Widower Abel Borgard has his hands full raising twins and establishing a homestead. Mercy Newell's offer to care for his son and daughter seems like the perfect solution. And though it takes no time for Mercy to steal his children's hearts, Abel's is another story, because he's a single father set on stability and she's a wild-at-heart beauty searching for adventure.
Joining a Wild West show as a trick rider is Mercy's dream. She never foresaw the joy she'd find caring for Abel's children. The rugged widower hardly trusts her yet. But by the first snowfall, there could be a new familyand new lovein Eden Valley .
Cowboys of Eden Valley: Forging a future in Canada's West country
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Eden Valley Ranch, Alberta, Canada
She was gone.
His heart slammed against his ribs. He scanned the entire clearing again just to make sure but she wasn't there.
"Allie." Abel Borgard yelled his daughter's name. One minute ago the nine-year-old sat on the chair by the cabin. He'd warned her to stay there while he unloaded the supplies, but now she'd disappeared. "It's not like her," he complained aloud. Ladd, her twin brother, was a different matter. He'd set off exploring the moment they'd alighted from the wagon. Abel had warned him to stay nearby, but it didn't worry him when Ladd got out of sight. The boy had learned at a young age to be self-reliant. Allie, on the other hand, needed rest and protection. The doctor's warning reverberated through Abel's brain. "She's extremely fortunate to have survived scarlet fever, especially under the circumstances."
"Allie." He didn't bother calling this time, just muttered the word under his breath. He again turned full circle, studying his surroundings. The tiny cabin would provide temporary shelter until he could erect a larger one, which he had to do before winter. The chill in the air reminded him time was short.
The trees, a nice mix of spruce and aspen, were far enough from the buildings to allow plenty of sunshine to reach the living quarters yet provide protection and privacy. The mountains rose to the west in all their fall majesty.
He completed his inspection of the surroundings but saw no little girl. Not so much as a hint of the blue dress she wore.
Abel understood the doctor's warning. Abel had come home from a three-month absence as he sought work to discover his wife had left days before, abandoning the then eight-year-olds to care for themselves. He'd found them huddled together, hungry and afraid. According to what he could get from the children, Allie had been sick even before Ruby left. Though in all fairness, Ruby likely hadn't known at that point it was anything more than a chill. Perhaps she hadn't even meant to leave them for more than a night but she'd fallen into the river and drowned. He liked to believe it had simply been misfortune, but he guessed she'd spent too much time in the back room of the saloon sharing drinks.
He strained to catch any sound of the children. Wasn't there a thud to his right like distant horse hooves? Every nerve in his body tensed. An intruder? Were the children in danger?
The doctor had left Abel with no misconceptions as to the seriousness of Allie's situation. "I fear she will have damaged her heart. You'll need to limit her activities for the rest of her life or " At this point, he'd shaken his head as if expecting the worst.
Abel had vowed on the spot that Allie would be treated as gently as a fragile china doll. He couldn't lose her. If anything happened to her he would never forgive himself. Any more than he forgave himself for the fact the children had been abandoned by his wife while he went in search of work. Ruby had never wanted to settle down and from the beginning had found the children a heavy burden, while Abel discovered they gave him reason to leave off being a wastrel. He regretted having started down that wayward path in the first place. The only good thing to come of it was his children and his determination to live a responsible, careful life from now on. He was twenty-nine years old and would devote the rest of his life to the well-being of his children. Never again would he allow his foolish emotions to lead him down the slippery path into the arms of a woman. Any woman. He would not risk his children's health and happiness by trusting a woman to settle down and be wife and mother.
Another thud. No mistaking the sound. There was a horse in the nearby clearing. His heart thumped him in his ribs hard enough to cause him to catch his breath.
He broke into a gallop and headed for the spot.
If anything happened to either of the twins
He saw Allie ahead, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet, her hands clasped together as if she tried to contain some emotion. Already her cheeks had turned rosy-a sure indication of her excited state. A danger sign.
He raced toward her and scooped her into his arms.
He brushed strands of her long blond hair off her face. "Baby, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Papa. Isn't she glorious?" She twisted and pointed.
Abel jerked his gaze from his precious daughter and followed the direction she indicated. His eyes lit on a woman who reminded him of those he'd seen in saloons. Only instead of bright-colored, revealing dresses, she wore a dark red shirt, fringed gloves and riding pants. It wasn't the clothes that brought those other women to mind-it was the look of sheer abandon on her face. Her mahogany-colored hair rippled down her back, held in place by a small cowboy hat secured under her chin. She sat on a beautiful palomino gelding.
