Ford Marshall returns to Wyoming temporarily to help his brothers run the Circle M. He's looking forward to some hard work, but also peace and quietuntil Caroline Donnelly hijacks his ranch for her program to help troubled teens.
Now he's got unruly kids to deal with, a thousand chores and a growing attraction to Caroline that he isn't sure he wants to deny. But Ford has nothing to offer a hometown girl. He has to return to his job in the city at some point soonhis brothers depend on that outside income to keep the ranch afloat. So why can't Ford get the idea of a Wyoming wife, and coming home for good, off his mind?
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There was trouble on the Circle M Ranch, and Ford Marshall had come to take care of it. His brothers were doing their best, but when problems arose, the four Marshall boys handled them together. Always had, always would.
Ford had driven more than a thousand miles in the past two days, with only the last fifty left to go. Still, he pulled over at the top of the final descent, got out of the truck and went to stand on the edge of a five-hundred-foot drop. He stared down at the Powder River Valley laid out below, where the slopes of the Big Horn Mountains gave way to rolling, grass-covered plains. The landscape was as familiar to him as the palm of his hand, and just as vital.
How long, Ford wondered, since he'd enjoyed this view?
Fifteen years, probablythe summer after high school graduation, when he'd helped herd cattle down to lower pasture before heading off to college. He'd returned to visit since, but not at this time of year. Summer jobs, classes, internships, law school he'd been busy then, and he'd been even busier since he'd joined one of the biggest firms in San Francisco and started working his way up.
For now, though, he was homenot forever, not even for the whole summer. But with time enough to stand here as the sun set behind him, tinting the valley blue and purple. Time enough to pull the fresh air into his lungs and listen to the evening breeze rustle through the pines.
Time. The one commodity he didn't have in his portfolio these days.
Ford headed back to the truck, started the engine and eased onto the empty highway, heading downhill. His law partners weren't happy about the leave of absence. His clients Hell, his clients were furious. He'd jeopardized his careerplus the security and status it providedto take these weeks off.
But family came first. And so he coasted down from the mountains and breezed south out of Buffalo toward their little town of Bisons Creek, where he headed up the county road to the one place that he still, after all these years away, called home.
At the house the screened front door stood wide open to the night air. Ford crossed the porch and stepped into the dark living room. "Anybody home?"
A woof! and the scrabble of dog claws on the plank f loor announced the approach of Honey, the chubby golden retriever who'd been the ranch's top dog for the past ten years.
"Hey there, Honey Bear." He bent to ruffle her ears and scratch her along her spine as she circled in front of him, panting with delight. "Yeah, you're a good girl, aren't you?"
Boot heels thudded down the hall from the rear of the house. "It's about time you showed up." His brother Garrett gave him a fake slug to the jaw before closing him into a bear hug. "We've got a million questions about this insurance stuff that nobody will answer. How was your drive?"
"Fine." Ford drew back and lifted an eyebrow. "Where's the boss?"
Garrett tilted his head in the direction of the bedrooms. "Sulky as a bear. I'd go in with a rifle, if I were you."
"When you make it."
"Just like the old days." Ford had started cooking for their motherless family when he was ten. "Let me talk to Wyatt first. And can we turn on some lights in this house?"
"Leave it to you to get us organized." Garrett flipped a switch and the living room became visible. Welcoming.
"That's better." As Ford started toward his older brother's room, Honey slipped ahead of him to lead the way. The lights were off at the far end of the hall, which was strange so early in the evening. Who the hell was running this place?
He reached for a lamp just inside the bedroom door and switched it on. "Hey, Boss. No self-respecting rancher is asleep at 8:00 p.m."
"No self-respecting rancher gets thrown from a horse, lands on his butt and breaks his damn back." Wyatt put up a hand from where he lay flat in bed. "Welcome home."
His brother's hearty grip allowed Ford to relax a little.
But Wyatt was frowning. "You didn't have to leave your job, though. Garrett and Dylan are managing okay."
"Yeah, right," Garrett said from the door. "The two of us finish about half of what you did on your own in a single day. No problems there."
"The work'll get done."
"It will get done faster with more hands to help."
There was an edge to his brother's tone, and Ford gathered they'd had this argument before. "We'll manage the chores, one way or the other. Right now I'm more interested in food. What do you feel like, Wyatt?"
"I'm not hungry." He'd turned his face toward the TV flickering in the corner. "You're always hungry."
