The last thing Cora Bell wants is a distracting cowboy showing up on her family's farm seeking temporary shelter. Especially one she is sure has something to hide. But she'll accept Wyatt Williams's help rebuilding her family's barnand try not to fall once again for a man whose plans don't include staying around.
Since leaving his troubled past behind, Wyatt avoids personal entanglements. He just wants to make a new start with his younger brother. But there's something about Cora that he's instinctively drawn to. Dare this solitary cowboy risk revealing his secrets for a chance at redemption and a bright new future with Cora by his side?
MONTANA MARRIAGES: Three sisters discover a legacy of love beneath the Western sky
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A farm near Bar Crossing, Montana Summer, 1889
What was that awful noise?
Wyatt Williams eased back on his reins and glanced over his shoulder to his brother, Lonnie. The sixteen-year-old shrank back as if he wished to disappear into the saddle.
The sound came again, rending the air and filling it with tension.
Wyatt stared at the farm ahead. From where he sat he had a good view of the place. A pretty little house with a bay window and a little veranda faced the road. A tumble of flowers in every hue of the rainbow surrounded the house. A garden as precise as a ruler ran from the river to the trees at the back of the lot. There were several tidy buildings, some pens and the naked skeleton of a barn.
Wyatt considered his brother and the mare he led.
Fanny was heavy with foal. The weeks of moving had taxed her strength. He couldn't push her farther.
His gaze went past Lonnie and the horse. He couldn't see the other mares that he hoped to start a new ranch with, but he knew they were tied securely down by the water. He only wanted permission from the farmer to camp by the river until Fanny foaled, and she and the newborn grew strong enough to resume their journey. Plus their supplies were running low and he hoped to restock here. He could ride to the nearby town for what he needed, but it seemed unnecessary. Wyatt studied the sign nailed to the gatepost.
For SaleEggs, Milk, Cheese, Garden Stuff.
His mouth watered. Fresh food had never sounded so good.
"Wait here," he told Lonnie, and rode forward.
From around one of the outbuildings came a squealing pig with a floppy-eared, big-footed dog barking at its tail.
A young woman skidded around the corner, blond braids flying. "You get back here, you little troublemaker." She dived for it, catching the animal for about ten seconds before it slipped away, squealing righteous indignation and leaving the gal in the dirt.
Wyatt drew to a halt and grinned.
The woman picked herself up and shook a finger at the dog. "Grub, enough. I'll never catch the crazy pig with you barking and chasing after it."
Wyatt took Grub to be the dog's name, for it stopped and yapped and then turned back to pig chasing, which seemed to be the sport of the day. The young woman took off after them. The pig veered from side to side.
She pounced on it again, but it wasn't about to be captured. It wriggled free and headed in Wyatt's direction. His horse snorted.
"Rooster, you never mind. He's just a wee oinker." Wyatt reached for his lariat, swung a lazy loop and dropped it over the pig's head.
The little pig yanked on the rope, trying to get free. The squeals that erupted about deafened Wyatt and, he guessed, anyone within a hundred yards.
The gal blinked at Wyatt. "I just about had him." Her brown eyes challenged him. Seemed she didn't care to have someone interfere in her work.
Her attitude tickled Wyatt clear to the pit of his stomach. He grinned. "You're welcome."
She planted her hands on her hips. The flash in her eyes told him how hard it was for her to maintain her annoyed look.
He tipped his head toward the pig, who continued to fight the rope and put up an awful fuss. "Ma'am, if you don't mind me suggesting it, why not let me lead the pig to his pen." Though he guessed "lead" was only a wish.
She nodded decisively. "No doubt that would be wise. Come along, then." She moved toward an enclosure while Wyatt dragged and tugged and generally fought his way after her, Rooster snorting his protest at the indignity.
She held the pen gate open. Wyatt dismounted and pushed the pig through the space she gave him, then slipped off the rope. Five other little pigs rushed forward, joining in the melee. An old, fat sow huffed over to them.
The young woman sighed and wiped her hand across her brow, leaving a streak of dirt to match the three on her dress.
The dog sat on his haunches watching the pig.
Wyatt gave the dog further study. "Does he always wear a grin?"
"A grinning dog and a crying pig. Who'd believe it?" The girl hooted with laughter.
Wyatt couldn't remember when he'd last heard such a freeing sound. His grin widened, went deep into his heart.
