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Few things gave a woman a sense of her own vulnerability like driving on an unfamiliar mountain road in the dark through a snowstorm.
Her knuckles white on the wheel of the small SUV she had rented at the Jackson Hole Airport, Emery Kendall squinted through the blowing flakes the wipers tried to beat away, desperate for any sign she was even on the right road.
The GPS unit on the rental wasn't working—naturally—and the directions she had printed off the Internet had already proved fallible twice.
She let out a breath. Stupid. This whole thing was a colossal mistake. What had seemed like such a logical plan in September, even a welcome excuse to escape the weight of her pain and grief and memories during the holidays, had lost a great deal of its allure the first time her tires slipped in the two or three inches of unplowed snow and the vehicle slid toward the ominous stretch of river ribboning beside the canyon road.
She had every reason to hate driving in the snow. It brought back too much pain, too many memories, and she couldn't help asking herself what on earth she was doing here. She should be safe at home in Virginia, snug in her townhouse with a fire crackling in the grate and a mug of hot cocoa at her elbow while she tried to wrap her recalcitrant head around her latest project.
She clicked the wipers up to a faster rhythm as she approached a slight break in the dark silhouette of trees lining either side of the road.
A log arch over the side road was barely visible in her headlights, but she saw enough to make out the words burned into the wood.
Hope Springs Guest Ranch. Finally.
The owners really ought to think about a few well-placed landscaping lights so weary travelers knew they were in the right place.
Not that it was any of her business how they ran their guest ranch. Right now the only thing she cared about was reaching her rented cabin, hauling her things inside and collapsing on the bed for the next two or three days.
She turned into the driveway, which was unplowed with no tracks indicating anyone else had driven this way recently, at least not since the snow started to fall.
As the tires of the four-wheel-drive whirred through the virgin powder, that sense of vulnerability and unease returned, not so much from the weather now as the sobering realization that she was heading alone to a strange place—and, she had to admit, from the knowledge that the Cold Creek Land & Cattle Company was only a mile or so up the road.
The Daltons. Three men, brothers. Wade, Jake and Seth.
A tangle of conflicting emotions tumbled through her, but she quickly pushed them all away, as she had been doing since the September night when her mother's dying confession had rocked the entire foundation of her world.
Not now. All that could wait. At the moment, the more pressing need was to get out of this snow before she became hopelessly stranded and ended up freezing to death in a snow bank on the side of some obscure mountain road.
No Christmas lights illuminated the night, which she found odd for a guest ranch. Even a little string of white lights along the fenceline would have provided a much more cheery welcome than the unrelenting darkness.
Just when she was wondering if she had imagined that sign out front, she reached a cluster of buildings. A white-painted barn and a two-story log home dominated the scene and she was relieved to see the house ablaze with light.
The woman she had spoken with when she made the reservation months ago told her to check in at the main house. She had confirmed her reservation a few weeks ago and received the same instructions, though this time from a rather flighty sounding girl who had been somewhat vague, even as she assured Emery everything was in order for her arrival.
A cold wind dug under her jacket as she walked up the steps to the wide front porch, and she was grateful for her wool scarf and hat.
She rang the bell beside a carved wooden door and a few seconds later she heard from inside the thud of running feet and a decidedly young female voice. "Doorbell! Somebody's here! I'll get it, Uncle Nate."
Three heartbeats later, the door swung open and a dark-eyed girl of perhaps seven or eight peered out.
She didn't say anything, didn't even smile, just simply gazed out in her blue thermal pajamas, as if finding a bedraggled traveler on their doorstep in the middle of a stormy December night was a daily occurrence.
She supposed it likely was. They did run a guest ranch, after all.
Despite the girl's impassive expression, Emery forced a smile. "Hi. I'm Emery Kendall. I think I'm expected. I'm sorry I'm so late."
"It's okay. We're not in bed yet. Just a minute." She shifted her head and called over her shoulder. "Uncle Nate. It's a lady in a really pretty hat."
