The Old West comes to life under the talented pen of bestselling author Mary Connealy. Enjoy a lighthearted ride alongside seven historical and one contemporary cowboys and the women who tame their hearts.
The Advent Bride
Melanie Douglas is alone on the Nebraska plains, teaching school to get by. She finds a unique box with hidden drawers to use over the advent season to engage a young boy in his schooling. When Henry O’Keeffe sees a positive change in his son, he has to see for himself what this new teacher is doing.
A Bride Rides Herd
Matt Reeves arrives at his brother’s ranch to find Betsy Harden alone with the little girls during a cattle drive. Will the ladies be too much to handle when Matt steps in for the missing ranch hand?
His Surprise Family
A lonely young rancher orders a mail-order bride and after the vows are spoken, she “surprises” him with her three little brothers. No amount of apologies Meghan McCray gives are going to make Silas Harden, Jr. believe a word she says. Should Silas just build himself another house and let his mail-order family take over the one he’s got?
Homestead on the Range
Widow Elle Winter meets new homesteader Colin Samuelson on the Nebraska prairie, but the attraction between them is soon dampened by the discovery that they have seven children between them. Soon their children are working against them to bring the two families together.
Sophie’s Other Daughter
Dr. Ike Reeves comes home to visit his family only to bring trouble in the form of outlaws who believe he witnessed their latest crime. When the gang traps Ike and his old nemesis, Lauren McClellen, in a cave, they must work together to outsmart the thugs. But will their time together put them in a compromising situation that will threaten both of their good reputations?
The Sweetwater Bride
Debba McClain takes offense at being offered a wedding in exchange for valuable water rights. But she doesn’t like to see a good man’s cattle die of thirst—and the rancher Tanner Harden is rather handsome.
Luke Reeves has gotten wealthy in the oil business and goes to visit his uncle to convince him to sign over the oil rights to his land. But when he meets his grown up adopted cousin Libby Cooper, he may be forced to give up one dream to win another.
Hope for Christmas
It might be 2016, but Montana is still a mighty rough place to survive the winter. When Silas Harden finds the very pregnant Kelsey Black in a wrecked car surrounded by a pack of wolves in the heart of a blizzard he takes her to his remote home. What will Silas do when the baby decides to come and Kelsey confesses why she was out in such a terrible storm?
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Lone Tree, Nebraska Monday, November 29, 1875
Being a teacher was turning out to be a little like having the flu. Simon O'Keeffe. Her heart broke for him at the same time her stomach twisted with dread for herself. The churning innards this boy caused in her made a case of influenza fun and games.
The small form on the front steps of the Lone Tree schoolhouse huddled against the cold. Shivering herself, she wondered how long seven-year-old Simon had been sitting with his back pressed against the building to get out of the wind.
On these smooth, treeless highlands the wind blew nearly all the time. No matter where a person sought shelter outside, there was no escape from the Nebraska cold.
Just as there was no escape from Simon.
Picking up her pace and shoving her dread down deep, she hurried to the door, produced the key her position as schoolmarm had granted her, and said, "Let's get inside, Simon. You must be freezing."
And what was his worthless father thinking to let him get to school so early?
Simon's eyes, sullen and far too smart, lifted to hers.
"Did you walk to school?" Melanie tried to sound pleasant. But it didn't matter. Simon would take it wrong. The cantankerous little guy had a gift for it. She swung the door open and waved her hand to shoo him in.
The spark of rebellion in his eyes clashed with his trembling. He wanted to defy her — Simon always wanted to defy her — but he was just too cold.
"My pa ain't gonna leave me to walk to school in this cold, Miss Douglas." Simon was offended on his father's behalf.
"So he drove you in?" Melanie should just quit talking. Nothing she said would make Simon respond well, the poor little holy terror.
"We live in town now ... leastways we're living here for the winter."
And that explained Simon's presence. He'd started the school year, then he'd stayed home to help with harvest — or maybe his pa had just been too busy to get the boy out the door. And before harvest was over, the weather turned bitter cold. The five-mile walk was too hard, and apparently his pa wouldn't drive him.
The day Simon had stopped coming to school, her life as the teacher had improved dramatically. That didn't mean the rest of her life wasn't miserable, but at least school had been good. And now here came her little arch enemy back to school. It was all she could do to suppress a groan.