She waved a hand over her head and the horse reared on its back legs.
Abel clutched Allie tight. "She's going to be hurt."
"Oh, no." Allie's voice was round with awe. "She does it on purpose. She's a trick rider. She's going to join a Wild West show."
"She is, is she?" The gal made a beautiful picture of horse and rider but she posed a threat to his children if she hung about, filling Allie's head with admiration.
The horse returned to all fours and clapping caught Abel's attention. Ladd stood on the other side of the horse, his eyes round with awe. "Can you show me how to do that?"
"It's not hard." The woman's voice rang with humor and what he could only explain as love of life.
That was all well and good. He had no objection to her joining a Wild West show, loving life or doing dangerous things on back of a horse, so long as she stayed away from his kids.
"Can you show me?" Ladd asked. "Sure thing. All you do-"
Abel crossed the clearing to clamp his hand on Ladd's shoulder. The boy jerked, surprised, no doubt, at the sudden appearance of his father. Hopefully he was also feeling a little guilty at having brought Allie out to the woods when she was supposed to rest. "Ladd, take your sister back to the cabin. Allie, you know you shouldn't be here."
Allie patted him on the cheek. "I'm okay, Papa. You worry too much."
"Maybe I do. Maybe I don't. I only want you both to be safe." He set his daughter on her feet, patted them both on the back and sent them on their way. He didn't turn until they were out of sight.
Sucking in air, he tried to calm the way his insides rolled and bucked at how this woman had intruded on his hope of peace and quiet. He didn't want to say anything he'd later regret, so he pushed aside his inner turmoil as he slowly faced the woman. "You're trespassing."
She lounged in her saddle as if she meant to spend her entire day there. "I think you are mistaken. This land belongs to Eddie Gardiner. He's given me permission to be here."
"That might have been so at one time, but I've rented the cabin and the surrounding land from Mr. Eddie Gardiner." He planned to raise cows. His ranch would be insignificant compared to the Eden Valley Ranch, but it was all he wanted. Besides- "I want peace and quiet for my children." At the cold way she studied him, his resolve mounted a protest. "I don't want them learning reckless ways. Nor do I want my daughter overexcited by witnessing your activities. What you do in your own time and space is your business. But what you do around my children is my business."
The grin she wore plainly said she didn't take him seriously.
His spine tingled as he held back a desire to tell her exactly what he thought. He mentally counted to ten then widened his stance, narrowed his eyes and gave her his best don't-mess-with-me look, the one that made the twins jump to obey. "I suggest you leave and don't come back."
She laughed. A cheerfulenough sound, but one that dug talons into his backbone. It reminded him of Ruby and the way she laughed when he suggested she should settle down and be a mother to the children. And it filled him with something hard and cold. But before he could put words to his feelings, she spoke.
"Pleased to meet you. Nice to know there'll be a kind neighbor nearby." She reined her horse into a two-legged stand and let out a wild whoop. "I'll no doubt be seeing you around since we're neighbors." She drawled out the last word in a mocking way, then rode away at a gallop, bent over her mount's neck as they raced through the trees.
"You won't be seeing more of me and my family if I have anything to say about it," he murmured then headed for the cabin and his kids. He had to make sure they were unharmed after encountering the crazy wild woman on horseback.
Twenty-year-old Mercy Newell galloped through the trees, not slowing until she reached the barn on the Eden Valley Ranch-her home in Canada. She'd come from London to this raw new country a little more than two months ago with Eddie's sister, Jayne, and their mutual friend, Sybil. Both were now married and living in small log cabins on the ranch though both said they and their new husbands would be starting their own ranches come spring. She wished them all the best, but she didn't intend to marry and settle down. Not when there were things she wanted to do. Number one on that list was to join a Wild West show. Since the day she'd seen one in Benton, Montana, on their trip here she'd known she wanted to be part of such a show. The excitement, the thrill, the roar of the crowd's approval
While there, she'd even managed to get a few lessons in doing the stunts and instructions on more things she could learn. Since her arrival at Eden Valley Ranch, she'd also been taking lessons from anyone who would help her.
She reined in, pulling Nugget to a halt, getting him to rear up. She jumped from the saddle before he returned to all fours and led him to the barn where she brushed and fed him.
