After working with Eli for several weeks, Amanda had to admit it: she was falling for her research subject.
She knew it was foolish to pin any hopes on the gruff bachelor. But as the holidays approached, the sensitive writer couldn't help but dream of her own happy ending with the sexy cowboy .
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Two weeks later the jet airplane carrying Eli began its descent in preparation for landing in Billings.
He yawned, scrubbed his hand over his face and rubbed his eyes. He'd left Spain nearly three days ago, and the long drive from San Luis to Madrid, followed by an endless round of waiting in airports and hours spent sitting on planes, had left his eyes feeling gritty, burning from lack of sleep.
He blinked to clear his vision and gazed out the window. Far below, the distinctive rise of tall buttes stood out amid rolling miles of sage prairie that stretched from horizon to horizon.
I should be at the Triple C in another four hours, give or take, he thought. He'd rent a vehicle to drive the last three hours north from Billings to reach Indian Springs. There were no planes, trains or buses that could take him on the last stage of his journey home to rural Montana.
And that was one of the things he'd always loved about the Triple C. Homesteaded by his Coulter ancestors in the late eighteen hundreds, the huge ranch sprawled over thousands of acres. Eli remembered his mother telling him the Triple C was one of the biggest spreads in Montana, second only to the slightly larger McCloud Ranch to the north.
He still had trouble believing the Triple C now belonged to him and his brothers. Thirteen years ago, driving away from the land he loved had been gut-wrenching. Nevertheless, he'd been determined to leave the chaos of life with his alcoholic father and his increasingly frequent explosions of rage and violence.
He'd wanted peace and the ability to control his own destiny. Most of all, he'd wanted the freedom to focus on becoming a better artist. He'd traveled the world since then, never putting down roots, and, over time, he'd convinced himself he no longer missed Montana and the sprawling Triple C.
But with the landscape of prairie spread out below him, beneath Montana's cloudless blue sky, he had to wonder if he'd been kidding himself.
The pilot's voice sounded in the cabin, pulling Eli's brooding gaze and attention away from the view outside his window.
An hour later he had landed, rented a pickup truck, and was driving north on the highway toward Indian Springs. Neither Cade nor Zach had answered their phones when he'd called to tell them he'd landed, so he'd left messages saying he was on his way home. He wasn't surprised when they didn't return his calls. During summer, ranchers worked long hours and were often out of range of cell reception. He figured he'd reach the ranch before they even got his messages.
The late-afternoon sun slanted into the cab, heating the interior. Eli left the window rolled down, his arm resting on the sill, the breeze filling the cab with the scent of sage and clean, clear air unclogged by smog and exhaust.
The digital clock on the dashboard told him it was just after 9:00 p.m. when he slowed, turning off the highway to drive beneath a high arch of wrought iron that spelled out Coulter Cattle Company. The formal name had long ago been shortened to the Triple C by family and locals.
The gravel ranch road was smooth beneath the truck's wheels. Eli's lips curved in a faint smile.
I can tell Cade's home, he thought. His oldest brother's attention to detail was thorough and Cade had never put up with potholes for long. Each of the boys had become adept at using the blade on the big John Deere tractor to grade the gravel road and keep it in good condition. But Cade had been the best at moving snow in winter and smoothing out ridges in spring and summer.
Eli crested a rise and he caught his first look at his childhood home. Across the valley below him, beyond the creek and its bridge, was the cluster of buildings that made up the headquarters of the Triple C.
Something soothed, settled inside Eli. Surprised, he absentmindedly rubbed his hand over the left side of his chest.
What the hell? He hadn't expected to feel anything good. He hadn't wanted to come back to Montana, and if Zach hadn't told him he was needed, he would have gone back to New Mexico when he left Spain.
Lights winked on in the cluster of buildings across the valley and Eli realized that full dark wasn't far away. Northeast Montana wasn't quite far enough north to share Alaska's midnight sun, but during the summer months, sunset was much later than he'd grown accustomed to in southern Spain. He remembered being a boy and spending summer evenings playing baseball outside until long after 9:00 p.m., before darkness finally prevented him and his brothers from seeing the ball.
He took his foot off the brake, the truck picking up speed as he drove across the valley and rattled over the bridge before reaching the house and outbuildings. The muted sound of music floated in the open cab windows as he switched off the engine and pushed open the door.