Closing the door, Melanie rushed to set her books on her desk in the frigid room. She headed straight for the potbellied stove to get a fire going.
Gathering an armful of logs, she pulled open the creaking door and knelt to stuff kindling into the stove. She added shredded bits of bark and touched a match to it. A crash startled her. She knocked her head into the cast iron.
Whirling around, expecting the worst ... she got it.
Glaring at her.
Around his scruffy boots lay a pile of books that had previously sat in a tidy pile on her desk.
Dear God, I'm already weary, and it's just gone seven in the morning, with nearly two hours until the other children show up. She was on her knees. What better to do than pray?
The prayer helped her fight back her temper. After seeing no harm was done — not counting the new bump on her forehead — she turned and went back to stoking the fire.
Melanie swung the little iron door shut and twisted the flat knob that kept the fire inside. "Come on over and get warm, Simon." Kneeling by the slowly warming stove put heart into her. Her room at Mrs. Rathbone's was miserable. She spent every night in a mostly unheated attic.
Simon came close, he must have been freezing to move next to her.
The little boy's dark curls were too long. He was dressed in near rags. Was his father poor? Maybe a widower didn't notice worn-out knees and threadbare cuffs. And it didn't cost a thing to get a haircut, not if Henry O'Keeffe did the cutting himself. Water was certainly free, but the boy had black curves under his ragged fingernails and dirt on his neck.
Pieces of cooked egg stuck on the front of Simon's shirt, too. Sloppy as that was, it gave Melanie some encouragement to know the boy had been served a hot breakfast.
The crackling fire was heartening, and the boy was close enough to get warm. She reached out her hands to garner those first precious waves of heat.
"Soon, I'll have to get to work, Simon. But you can stay here, just sit by the stove and keep warm."
A scowl twisted his face. What had she said now?
"It ain't my pa's doing that I was out there. He told me to go to school at schooltime. I'm the one that got the time wrong."
Leave a seven-year-old to get himself to school. Henry O'Keeffe had a lot to answer for.
"Well, I hope you weren't waiting long. I'm usually here by seven, so you can come on over early if you want." The twisting stomach came back. She didn't want this little imp here from early morning on.
But she'd just invited the most unruly little boy in town to share her peaceful time at the school. Just the thought of dealing with him for more hours than absolutely necessary reminded Melanie of influenza again. Her stomach twisted with dismay.
But what could be done? The boy couldn't sit out in the cold.
God had no words of wisdom for her except the plain truth. She was stuck with Simon O'Keeffe. She'd have to make the best of it and help the boy any way she could.
Class dismissed." Melanie clasped the McGuffey Reader in both hands and did her best to keep her face serene while she strangled the book. It had to be better than strangling a seven-year-old.
Every child in the place erupted from their seats and ran for the nails where their coats hung.
"Simon." Melanie's voice cut through the clatter. Simon stood, belligerent. He held his desktop in his hands.
The three boys older than Simon laughed and shoved each other. There had been none of this roughhousing last week. They'd been acting up all day, reacting to Simon's bold defiance. She'd lost all control of the older boys. Four older girls giggled. Two little boys just a year older than Simon slid looks of pity his way. They all scrambled for their coats and lunch pails.
It hadn't helped that she'd started practice today for a Christmas program, scheduled for Christmas Eve, here at the school. Melanie had been warned that the entire town, not just parents, would be attending.
"Yes, Miss Douglas?"
Do not render evil for evil.
Why, that was right there in the Bible. Was disassembling a desk evil? Normally Melanie would have said no, but this was Simon.
"You will stay after school until you've put that desk back together." Melanie hadn't even known the desks could be taken apart. They'd always seemed very sturdy to her. But she'd underestimated her little foe.
"I can finish it tomorrow. Pa will worry about me." Simon stood, holding that desktop, the little rat trying to wriggle his way out of this trap. The boy was apparently bored to death with school. Studying would've made the day go faster, but that was too much to ask.
"When you don't arrive home on time, he'll come hunting for you, and this is the first place he'll check."
"But he said he might be late."
"How late?" Melanie clamped her mouth shut.
Simon's eyes blazed. The boy was always ready to take offense on his father's behalf.