All the while she muttered about the man in her clearing. "Who does he think he is? Telling me to leave like I was common trash. As if he has the right. He says he rented the cabin. I'm not about to take his word on it, though. But even if he did, that doesn't give him the right to chase me away."
Nugget nudged her aside as if to say he was tired of her grousing.
"Fine. You're not the only one I can talk to." Finished caring for the horse, she stalked across to Jayne and Seth's cabin. All the men were at the fall roundup except for Cookie's husband, Bertie. She didn't even spare a glance toward the cookhouse. Cookie and Bertie would both tell her to calm down and be sensible.
Mercy had no intention of doing either.
She knocked and strode in without waiting for an answer. Besides Jayne, both Sybil and Linette, Eddie's wife, sat around the table. "Good. The three of you are here. You can all hear my story at the same time." She plunked down on the only available chair. "I met the most rude man."
Sybil sat up straighter. "Where? Mercy, what have you been up to this time? I do wish you wouldn't roam about the woods as if-"
Jayne spoke as soon as Sybil paused for breath. "Please don't tell us you've met a man while out there. What kind of man? What did he do?"
Mercy waved aside their concerns. "He says he's rented that little cabin southwest of here. He informed me I was trespassing. Pfft. If he thinks he can order me around, well, he'll soon learn otherwise."
Linette waited for Mercy to run out of steam. "That must be Abel Borgard. Eddie told me he'd let him have the little cabin for himself and his children. Twins, Eddie said. A boy and a girl. Did you see them?"
She smiled. "I didn't realize they were twins. The little boy is sturdy and filled with curiosity. He wanted me to show him how to teach a horse some tricks." She ignored the way the others looked at each other and shook their heads. They simply did not understand why she had to do this. They'd asked and she'd only said it was an adventure. But it was more than that. A need deep inside. A restless itch that had to be tended to. She'd been that way most of her life. Probably since her brother died when he was eight and she, six. It was not a time in her life she liked to think about so she gladly pulled her thoughts back to her waiting friends. "The little girl is tiny but a real beauty. Her father swept her into his arms as if she was a-" She couldn't finish. She'd been about to say a precious princess. "A much younger child." She'd seen the way the little girl patted his cheeks and how his expression softened with what Mercy could only interpret as devotion. "He said I was too reckless to be around his children. Really? I am never reckless."
The others laughed.
Mercy tried to scowl but ended up laughing, as well.
Sybil sighed. "It sounds romantic. A man raising two children on his own. So protective of them."
Linette patted her rounded tummy. She was two months from having her firstborn. "Eddie will be a good father. I've already seen it in the way he treats Grady." Grady was the little boy they were raising as their own.
"Where is Grady?" Mercy asked.
"He's over at Cassie's playing with the children." Cassie and Roper and the four children they'd adopted lived beyond the barn in a house big enough for the six of them.
Linette returned immediately to Mercy's situation. "It seems to me you'll have to respect Abel's wishes and stay away from the cabin. Maybe now you'll remain at the ranch. Tell me you will. I worry about you out there on your own."
Mercy didn't bother to again say she could take care of herself. "Guess I will be practicing my riding and roping around here until I find another place. But-" She leaned forward and gave them each a demanding look. "I don't want anyone hanging about warning me about the dangers. Agreed?"
Jayne and Linette exchanged a look then together shook their heads. "We aren't agreeing to any such thing."
"Nor am I," Sybil said. "From the beginning I've opposed your dream to join a Wild West show and will continue to do so."
Mercy groaned. "I can see I'll have to find another place to practice." In the meantime, the corrals were virtually empty, with the cowboys and horses gone on the roundup. She'd be able to work on her tricks without a lot of interference. She'd simply deflect her friends' needless worry should they voice it.
The next morning she slipped from the house before Linette or Grady stirred and hurried down to the corral behind the barn. The guns she used for her fancy shooting worried the others the most so she did her gun work in the cold dawn. The pearl-handled guns, one of her greatest treasures, had been acquired through Cal, a cowboy who had worked at the Eden Valley Ranch before he'd been fired. She'd encouraged Cal to do a number of things Eddie didn't approve of. He'd even coached her roping stunts. Thankfully, it was his own actions that got him fired, and nothing she could feel responsible for.
After an hour, her wrists grew tired and she saddled Nugget and brought him out to the same area. She practiced a number of tricks-bowing, rearing up, sidestepping. Then she turned her attention to a new trick-teaching Nugget to lie on his back and let her sit on his chest.