Eli paused as the music struck a chord with him. What was it Zach had said when Eli called to tell him he was on his way home?
Oh, yeah, he thought. Zach said he's having a party to reopen the Lodge.
He frowned, trying to calculate days and failing. He didn't remember what day it was exactly but figured there was a good chance the Lodge opening was tonight.
He glanced at the house, dark except for the glowing light over the door on the front porch.
His stomach chose that moment to rumble in loud protest.
If Zach's throwing a party, there has to be food, he thought.
Eli pulled the pickup door closed again and switched on the engine once more, leaving the ranch yard to drive down the gravel lane that led from the house and barns and along the creek to the Lodge.
He rounded a bend, and before him the Lodge and its grounds were ablaze with light. Couples strolled across the drive and onto the lawn that slanted down to the creek.
Eli eased the truck around the circular drive, stopping to let guests pass in front of his bumper, and double-parked in front of the main entryway.
Without giving a thought to his faded jeans, boots and travel-wrinkled shirt, he stepped out onto the drive and climbed the shallow steps to the long porch that nearly circled the Lodge.
He stepped inside the lobby and halted, his gaze searching the crowd for Cade and Zach.
Amanda Blake sipped champagne, the crystal flute cool in her hand, and tried to pay attention to the conversation. She stood with her friends, a married couple who were the delighted winners of opening-week reservations at the Lodge, and two other couples. Despite the interesting company, however, her focus wandered as she looked about the beautiful lobby of the Coulter Lodge. The expansive area was thronged with guests. Men in suits and women in cocktail dresses mingled with ranchers wearing pearl-snapped Western shirts, bolo ties and cowboy boots. Scattered through the crowd were several girls in pretty summer dresses casting glances at teenage boys in crisp shirts, slacks and boots.
Clearly, she thought with approval, the Coulters had invited not only their guests and out-of-town media people, but also their neighbors and local friends, creating a vibrant mix. The high-ceilinged room was filled with chatter and laughter that occasionally drowned out the four musicians stationed at the far end of the room.
She half turned from her small group, letting her gaze skim the room, taking in the huge stone fireplace at one end, the massive silver-and-copper sculpture of mustangs in full gallop mounted on the wall behind the reception desk. Amusement curved her mouth as she noted a small cluster of teenagers giggling in the corner before she shifted her attention to the main entry.
Amanda made a mental note to thank her friends for inviting her tonight. This inside view of the newly renovated Coulter Lodge provided invaluable information for the biography she was writing on Melanie Coulter, the artist who had created the fabulous wall sculpture of horses.
And if she was lucky, she thought, perhaps she would have another chance to speak to the artist's sons Cade and Zach Coulter about granting her an interview. They hadn't been cooperative when she'd approached them nearly a week ago, but she hadn't given up hope of finding a way to convince them.
She narrowed her eyes, wondering idly how tall the custom entry door was since the carved piece over the top seemed much higher than normal.
Her musings were abruptly interrupted by the man who stepped over the threshold and into the room, halting a few feet inside.
Amanda caught her breath, feeling her eyes go wide as she stared.
He was dressed in a rumpled white shirt, open at the neck, the sleeves rolled back over powerful forearms. Faded jeans covered his long legs and he wore dusty black cowboy boots.
His attire was far more casual than any of the other guests' but it wasn't his clothing that riveted Amanda. He had coal-black hair that fell from a widow's peak to brush against the collar of his shirt at his nape. The planes of his face were sharp and clear, with high, sculpted cheekbones and a strong jaw, his mouth sensual below a straight nose. But it was the eyes that held her the most. Below slashes of eyebrows as black as the glossy fall of his shaggy hair, his thick-lashed eyes were astonishingly, unbelievably greenso pale a green they seemed overlaid with ice.
Amanda shivered. He exuded an aura of quiet, restrained power that seemed to vibrate the very air around him. He appeared supremely unconcerned that guests were turning to look at him as his gaze moved over the room.
As she watched, unable to look away, the stranger's mouth curved, a smile lighting his face, turning it from handsome to movie-star gorgeous.