Emery touched her cloche, one of her own creations.
The girl held the door wide-open, but Emery didn't feel quite right about walking inside, invited only by an eight-year-old. Conversely, she also didn't feel right about standing in the open doorway, allowing all the delicious warmth from inside to wash past her and dissipate in the storm.
Before she could make up her mind, a man in a dark green wool henley, flannel shirt and Levi's walked into the entry.
He exuded danger, from his hard eyes to his unsmiling mouth to the solid, unyielding set to his jaw.
She had that unsettling cognizance of her own vulnerability again. Who knew she was coming to Idaho? Only Lulu, the manager of her store, and Freddie, her best friend.
Solitary Traveler Shows Up at Dark Mountain Lodge in a Storm, Never to Be Heard from Again. She could just see the headline now.
Or maybe she had spent too many sleepless nights in the past two years watching old Alfred Hitchcock movies on the classic film channel.
Just because the man looked dangerous didn't mean he necessarily was. How many serial killers sent little girls who called them Uncle Nate to greet their victims?
"Yes?" he asked, in a decidedly unwelcoming tone.
"I'm Emery Kendall."
He met her gaze with raised eyebrows and a blank look. "Sorry, is that supposed to mean something to me?"
If not for that sign out front, she would have worried she had the wrong place. Now she just wondered what wires had been crossed about her arrival date.
Either that, or this was the most inhospitable guest lodge it had ever been her misfortune to find.
"I have a reservation to stay in one of your cabins until the twenty-seventh of December," she said, fighting down that unease again. "I made the initial reservation several months ago and confirmed it only a few weeks ago with a woman named Joanie something or other. I have the paperwork if you'd like to confirm it."
"Joanie ran off." The pajama-clad girl had followed the man back into the room and she spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. "Uncle Nate is really mad."
"Uncle Nate" did indeed look upset. His mouth tightened even more and his eyes darkened to a hard black. She felt an unexpected pang of sympathy for the unknown woman. She wouldn't like to have all that leashed frustration aimed in her direction.
"Damn fool woman," he muttered.
For one crazy moment, she thought he meant her, then realized he must be referring to the absent Joanie.
"Is there a problem?" She couldn't help stating the obvious.
"You might say that." He raked a hand through short dark hair. "We run a pretty low-key operation here, Ms. Kendall. This isn't your average five-star hotel. We've only got a few guest cabins that are mostly empty in the winter."
"I understood that completely when I made the reservation. I saw the Web site and reviews and talked at length about the amenities with the woman who initially took my reservation. I'm perfectly fine with the arrangements."
She didn't add that they were ideal for her purposes, to be left alone for the holidays, away from the gaiety and the frenzy and the memories.
Not to mention the proximity of Hope Springs Guest Ranch to the Cold Creek ranch.
"Yeah, well, we've got one employee who usually handles everything from reservations to making the beds. Joanie Reynolds."
"And three days ago, she ran off with a cowboy she met at the Million Dollar Bar and I haven't seen her since. You want the truth, we're in a hell of a mess."
He didn't look apologetic in the slightest, only frustrated, as if the whole mess were Emery's fault.
She was exhausted suddenly from the long day of traveling, from flight delays and long security lines and two hours of driving on unfamiliar roads. All she wanted was to sink into a bed somewhere and sleep until she could think straight once more.
"What do you suggest I do, then? I had a reservation. I made a deposit and everything. And I've been traveling for eight hours."
She heard the slightly forlorn note in her voice and wanted to wince. Nate Whoever-He-Was must have heard it, too. A trace of regret flickered in the depths of those dangerous dark eyes.
He sighed heavily. "Come in out of the cold. We'll figure something out."
She hesitated for just a moment, that serial-killer scenario flitting through her head again, but she pushed it away. Little girl, remember?
Inside the house, she was immediately struck by the vague sense of neglect. The furnishings were warm and comfortable, an appealing mix of antique, reproduction and folk art pieces. Through the doorway, she glimpsed a great room with soaring vaulted ceilings. A lovely old schoolhouse quilt had prominence against the wall and she fought the urge to whip out her sketchbook and pencils to get those particular umber and moss tones down on paper.
