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The brats were at it again.
Carson McRaven scowled as he drove under the massive, ornately carved log arch to the Raven's Nest Ranch.
He owned five thousand acres of beautiful eastern Idaho ranch land. A reasonable person might suppose that with that kind of real estate, he had a good chance of escaping Jenna Wheeler and her hell spawn.
Instead, it seemed like every time he turned around, some little towheaded imp was invading his spacesledding down his private driveway, bothering his horses, throwing snowballs at his ranch sign.
A month agothe last time he had found time to come out to his new ranch from San Franciscohe had caught them trying to jump their swaybacked little paint ponies over his new electric fence. The time before, he had found them building a tree house in one of the trees on his property. And in September, he had ended up with a broken window in the gleaming new horse barn and his foreman had found a baseball amid the shattered glass inside.
He couldn't seem to turn around without finding one or more of them wandering around his land. They were three annoying little flies in the ointment of what would otherwise be the perfect bucolic retreat from the hectic corporate jungle of San Francisco.
When he bought the property from Jenna Wheeler, he thought he had been fine with her stipulation that she retain one twenty-acre corner of land for her ranch. He was getting five thousand acres more, bordered by National Forest land. One little nibble out of the vast pie shouldn't bother him. But in the ten months since they closed on the deal, that little nibble sat in his craw like an unshelled walnut.
Every time he drove up Cold Creek Canyon to Raven's Nest and spotted her two-story frame house in the corner of his land, he ground his back teeth and wished to hell he had fought harder to buy the whole property so he could have torn it down to have this entire area to himself.
And to make matters even more aggravating, apparently the Wheeler urchins didn' t understand the concept of trespassing. Yes, their mother had paid for the broken window and had made them take the tree house down, plank by plank. After her frustrated reaction when he told her about their steeplechase through his pasture, he would have expected her to put the fear of God into them.
Or at least the fear of their mother.
But here one of them was balancing on the snow-covered split-rail fence that lined his driveway, arms outstretched like he was a miniature performer on a circus high wire, disaster just a heartbeat away while his brothers watched from the sidelines.
Carson slowed the SUV he kept stored at the Jackson Hole airport, an hour away, though he hesitated to hit the brakes just yet.
He ought to just let the kids fall where they may. What was a broken arm or two to him? If the Wheeler hellions wanted to be little daredevils, what business was it of his? He could just turn the other way and keep on driving up to the house. He had things to do, calls to make, fresh Idaho air to breathe.
On the other hand, the boys were using his fence as their playground. If one of them took a tumble and was seriously injured, he could just hear their mother accusing him of negligence or even tacit complicity because he didn't try to stop them when he had the chance.
He sighed. He couldn't ignore them and just keep on driving, as much as he might desperately want to. He braked to a stop and rolled down the window to the cold December air. "Hey kid, come down from there before somebody gets hurt."
He was grimly aware he was only a sidestep away from sounding like a grumpy old man yelling at the neighbor's kids to stay the hell off his grass.
The boys apparently hadn't heard the rumble of his engine. They blinked and he could see surprise in all their expressions. The younger two looked apprehensive but the biggest boy jutted out his chin.
"We do it all the time," he boasted. "Kip's the best. Show him."
"Maybe we should go home." The medium-sized one with the wire-rim glasses slanted a nervous look toward Carson. "Remember, Mom told us this morning to come home right from the bus stop to do chores."
"That's a good idea," Carson encouraged. "Go on home, now."
"Don't be such a scaredy-cat," the older one taunted, then turned to the other boy, who was watching their interaction closely, as if trying to predict who the victor would be. "It's okay, Kip. Show him."
Before Carson could figure out a way to climb out of his truck and yank the kid off the fence, the boy took another step forward and then another.
He grinned at Carson. "See? I can go super far without falling!" he exclaimed. "One time I went from the gate all the way to that big pine tree."
The words were barely out of his mouth when his boot hit an icy patch of railing.