She calmed her chuckles, though her quivering lips warned him it might resume at any moment.
From behind him came a strange sound. He jerked around to see the source. Lonnie had moved close enough to see and hear, and he laughed, too. A sound almost foreign to Wyatt's ears.
Lonnie noticed Wyatt watching and immediately sobered.
Oh, how Wyatt wished his brother would stop being so tense around him. Lonnie was even more jumpy around strangers, and yet
Wyatt looked at the woman before him. Had her laughter drawn Lonnie forward? He shifted his gaze toward the pigs. Was it the animals that attracted Lonnie?
Whatever it was, Wyatt was grateful.
"I don't believe I've seen you around before." The pretty young woman drew his attention back to her.
"Nope. Name's Wyatt Williams. This is my brother, Lonnie."
"Pleased to meet you both. I'm Cora Bell. What can I do for you?"
"My mare needs to rest." He indicated Fanny. "The rest of my animals are down at the river. We want permission to stay there until she's ready to travel again. We could use some supplies, as well. I saw your sign on the gate and thought "
"I can certainly sell you anything we have. You'll need to talk to Pa about your animals, though. Come along."
He dismounted, handed Rooster's reins to Lonnie and strode after her.
She led him to a small outbuilding and stepped inside. He followed into the dim interior.
"Pa, I brought you company."
A man emerged from behind a stack of wood pieces, old barrel hoops and broken wagon wheels. He wiped his greasy hands on a stained rag.
Cora introduced the pair.
Mr. Bell held out a soiled hand. "Pleased to meet you. What brings you to our part of the country?"
Wyatt repeated his request. "I'll only stay until my mare and her foal are ready to travel, then I'll be on my way."
"Got someplace to be, do you?"
Mr. Bell likely only meant to make conversation, but the question made Wyatt face the fact that he didn't know where they were going. How far would they have to in order to get away from their past? How far before Lonnie could forget their abusive father? How far before people would forget Wyatt had gone to jail for beating up the old man?
Not that he'd done it. Lonnie, sensitive and quiet, had snapped one day and turned on their father. Knowing his brother would never survive in jail, Wyatt had confessed to the crime. Now, a year later, he was out. Of course, no one would let that be in the past. Pa had died while Wyatt was in prison. Perhaps the beating had done irreparable damage. Or maybe Pa's hard life had caught up with him. Ma, God rest her soul, had lived long enough to see Wyatt free again. Then she'd wearily given up as if life was just too much effort.
Wyatt had sold their farm in Kansas and was headed as far away from there as possible. He planned to buy a bit of land someday and start over. He'd be a rancher. Raise horses. Find peace. He'd brought along a half-dozen mares to start a herd with. He and Lonniewanting to forget their past and hoping for a happy future. Somewhere. Sometime. He rubbed at the tightness in his neck. Maybe in Canada they could start over without him constantly looking over his shoulder.
He shuddered, then sucked in a lungful of air and forced his thoughts under control. He would not think of those who might recognize him from the trial. Or even those who might have their own reasons for tracking him down. For instance, a certain jailbird who hated Wyatt and vowed to make him pay for Wyatt's interference when the man tried to bully his way into power in jail. Not that he figured Jimmy Stone had enough get-up-and-go to ride after them. But the man had gotten out of prison a few weeks after Wyatt, and Wyatt hadn't been able to forget the man's threats.
"Headed north," he said, answering Mr. Bell's question.
"You've about run out of north." The old man scratched his whiskered chin. "Unless you're headed for Canada."
"Might be." Even if he had particulars about his destination, he wouldn't be sharing them.
Mr. Bell studied him a moment. "You sound like a man running from something."
"Could be I'm running to something."
Mr. Bell didn't blink. "So long as your running poses no threat to me or my family."
Wyatt didn't answer. He couldn't give that kind of assurance. "My mare's about to foal."
Mr. Bell limped toward the door. "Let's have a look."
They made their slow way toward Lonnie and the mare. Lonnie tossed the mare's rope toward Wyatt and backed away at their approach. No one but Wyatt seemed to notice Lonnie's odd behavior. The others were too busy eyeing Fanny. He introduced his brother to Mr. Bell, who greeted him, then returned his attention to the horse.
Mr. Bell ran his hand along Fanny's sides and walked around the horse then tsked. "She needs to rest. Where did you say you come from?"
Mr. Bell straightened and fixed Wyatt with a look that caused him to hastily add, "Been on the road awhile."