But she also didn't miss the cobwebs in the corner of the space and a messy pile of mail and unread newspapers scattered across the top of the console table in the entryway where she stood.
Nor did she miss the wide, muscled shoulders of the man, or the way they tapered to slim hips.
"Is there anywhere else close by I could stay?" she asked, more than a little aghast at her inconvenient and unexpected reaction to him.
He turned with a frown and she sincerely hoped he couldn't see that little niggle of attraction.
"Not really, I'm sorry to say," he answered. "There are a couple other guest ranches in the area, but everybody else closes down for the winter. There's a motel in town, but I couldn't recommend it."
"Why do you stay open when everybody else shuts down?"
He made a face as if the very question had occurred to him more than once. "We have some hardcore snowmo-bilers who've been staying since the ranch opened to guests five years ago. Their bookings are being honored, though we haven't taken new ones since…well, probably since you made your reservations."
A muscle flexed in his jaw. "Look, do you mind waiting here while I check the computer?"
"I have a copy of my reservation in the rental. I can get it for you."
"I believe you. I just want to figure out what Joanie has done. For all I know, we're hosting a damn convention she forgot to mention to me before she ran off. Just give me five minutes."
He walked away, leaving her standing in the entryway with the little girl—who was suddenly joined by another girl who looked perhaps a few years older. Her hair wasn't quite as long and her features were thinner. But just like her sister—they looked so much alike, they could be nothing else—she said nothing, just regarded Emery with solemn, dark eyes.
Something strange was going on at the Hope Springs Ranch. She couldn't help noticing a large artificial Christmas tree in the great room, but it was bare of lights or ornaments, and as far as she could tell, that was the only concession to the holidays within her view.
"I really like your hat," the younger girl who had answered the door finally said to break the silence.
She smiled at her, despite her exhaustion. "Thank you. I made it."
"You made it?" The older girl's eyes widened. "Like you sewed it and stuff?"
"Yes. And I designed the material."
The girl frowned, clearly skeptical. "Nobody designs material. You just buy it at the sewing store. That's what our mom used to do anyway."
"Before she died," the younger one added.
"Be quiet, Tallie," her sister snapped. "She doesn't need to know everything."
Emery wanted to tell them she might not know everything, but she did know about losing a mother. Her own had only been gone a few months. But she supposed the experience of a twenty-seven-year-old woman losing her mother was quite different than that of two young girls.
"You do pick out material in a fabric store," she answered. "But someone has to design the material in the first place and decide what color dyes and what sort of fibers to use. That's what I do."
She didn't add that her fledgling textile line had recently been called "innovative, exciting and warmly elegant" by the leading trade magazine.
"Can you show me how to make a hat like that?"
"Me, too!" The younger girl exclaimed. "If Claire gets to make one, I want to. I can give it to my friend Frances for Christmas."
"Ooh, maybe I could make two," her sister said. "One for Natalie and one for Morgan. They're my very best friends."
"Can I make a pink one?" Tallie asked. "I love pink, and so does Frances."
"Ooh, I would like purple," her sister said. "Or maybe red."
Emery shifted, wondering where in Hades their uncle had disappeared to and how the situation had suddenly spiraled out of her control. It must be the fatigue—or perhaps her complete lack of experience with young girls.
"I don't even know if I'm staying here yet. Your uncle and I are still working out the details."
The expression on both faces shifted from excitement to resignation in a blink and she wondered what in their young lives had contributed to their cynicism.
She hated sounding like such a grump, especially toward two girls who had lost their mother. "If I'm staying, we can see," she amended.
That was apparently enough for them. For the next few moments the girls talked about colors and patterns until their uncle returned to the room.
"Your reservation wasn't on the main calendar in the office, but I found it on a deleted copy of her files from the hard drive backup. I don't know what happened. Everything is in such a mess."