His foot slid to the edge though not completely off the log, but his arms wheeled desperately as he tried to keep his balance. It was a losing battle, apparently. His feet went flying off the fence first and the rest of him followed. Even from here, above the sound of his vehicle's engine, Carson could hear the thud of the boy's head bumping the log rail on the way down.
He shut off the vehicle and jumped out, hurrying to where the boy lay still in the snow. The middle boy was already crouched in the snow next to him, but his attention was focused more on his older brother than the injured younger one.
"You're such a dope, Hayden." He glared. "Why'd you make him do it? Mom's gonna kill us both now!"
"I didn't make him! He didn't have to do it just because I told him to. He's got a brain, doesn't he?"
"More of one than you do," the middle boy snapped.
Carson decided it was past time for him to step in and focus attention on the important thing, their dazed brother, who looked as if he'd had the wind and everything else knocked out of his sails.
"Come on, kid. Talk to me."
The boy met his gaze, his green eyes wide and a little unfocused. After a few seconds, he drew in a deep breath and then he started to wail, softly at first and then loud enough to spook up a couple of magpies that had come to see what the commotion was about.
"Come on, Kip. You're okay," the middle kid soothed, patting him on the shoulder, which only seemed to make the kid howl louder.
What Carson knew about bawling kids would fit inside the cap of a ballpoint pen. His instincts were telling him to hop right back into his SUV and leave the boys to fend for themselves. Knowing how rowdy and reckless they were, this couldn't be the first time one of them had taken a tumble.
But he couldn't do it. Not with the kid looking at him out of those drippy eyes and the other two watching him with such contrasting expressionsone hostile and the other obviously expecting him to take charge.
The boy swiped at his tears with the sleeve of his parka and scrambled to sit up in the snow. Carson watched his efforts to make sure he wasn't favoring any stray limbs, but nothing appeared to be damaged beyond repair.
He would let their mother deal with it all, he decided. It would serve her right for letting them run wild. "Come on. I'll give you all a ride back to your house."
The middle boy eyed him warily. "We're not supposed to get in strangers' cars."
"He's not a stranger," the older boy snapped with a return to that belligerence. "He's Mr. McRaven, the dude who stole our ranch."
"I didn't" Instinctively, Carson started to defend himself, then broke off the words. How ridiculous, that he would feel compelled to offer any explanations at all to a trio of rowdy little hellions.
"You want me to drive your little brother home or would you like to carry him all the way yourselves?" he asked.
The older boys exchanged a glance and then Hayden, the older one, shrugged. "Whatever."
He personally would have preferred the latter option, especially after he scooped up the boy and carried him to the SUV, which resulted in even more tears. Again, he wished fiercely that he had just kept on driving when he'd seen them on his fence. If not for that ill-fated decision to stop, none of this would have happened and right now he would be saddling up one of his horses for a good hard ride into the snowy mountains.
He set the boy in the backseat then turned back to the other boys. "You two coming?"
The middle boy with the glasses nodded and climbed in beside his brother but the older one looked as if he would rather be dragged behind the SUV than accept a ride from him. After a long moment, though, he shrugged and went around to the other door.
The only sound in the SUV as they drove the short distance up the driveway to the Wheeler house was the little one's steady sobs and a few furtive attempts to comfort him.
The two-story cedar farmhouse was charming in its own way, he supposed, with the shake roof and the old-fashioned swing on the wide front porch. But no one could possibly miss that a passel of children lived here. From the basketball hoop above the garage to the Santa Claus and reindeer figures in the yard to the sleds propped against the porch steps, everything shouted family.
It was completely alien to him, and all the more terrifying because of it.
For about half a second, he was tempted just to dump the lot of them there at their doorstep but he supposed that sort of callousness wouldn' t exactly be considered neighborly around these parts.
Fighting his reluctance, he climbed out of the SUV and opened the rear door, then scooped out the still-crying Kip.