"Not when I spend the whole damn day in bed." A metal brace was sprawled across the dresser, conspicuously unused.
"Okay. I'll figure it out and bring you a plate."
In the kitchen Ford raised an eyebrow as he met Gar-rett's eyes. "How long has he been this way?"
"Ten days since he came home from the hospital. Won't take the pain pills they gave him, just lies there except when he has to pee."
"I should have been here sooner." He moved toward the refrigerator. "You should have called right away."
"I didn't know the injury would get him so down."
Ford pulled four T-bone steaks out of the freezer and headed for the oven. "He won't use the brace?"
"I can't convince him to put it on. I guess he's planning to lie in bed until he stops hurting."
"Not a chance. We'll get him on his feet. Right now find me some potatoes."
In thirty minutes he'd prepared four steak dinners, the task as familiar as if he still did it every night, instead of twice a year. He debated cutting Wyatt's meat up, but decided he didn't want the food thrown at him.
He returned to his brother's room. "Dinner's ready."
"I said I'm not hungry." But Wyatt's stomach betrayed him, gurgling loud enough to be heard outside the house.
Ford laughed. "I know the truth when I hear it. Come out and eat at the table like a man."
His older brother glared at him from under lowered brows. "You're making trouble."
"You're being a pain in the butt."
Wyatt swore, loudly, but he rolled to the side of the bed and then off, landing carefully on his knees. Pushing up with his hands, he straightened his legs before he could finally lever his top half upright.
Ford picked up the metal brace. "That's quite a process."
Wyatt muttered something unintelligible and presented his back. With a few fumbles, Ford got the brace over his brother's head and settled it on his shoulders with the straps fastened tight.
"There ya go."
At that moment the screen door in the front of the house slammed. "Got some food somewhere?" Dylan called. "I'm starving."
As Wyatt walked stiffly into the bright kitchen light, the youngest Marshall gave a whistle. "Look at you, Boss. We'll have you in the saddle in no time." He walked toward Ford. "So you finally came home. I've got a horse with your saddle on it out in the corral." Then he came in for a hug. "Welcome back," he said in a low voice, which Ford understood meant we need you.
"Yep," Ford said, meaning I'll take care of everything. He slapped Dylan on the shoulder. "Let's eat."
For a while the only sounds were chewing and swallowing as the four of them dug into their steaks. Ford took the opportunity to study each of his brothers, assessing changes since his last visit. Dylan, with his dark brown hair worn a little long and a sensitive curve to his mouth just like their mother's, still looked young enough to be in college, though he'd graduated five years ago. Garrett's hair was a lighter brown and neatly styled, probably to please his church congregation. Right now his blue eyes were shadowed and a little strainedhe'd always been the worrier. Wyatt shared Dylan's brown eyes and Gar-rett's hair, cut in the practical, no-fuss way he'd worn for years. Age never told on Wyatt's face; he looked pretty much the same at thirty-four as he had at twenty-four except tired this time. Was it his injury, or was something else going on?
Ford would find out sooner or later. No need to push the issue. "So what's the plan for tomorrow?" he asked instead, which brought to order the usual dinner table board meeting for Marshall Brothers, Incorporated. Details for moving cattle, fences to be checked and machinery to get tuned up came under review, as always.
Only Wyatt hardly said a word.
"So what do you think, Boss?" Ford pushed his empty plate away and looked at his brother.
Wyatt glanced up from his plate. "What do I think about what?"
"We decided we'd flood the eastside pastures, grow our own brand of Wyoming rice."
The oldest Marshall set down his fork and knife with a clank. "That's the stupidest idea I ever heard of. Rice won't grow." He noticed the grin on Ford's face and frowned.
"What's your point?"
"That you're not listening. Or eating much."
"I'm not doing much. No reason to eat."
The preacher in the family propped his elbows on the table. "Can't you view this as a vacation? You're always saying you don't get a chance to read. When did you last take a day off?"
Ford answered the question. "When he was fourteen, maybe. Before Dad died."
Garrett nodded. "Twenty years without a break?"
Wyatt shook his head. "I get plenty of downtime. I don't need a vacation. I need to get back to work."
Dylan clucked his tongue. "Well, that's not happening in the immediate future. The doctor wants you quiet for at least three months." He leaned his chair back, balancing on the two rear legs. "And since you're staying still for a change, I want to do some sketches, work up plans for a life-size carving of your head. I found a piece of petrified pine that would be perfect."