Melanie had to stop saying a single word Simon could take as a criticism of his pa and address her concerns directly to Henry. But she wasn't letting Simon leave for a possibly cold house with no father at home. Simon's after-school time was, as of this moment, lasting until his pa turned up to fetch him.
"Get on with repairing the desk. Then you can bring your books close to the stove, and we'll study until you've made up for the schooltime you wasted taking your desk apart."
Simon glared at her, but he turned back to the desk. Melanie opened her book to study for tomorrow's lesson. The two of them got along very well, as long as the whole room was between them and neither spoke.
"It's done. Can I go now?"
Melanie lifted her head. She'd gotten lost in her reading. One of the older children, Lisa Manchon, was in an advanced arithmetic book. The girl was restless, ready to be done with school and, at fifteen years old, find a husband and get on with a life of her own.
Her folks, though, wouldn't hear of such a thing, or perhaps there were no offers. For whatever reason, Lisa was kept in school. Melanie worked hard to keep her interested in her work.
"No, you may not go." Melanie stressed the correct grammar. "Bring your reader to the stove, and we'll go over tomorrow's lesson together."
November days were short in Nebraska, and the sun was low in the sky. Obviously Henry was not yet home, or he'd have come to find his son. Melanie carried her heavy desk chair to the stove and stood, brows arched, waiting for Simon to come join her.
It helped that it was cold.
As they worked, Simon proved, as he always did when he bothered to try, that he was one of the brightest children in the school.
The school door slammed open.
"Simon is missing!" In charged a tall man wrapped up in a thick coat with a scarf and Stetson, gloves and heavy boots.
Henry O'Keeffe — here at last.
He skidded to a halt. His light blue eyes flashed like cold fire — at her. Then he looked more warmly at his son. "Simon, I told you to go home after school."
"Pa, she wouldn't —" The little tattletale.
"Your son," Melanie cut through their talk, "had to stay after school for misbehaving, Mr. O'Keeffe." Unlike her unruly young student, she had no trouble taking full responsibility for her actions.
She rose from her chair by the fire. "Is it a long way home?" It was approaching dusk. She didn't want Simon out alone in the cold, dark town.
"No, just a couple of blocks. What did he —"
"Simon, get your coat on, then, and head for home. I need to have a talk with your father." She noticed that Henry carried a rifle. Did he always have it with him, or was he armed to hunt for his missing son?
"Miss Douglas," Simon began, clearly upset with her.
"Is that all right with you, Mr. O'Keeffe? Will your son be safe walking home alone?" Melanie wouldn't press the point if Henry wasn't comfortable with it.
"Of course. There's nothing in this town more dangerous than a tumbleweed, and even they are frozen to the ground these days. I need to get supper. It's getting late."
"Let Simon head for home, then. I promise to be brief. You're right, it is getting late." She arched a brow at him and saw the man get the message.
"Run on home, Simon. I'll be two minutes behind you."
Simon took a long, hard look at Melanie, almost as if he wanted to stay and protect his pa.
"We won't be long, Simon." Melanie tilted her head toward the door. With a huff, Simon dragged on his coat and left the building.
Melanie knew then he was really worried because the door didn't even slam.
Why did all the pretty women want to yell at him?
Hank turned from watching Simon leave, then dropped his voice, not putting it past Simon to listen in.
"What's the problem, Miss Douglas?" Those snapping green eyes jolted him. He'd felt the jolt before, every time he'd gotten close to her in fact. And that surprised him because since Greta had died, no woman, no matter how pretty, had drawn so much as a whisper of reaction, let alone a jolt.
He'd gotten used to the idea that his heart had died with his wife. Melanie made him question that, but of course, all she wanted to do was yell at him. He braced himself to take the criticism. He deserved it.
"Mr. O'Keeffe, your son is a very bright boy. It's possible he's the smartest youngster in this school."
That wasn't what he expected to hear. Had she kept him here to compliment Simon? Maybe she wanted to pass Simon into a higher class? He was a bright boy. Hank felt his chest swell with pride, and he started to relax.
"But he is disrupting the whole school. We have to do something, between the two of us, to get him to behave."
Hank's gut twisted. It was fear. He tried to make himself admit it. But that effort was overridden by a need to fight anyone who spoke ill of his boy.
"You're saying you can't keep order in school?" Simon was all he had. Hank knew he didn't give the young'un enough attention, but a man had to feed his child, and that meant work, long hours of work.