They all moved together up the porch steps but before Carson could knock at the door, Hayden burst through and shouted for his mother.
"Mom, Kip fell down off the fence by the bus stop. It was an accident. Nobody dared him or anything, he just went up by himself and slipped."
Warmth seeped out from the open doorway, along with the mingled aroma of cinnamon and sugar and pine.
The comforting, enticing scents of home.
The Wheeler boys might be wild, fatherless urchins with a distracted mother and more courage than sense. But Carson couldn't help the niggle of envy for what they had, things they no doubt would not even appreciate until much later in their lives.
"You can come inside," the middle boy said shyly. "Mom doesn't like us to leave the door open."
Feeling a bit encroaching for walking into her house, even at the permission of her kid, Carson took a few steps inside, just enough that he could close the door behind him.
He instantly wondered if he had accidentally stepped into one of those annoying Christmas shops in Jackson Hole. Every inch of the foyer seemed to be decorated with greenery or muted red gingham ribbons or ornaments of some sort. A wide staircase led upstairs and the banister was a wild riot of evergreen boughs and twinkling lights. A small trio of fir trees in the corner of the landing were decorated with homespun decorations from naturepinecones, dried orange slices, even a couple of miniature bird nests.
Through the doorway into the living room, he caught a glimpse of a big evergreen tree, decorated with sloppy paper chains and a hodgepodge of decorations that seemed lopsided, even at a cursory glance.
He barely had time for the few observations to register when the boys' mother bustled into the foyer wearing a red-and-green pin-striped apron and carrying the littlest Wheelerand the only girl of the bunch.
Jenna stopped dead when she saw him, her ethereal blond hair slipping free of its confines, as usual. "Oh! Mr. McRaven! This is a surprise. Hayden didn't mention you were here."
"I happened to be passing by in time to see the, uh, accident. I couldn't just leave him out there."
"Of course you couldn't," she said. Though her tone was polite enough, he was quite sure he caught a whiff of skepticism. He tried not to let it rankle.
"Thank you for your kindness in bringing them home. I'm very sorry they troubled you again."
Her tone was cooler than the icicles hanging off her porch. The Widow Wheeler didn't like him very much. She had made that fact abundantly clear over the last ten months since he purchased her property.
Oh, she was polite enough in their sporadic dealings, never overtly rude. But he ran an international technology innovation company, which was a hell of a lot like a good poker game. Keen powers of observation were a vital job skill and he had developed his own to a fine degree. He couldn't miss the tiny shadow of disdain in her green eyes when she talked to him.
"Where would you like me to set your little injured buck-aroo here?"
"I'll take him."
She set the little one on the floor and the girl toddled to a wicker basket full of toys in the living room and proceeded to start yanking the contents out, one by one, and tossing them on the floor.
Jenna stepped closer to Carson and reached for the boy in his arms, whose wails had trickled to the occasional sniffle. Carson's leather coat was open and as she took the child from him, her hands brushed against his chest for only an instant.
Even through his cotton shirt, he could feel the warmth of her hands, the small, delicate flutter of them and his stomach muscles tightened.
It was a ridiculous reaction, one that first stunned, then exasperated him. He really needed to expend a little more energy on his social life if he could be attracted to Jenna Wheeler, even on an instinctively physical level.
Sure, she was soft and pretty, with that wispy honey-blond hair and her undeniable curves and those big green eyes all her children had inherited.
But she had that unfortunate baggage shackled around her neck. Four wild kids, the youngest just a toddler.
Apparently, the only thing the injured one of her children needed was his mother. She sat down on a nearby wooden rocking chair. The boy snuggled against her chest and she pressed a kiss on his forehead.
"Hush now, sweetheart. Where does it hurt?"
He sniffled a little and pointed to the back of his head that had conked against the railing. "I hurt my head."
"I'm so sorry." She kissed the spot he showed her, her eyes tender and maternal, and Carson's stomach muscles tightened again, this time with a weird, indefinable something he couldn't have explained.