Wyatt's frown evolved into an expression of horror. "I don't want a statue of me sitting around somewhere for people to stare at. Next thing I know, you'll be exhibiting me in one of your art shows. Keep your chair on the floor."
The chair clattered as Dylan straightened up. "Thanks for the vote of confidence. I suppose you'd also suggest I spend less time carving and more time doing meaningful work?"
"As a matter of fact, I might."
Cheeks flushed, brown eyes blazing, Dylan got to his feet. "Well, as a matter of fact, I might tell you to go to hell."
Ford rolled his eyes. "Dylan"
But the youngest Marshall stomped out of the room without listening. The slap of the screen door announced that he'd left the house. And he'd broken one of the cardinal rulesleaving his plate on the table for someone else to carry to the kitchen.
Wyatt passed a hand over his face. "I can't seem to say the right thing to him anymore."
Ford stacked Dylan's plate on top of his own. "Would a statue be so bad?"
Wyatt glared at him from under lowered brows. "Why don't you model for him?"
"Maybe I will." Ford struck a pose with the dishes balanced on one hand. "You could stand it in the corner and tip your hat every time you walk by me. We'll put a plaque on the pedestalFord Marshall, Renowned Attorney."
"That'll be the day." Garrett walked around to pick up Wyatt's plate. "We're more likely to turn your face to the wall and aim a swift kick at your butt when you're not here to help out."
Ford led the way into the kitchen. "Spoken like a true man of the cloth. I thought ministers were supposed to be kind and gentle with their flocks."
"Brothers are exempted from that rule. Besides, I'll bet you haven't been to church since you were last here. Am I wrong?"
"Just can't find a preacher in San Francisco as good as you."
"Right. I believe that one. Well, plan on getting up tomorrow morning and heading into town, because around here the Marshalls still show up in the pew on Sunday morning."
Garrett took the dishcloth out of Ford's hand. "You cooked. I'll clean up. Go talk to the boss. Maybe get him outside for a few minutes."
He found Wyatt where they'd left him, sitting alone in the dining room, staring at his bottle of beer. "Want to take a walk? It's a pretty night."
"I was thinking about going to bed."
"Me, too. But I want to stretch my legs first. Come on." He took hold of the chair and pulled it away as Wyatt stood up.
A sound very close to a growl came from Wyatt's throat. "I can manage my own damn chair."
"I'm sure you can. Want me to shove it into the backs of your knees? Then we could have a wrestling match, like we used to, and you could beat the snot out of me, like you used to. Would that make you feel better?"
Wyatt snorted a laugh. "Probably."
"Not me, though." They walked through the house, out the front door and down the three porch steps, with Ford pretending that he wasn't on guard in case something happened, and Wyatt pretending he didn't realize what Ford was doing. Out in the open, they both took a deep breath.
"I swear my lungs can't fill up all the way when I'm in the city," Ford said. "The air's just too thick, too heavy."
"I know what you mean." Wyatt lifted his face as far as the brace permitted. "The mountains, the grasslands the pure space of it all gives a man enough room to stretch out and live. I'm surprised, that you stay in the city as long as you do."
"That's where the work is. Not many prospects for a high-powered law practice in Bisons Creek."
"Guess not. Wyoming's got its share of corporate lawyers these days, though, what with the oil and coal companies all over the place. And we never run out of bad guys looking for a defense lawyer. Never stop needing prosecutors to punish them, either."
"Of course not." Ford stared up at the Wyoming stars, the familiar constellations in their early-summer formations, twinkling like far-off candles against the black velvet sky. "I'll keep it in mind, if I decide to shift gears." He let a silence fill with the sounds of nearby crickets and the whisper of the wind. "Everything going all right on the Circle M?"
The boss didn't answer right away. "With ranching, there's always something going wrong," he said at last. "Cattle prices are down, the grass-fed market demand is slow. Winter lasted longer than usual, so we're late moving herds into the higher pastures. The Forest Service has limited the parcels we can use, which means fattening up these early steers is gonna be harder." He blew a rueful snort. "Same stuff, different day."
"Well, my investments are sound, the dividends are high and we've got a solid buffer in place. If you have cash flow problems, just let me know."
"Sure." Wyatt's hand came to rest on his shoulder.
"Mostly, we're just glad to have you here, Ford. Thanks for making the effort."
"The Marshalls stick together," Ford told him, meeting his brother's dark gaze with his own. "I wouldn't be anywhere else."