"I was doing fine until today." Miss Douglas's voice rose, and she plunked her fists on her trim waist.
Hank looked at those pretty pink lips, pursed in annoyance. He'd never had much luck with women. He still had trouble believing Greta had married him. She'd seemed to like him, too, and it hadn't even been hard.
Now, when he needed to handle a woman right, calm her down, soothe her ruffled feathers, all he could think of was snapping at her.
He clamped his mouth shut until he could speak calmly. "What do you want from me, Miss Douglas? You want me to threaten him? Tell him if he gets a thrashing at school he'll get one at home?"
Hank didn't thrash Simon. Maybe he should. Maybe sparing the rod was wrong, but the hurt in the boy since his ma died had made it impossible for Hank to deal him out more pain.
"I don't thrash my students, Mr. O'Keeffe. I have never found it necessary, and I don't intend to start now. What I want is —"
The schoolhouse door slammed open. "Hank, come quick; a fight broke out in the saloon."
Mr. Garland at the general store stuck his face in the room then vanished. Hank took one step.
A slap on his arm stopped him. Miss Douglas had a grip that'd shame a burr.
"I'm not done talking to you yet." She'd stumbled along for a couple of feet but she held on doggedly.
"We're done talking. I have to go. My Simon is a good boy. You just need to learn to manage him better." He pried her little claws from his sleeve and managed to pull his coat open. "Let loose. You heard Ian. There's a fight."
"Why do you have to go just because there's a fight at the saloon?"
"I have to stop it."
His coat finally flapped all the way open, and he impatiently shoved it back even farther so she could see his chest.
And see the star pinned right above his heart. "Because just today I started a job as the town sheriff. That was the only way I could find a house in town. Now, if you can't handle one little boy, just say so and I'll get him a job running errands at the general store. Schoolin's a waste of time anyway for a bright boy like my Simon. Most likely the reason you can't handle him is he's smarter than you." A tiny smile curved his lips. "I got a suspicion he's smarter than me."
Then he turned and ran after Ian.
About once a minute, while she closed up the school, put on her wrap, gathered up her books, locked the building, walked to Mrs. Rathbone's, and let herself in the back door, Melanie caught herself shaking her head.
"He's smarter than you."
There was no doubt in her mind that Simon was very bright. Was Mr. O'Keeffe right? Was it her fault?
"My Simon is a good boy. You just need to learn to manage him better."
Was it all about managing rather than discipline? She shook her head again. Not in denial, though there might be a bit of that, but to clear her head so she could think.
How long would Henry be dealing with that saloon fight? Simon was home, and he'd be expecting his father. Had Henry thought of that?
"You're finally here, Melanie?"
That cold, disapproving voice drove all thoughts of the O'Keeffe family from her head.
"Yes, Mrs. Rathbone." As if the old battle-ax ever had a thing to do with her. Melanie hadn't even gotten the back door closed before the woman started her complaining. Mrs. Rathbone had made it clear as glass that Melanie was to always use the back door, never the front — that was for invited guests, not schoolmarms living on charity.
"I've eaten without you."
Melanie walked through the back entry and through the kitchen, where she saw a plate, uncovered, sitting on the table, without a doubt cold and caked in congealed grease.
She walked down a short hall that opened onto an elegant dining room and on into a front sitting room. Mrs. Rathbone called it the parlor. She sat alone before a crackling fire, needlework in hand. She glanced up from the bit of lace she was tatting, peering over the top of her glasses, scowling.
"Good evening, Mrs. Rathbone."
The older woman sniffed. "A fine thing, a woman cavorting until all hours. The school board would not approve."
Always Magda Rathbone seemed on the verge of throwing Melanie to the wolves, ruining her career, and blackening her name with the whole town if she was forced to tell the truth of how poorly Melanie behaved.
Melanie happened to think she behaved with the restraint of a nun — a muzzled nun — a muzzled nun wearing a straitjacket. But no matter how carefully she spoke and how utterly alone she remained in the upper room, Mrs. Rathbone found fault.
"One of my students was left at school. His father is the new sheriff in town, and he was delayed. I minded the boy until his father could come."
Excerpted from "The Calico & Cowboys Romance Collection"
Copyright © 2014 Mary Connealy.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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