were a loving, supportive family, and Nate well, she was more than half in love with him from the first glimpse. Puppy love only, of course.
Her idyllic life had crashed to a halt four years ago when the Porter parents were killed in a senseless accident. Their team of horses had spooked and before Mr. Porter could get the animals under control, the wagon flipped, killing them both.
Gordie was not yet eighteen and suddenly had to be the man of the house and look after Missy, his sister, only thirteen years old at the time. He resented the responsibility and the endless work. A man who hovered at the outskirts of the town's polite populace, Vic Hector, ten years older and worldly wise, had offered Gordie easier ways to make money than carrying freight and goods around for people. Most of the ways bordered on illegal. Slowly Vic and Gordie had grown more and more uncaring about staying within the bounds of the law.
That wasn't all that was despicable about Vic, though Louise seemed to be the only one who saw how he eyed Missy and how, when he thought no one was looking, he bothered her as if he had some claim to her.
After the Porters' deaths, Nate had decided to move on and had tried to convince the trio to leave with him. When Gordie refused, Louise knew she, too, must stay and watch out for Missy.
Besides, Louise couldn't leave the only place and the only people who had ever made her feel welcome. If Nate had stuck around, perhaps he could have made Gordie realize how evil Vic was, but Nate had left them to manage on their own. He'd gone on to build his own life. A carefree one, according to his mother.
Louise had put behind her any thought that Nate had cared about her.
A year and a half ago, she'd married Gordie. She loved him in her own way, perhaps because he was a Porter. But it also gave her the hope of watching over Missy and maybe changing the direction of Gordie's life.
Oh, how she'd failed.
She waited for the tangle of anger, frustration and helplessness to unravel inside her chest. Gordie had not changed. He'd been shot to death. No one had ever been held accountable, but she suspected Vic had shot Gordie. Perhaps her husband had finally stood up to Vic and paid the ultimate price.
Since Gordie's death, Vic had grown increasingly persistent, threatening even. She rubbed the spot on her arm where he had grabbed her and held her tight just a few hours ago.
"Soon as that baby is born, I got me a job to do." He'd pressed his face close to hers and held her so she couldn't back away. "After all, Gordie and I was partners. He'd expect me to take care of his wife and little sister." As he spoke, spittle sprayed from his teeth.
She pushed aside the memory and hurried on. She had to get away. But where? Her father had already refused to have her. He said he was close to finding a rich gold strike. Besides, the tent he lived in was no place for a baby.
What was she to do?
On her way home Louise slowed her steps and recaptured her breath. Oh, to have this baby and be again able to move about as easily as she once had. A few minutes later she arrived at the Porter househer home since marrying Gordie. If she'd hoped to again know the warmth she'd experienced there when his parents were alive, she'd soon learned it wouldn't happen. The happy home she'd grown to expect with the Porters had died along with them. As she reached for the doorknob, she heard Missy's voice raised in protest.
"Get away from me."
Anger filling her with fresh energy, Louise pushed the door open.
She'd thought Missy safe because Vic was supposed to be gone for the day. But now he had Missy in a corner, his body pressed to hers as Missy tried vainly to fend him off.
"Leave her alone." Louise grabbed the closest weapon, the broom, and beat on Vic.
He released Missy to cover his head against Louise's blows. One hand snaked out and wrenched the broom from her.
"You will soon enough discover that you belong to me. Both of you. By the way, I'm moving in so's I can keep an eye on my property." Muttering under his breath, he slammed the door behind him as he left the house.
Louise stared at his belongings stacked against the wall. She'd toss them all out into the yard except it wouldn't stop him. He wasn't a man to take no for an answer.
Missy fell into Louise's arms. "That man makes me feel dirty both inside and out."
Louise rubbed Missy's back. "I know. But don't worry. I'll find a way to make sure he doesn't bother us."
But how would she succeed in keeping her promise?
Twenty-one-year-old Nate Hawkins, known as Slim at Eden Valley Ranch where he now lived and worked, spent a few minutes at his friend's grave. "Gordie, I'm sorry I couldn't make it for your funeral." To this day, he missed his friend. Things used to be so good between them. Until Gordie's parents died and Vic entered the picture. Nate had tried to make Gordie see the foolishness of his ways, but Gordie had ignored his warnings.
After that, everything had changed.
Things always changed. His father had died when Nate was eight and Ma had moved them to Rocky Creek so she could find work to support them. She was gone long hours, so he barely saw her and had to take care of himself. He'd found a place of refuge with Gordie and his family. Louise had become part of that group when she moved in with her aunt Bea. In Nate's mind, she'd become the sunshine of the group.