Cade and Zach Coulter strode through the crowd and reached him, taking turns to clasp his hand and pull him into hard hugs.
With the three black-haired, green-eyed, tall and powerful men standing side by side, recognition hit Amanda like a freight train.
Oh, my God. That's Eli Coulter.
"Damn, Eli," Cade said, his eyes warm, his deep voice raspy with emotion. "What's with the hair? You couldn't find a barber in Spain?"
"Not one I wanted to let near me with sharp scissors," Eli told him with a grin.
"We let you out of our sight for a year and you come home looking like a girl," Zach told him with an affectionate smile.
"Yeah, right," Eli said dryly. Like both Cade and Zach, Eli knew his voice was unsteady, the tones rougher than usual. With silent acceptance, he recognized and acknowledged the deep undercurrent of emotion that lay beneath their teasing. He always enjoyed catching up with his brothers whenever they managed to get together. But this time, their reunion held deeper, more powerful implications. Joseph Coulter's death had shifted the playing field, and despite his long estrangement from his father, Eli knew Joseph's passing had changed what he'd come to accept as normal. They'd all have to come to terms with a future that had a vastly different landscape. He jerked his chin at the brightly lit, crowded lobby. "Quite a party you're throwing."
"Yup." Zach turned, his gaze moving over the huge room. "We invited all the Lodge guests, plus all the neighbors and everyone in town who wanted to come. You know Indian Springs. Folks can't turn down an invitation to a party."
Eli grinned. "I remember." His smile faded as he scanned the room. "You've done a great job with the place, Zach. Looks just like I remembered it."
"I wanted it restored to the original plan," Zach said as Cade turned, too, and both of their gazes followed Eli's to take in the crowded lobby. "The furniture is different, of course, but the rest of the building is pretty much like it was."
"Except for the kitchen," a feminine voice put in. "It's been updated and is way more efficient."
Eli looked over his shoulder to find two women, both blondes. Zach draped his arm around the shoulders of the woman who'd spoken, pulled her close and dropped a kiss on her temple as she leaned into him. She was gorgeous, her lush female curves highlighted in a short, red silk dress. And she clearly belonged to Zach, Eli thought, noting the possessive way his brother held her tucked against his side.
"Eli, I'd like you to meet Cynthia," Zach said, "my fiancée."
Eli felt his eyes widen. He looked from Zach's face to the beautiful woman, noting the ease with which she accepted his brother's touch. "Well, I'll be damned," he said softly. "I never thought I'd see the day a woman was brave enough to take you on." He held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Cynthia."
She slipped her small, soft hand into his and gave him a warm smile.
Before she could respond, Cade broke in.
"And this is Mariah," he said, "my fiancée."
Stunned, Eli swung his attention to his oldest brother and found that the other striking blonde now had her arm tucked through the bend of Cade's elbow. She wore a deep blue dress that made her long sheaf of pale hair look like ripe wheat. Her brown eyes sparkled with amusement as her gaze met his.
"You too?" He shook his head slowly. "Damn, is there something in the water here I need to look out for?"
Both Mariah and Cynthia laughed.
"I don't think it's the water, Eli, but you might want to be careful around pretty blondes," Cade said wryly.
"Yeah, I'll do that." He took Mariah's hand, just as small, just as soft as Cynthia's had been, in his much larger one. "Nice to meet you, too, Mariah."
"It's lovely to see you here at last, Eli," Mariah said, her voice warm. "I'm looking forward to getting to know all of Cade's brothers."
"I wish we didn't have to play host at this party," Cade told him. "We've got a lot to talk about."
"Yeah," Eli agreed. "But it can keep. Truth is, I'm starving." He nodded at the long buffet table against the far wall. "While you're circulating and charming the guests, I'll get some food and find a quiet place to sit down."
"Don't miss the miniature chocolate cakes with fudge icing," Cynthia told him. "They're fabulous."
"Or the little pumpkin tarts," Mariah added.
"Fill a plate at the table with whatever looks good. Then head down the hall to the kitchen," Zach told him. "The chef's name is Jane, and if you want something more substantial than the buffet food, just ask her."
"As soon as this breaks up, we'll join you in the kitchen," Cade said.
"Sounds good." Eli nodded and turned to make his way to the buffet table while the other four mingled with the crowd.