"That's no excuse for exhausting a mare this heavy in foal." The look Mr. Bell gave him would have made many a man stammer some kind of apology, but Wyatt had faced harsher looks and far bigger men without revealing a hint of weakness.
"Been looking for a decent place to stop for a few days now."
Apparently that wasn't a good enough excuse. And Wyatt wasn't about to tell anyone that every time he mentioned stopping Lonnie had begged him not to.
Until now, he hadn't been able to ignore his brother's request.
Cora grinned at Wyatt. "Best you know Pa can't abide any carelessness with God's creatures or His creation."
"Cora, run and get some of Ma's tonic. Be sure to tell her it's for a mare in foal."
"Yes, Pa." She trotted away.
Wyatt watched her go, then realized Mr. Bell was studying him, and shifted his gaze back to the mare. "Do I have your permission for me and my brother to camp down by the river with my stock?"
Mr. Bell rocked his eyes from Wyatt to Lonnie to the mare and out to the river a couple of times as if measuring considering.
If he knew the facts he would no doubt be asking them to move on.
Mr. Bell nodded. "Can't hardly ask you to take this mare any farther. You're welcome to pen them here and throw your bedrolls in the shed."
Wyatt didn't have to look at Lonnie to know his face would be pinched. "Thanks, but we'll be comfortable camping down by the water."
"Fine. Before you take the mare there, I'll give her some tonic to strengthen her. Do you have oats?"
Wyatt shook his head. "I'm out. Would you have some I could purchase?"
"I'll see to it." Mr. Bell faced Wyatt. The man looked almost old enough to be Cora's grandfather. He had a strong face, lined from years of both good times and worry. His hair was thick and gray. "I'll be keeping an eye on you." The look he gave Wyatt said a whole lot more than his words.
Wyatt understood the man's warning. Wyatt's vague answers had given him reason to be suspicious. If Mr. Bell knew the trutha history of family violence and time in prisonhe'd chase Wyatt and Lonnie away in spite of Fanny's condition.
Wyatt kept his gaze on Fanny.
Would he ever escape the shame and regret of his past?
With a smile on her lips, Cora made her way to the garden shed. How quickly and easily Wyatt had dropped a loop over that silly piglet's head. But, oh, the fuss the pig had made. Better entertainment than a circus.
Wyatt had laughed easily, but she'd seen so many secrets behind his dark eyes. She'd also noticed how his brother had pulled away from them all. It wasn't simply shyness. No, there was something unusual about his reaction.
Her amusement fled. She suspected he hid something. Secrets, in her opinion, made people forget things they'd promised to those they pretended to care about. She might be considered innocent, but despite being only twenty years old, she knew that much for certain. Like her supposed beau, Evan Price. Pretending to really care about her while all the time planning to leave for the goldfields. Goodbye came far too easy for him. She drew in a deep breath and forced her thoughts to things she needed to do yet today.
Between the wandering pig and the visiting cowboy she was way behind in her chores, and she picked up her pace. She had butter to churn and cheese to start. The sale of these products, plus whatever people offered in return for the healing powders that Ma made from medicinal plants, brought in the cash to pay for what they couldn't raise themselves.
A quick glance at the garden informed her that Lilly had not pulled weeds as she'd agree to. Heaven alone knew where she'd wandered off to. Likely she was searching for the mama cat and her newborn kittens. Ma and Rose were in the garden shed, and she turned her steps in that direction.
Rose stepped from the garden shed, saw her and waved. "We're making progress." Rose wanted Ma to write down all medicinal remedies. That meant Rose was writing as Ma recited them.
"Good," Cora said. She stepped into the shed. "Ma, can I have some tonic for a horse?"
"Horse tonic?" Rose asked.
Cora jabbed her finger over her shoulder. "Company."
"Yup." It wasn't as if they never had company. Lots of people dropped by to purchase eggs or butter or cheese or garden produce or something for an ailment.
She explained to Ma and Rose about the mare.
Ma shook dust from her ample apron. She ran her hands over her gray hair and patted her skirts smooth. "Let's have a look."
The trio walked to where Pa and Wyatt stood talking next to the mare. Lonnie and the other two horses were gone. As she expected, Pa had allowed them to rest down by the river. "Ma, this is Wyatt Williams. Wyatt, my mother, Mrs. Gertie Bell. And this is my sister Rose."