And now Gordie was gone. And Louise's sunshine had turned from him.
Nothing lasted forever. Only land, he'd decided, was permanent. Which was why he had his heart set on owning a ranch.
"Goodbye, old friend." He waited until he was back on the street to put his hat on. He returned homehis ma's home, at least.
A smile curved his mouth as he thought of the home he had his eye on. A small ranch across the border in Alberta not far from Eden Valley Ranch. There he'd build a secure place of his own.
"Did you say you had a leak in your roof?" he said to Ma. He didn't wait for her reply before he grabbed a hammer and ladder and climbed up to begin repairs.
He inserted new shingles and pounded in nails.
He'd know that voice anywhere. Louise. Once they'd been close, but now that, too, had changed.
He'd moved on and had plans of his own. She'd stayed, married Gordie and now carried his child. She'd succeeded in holding on to the Porter family and name.
Slowly he turned to stare down at her. From this perspective, she seemed tiny and vulnerable. He half snorted. Louise had never been vulnerable. She'd always kept up with Gordie and Nate in whatever they'd tackled.
She tipped her head up, shielding her eyes from the glare. He knew their color without seeing them. Brown and challenging. Bold and demanding.
"I need to talk to you."
He backed down the ladder and faced her. "What can I do for you?"
"How long are you staying to visit your mother?"
He blinked. An odd question from a gal who'd made it clear three years ago that she didn't care if he went as far north as he could ride. He'd harbored a hope she would accompany him, but she'd quickly made him understand he would do well to pin his hopes in a different direction.
And he had, though it had taken a bit of effort. But now his hopes lay in getting his own ranch. His own land.
"I'm not staying long. A few days at the most. I need to get back and take care of some business." While out riding the herd for Eddie, owner of the Eden Valley spread, Nate had come across an empty log cabin in a pretty little valley. He'd asked about it and learned it belonged to a mountain man who had once tried ranching but found he didn't care for it. Nate hoped to catch him when he made his regular trek to town to send Christmas presents to his grown daughter. He'd learned the man only stayed long enough to visit an old friend who ran the livery barn. Nate had left a message with Rufus at the livery barn that he wanted to speak to Mountain Man Mike about buying the little ranch he had abandoned. Rufus had warned him Mike only stayed a few days. Nate couldn't afford to miss him.
"Take us with you. Me and Missy." The words tumbled from Louise's mouth. She ducked her head as if it hurt her pride to make the request, then lifted her gaze to his, and he felt her demand clear to his toes. And something more he couldn't identify and didn't try as his heart leaped at the possibility. Then reality pointed out the facts.
"Don't see how that's possible. I have one horse. You're in the family way and I'm in a hurry. I have to be back by Christmas to see a man who has a little ranch I intend to buy."
"We could ride the stagecoach."
He shrugged. "Fine. Go ahead. It's none of my business who rides it."
"It's not that simple. I don't want to travel alone with Missy."
Nate leaned into his heels. Not too many years ago he would have welcomed her request and taken her with him. There was a time he'd do almost anything she asked of him and had enjoyed pleasing her, but that time was long gone. She'd made her choice. He'd moved on, started a new life elsewhere. There was no going back.
She ducked her head again and studied her fingers.
He looked at them, too. Saw they were white from her clutching them together. She was hiding something.
"What's going on, Louise?"
That's it? Nate had never cared for the man, but it seemed the others found him what? Certainly not charming. He had all the appeal of a snake. Nate shook his head. He had never been able to understand why Louise had hung around the man. At least not until she and Gordie had married. Then it made sense.
He hated even thinking of Louise married to Gordie. But there was no denying she'd had special feelings for Nate's best friend. As much as it hurt, Nate had never let his romantic feelings toward Louise stand in the way of his two friends. Good thing he'd left when he did.
"What about Vic?" he asked her.
"He's well, he's getting bothersome."
"In what way?" Surely now that Gordie was dead, the man had sought out another partner to do his bidding.
She wobbled her hands in a gesture that told him nothing. "Your mother says the lady at Eden Valley Ranch welcomes people who are in need of a place to stay. All I'm asking is you accompany us there, then I promise we won't bother you again."
"Louise, it's a weeklong trip. We have to stay overnight in some very tight quarters." He waited for her to realize what he meant and knew she did when pink stained her cheeks. "It wouldn't be appropriate for us to travel together that far, that long." He studied her heightened color. Even heavy with child and looking weary, she was a beautiful woman.
He'd like to help her, but her plan put both Louise's and Missy's reputation at stake. Something he wouldn't do. "You need to think of something better than this."