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One ranch. Three sons. Only one will inherit...and on one condition. Tired of waiting for his sons to settle down, Arizona-territory rancher Angus McKettrick announces a competition: the first son to marry and produce a grandchild will inherit Triple M ranch. Now, three distinctly different, equally determined cowboys are searching high and low for brides.
Kade McKettrick’s got five mail-order brides-to-be camped out at the local hotel, all more than eager to provide him with the heir that will win him the Triple M ranch. But Kade, the newly appointed marshal, has his hands full with a troublesome outlaw gang. Why, then, is he so easily distracted by pretty “Sister Mandy”—who most assuredly is not the nun she claims to be? On the run from her outlaw stepfather, Mandy Sperrin hides beneath her solemn disguise, and vows to keep her wild, passionate nature from the respectable citizens of Indian Rock. Yet when the handsome marshal makes it clear that he wants her, Mandy gives in to her heated desires....
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The daughter of a town marshal, Linda Lael Miller is the author of more than a hundred historical and contemporary novels. Now living in Spokane, Washington, the “First Lady of the West” hit a career high when all three of her 2011 Creed Cowboy books debuted at #1 on the New York Times list. In 2007, the Romance Writers of America presented her their Lifetime Achievement Award. Visit her at LindaLaelMiller.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Early March, 1885
Kade McKettrick rode slowly into Indian Rock, that raw and ragged afternoon at the tail end of winter, hat pulled low over his eyes, the collar of his muddy black duster raised in a futile effort to warm his ears. He'd grown a beard in the weeks since he'd left the Triple M, at the old man's worried urging, in search of the recalcitrant brother riding beside him now. Far as he was concerned, the old man had nobody but himself to blame for all the problems. He'd been the one to pit his three sons against one another in the first place by issuing a decree that the first to marry and produce a child could get the ranch.
Now, Kade's hair was shaggy, his scalp itched, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd had a hot bath, a sound night's sleep, or a decent meal. After following a number of false trails, he'd finally tracked Jeb to Tombstone, where the little bastard had been having a high old time, and the whole experience had left Kade with a sour taste in his mouth. Right about then, he'd just as soon knock out a couple of Jeb's perfect teeth as look at him.
Jeb had come along willingly enough, probably because he'd been up to no good in Tombstone and gotten on the wrong side of some bad people, though if he'd wanted to stay, Kade would have had a fight on his hands. Jeb hadn't offered any insights into what he'd been doing, and Kade, being equally stubborn, hadn't asked for any, though he'd surmised on his own that women were involved. With Jeb, women were always involved.
The fact was, he was curious about his brother's exploits, but he was in no mood for Jeb's patented smirk and smart-ass rhetoric, so it was better all around to leave well enough alone, for the time being at least.
Main Street was uncommonly quiet, and the air had a certain weight, as though something were waiting out there, just beyond the edge of town, building up steam. Without exchanging so much as a glance, the brothers reined in at the livery stable, where Old Billy kept his blacksmith shop, saying as few words as possible to each other or the talkative proprietor while they made the arrangements and left their horses to be fed, groomed, and put up for the night. Kade wanted nothing so much as to get back to the Triple M, back to his books and his own bed and Concepcion's fine and consistent cooking, but night was coming on, and the animals were spent from several days of hard riding. The ranch was just two hours away, but it might as well have been twenty, in terms of the effort required to get there.
Leaving the livery, Kade and Jeb walked side by side down the broad wooden sidewalk, spurs jingling in discordant concert. The emptiness of the street made Kade edgy; he scanned the storefronts and roofs on either side -- looking for what? Strangers? Riflemen? He didn't know, but something.
A skiff of a snowfall began, riding a stinging wind and putting a seal on his glum mood.
The Arizona Hotel was just ahead, spilling light from its windows, the new parts of it framed in with lumber but still skeletal, and Kade raised a hand to his beard as they approached, wishing he looked a mite more presentable. There was a good chance that Emmeline, their elder brother Rafe's wife, would be there, since she was part owner, along with her spirited and unconventional mother, and Kade had a tender place for his sister-in-law. Rafe he hoped to avoid, at least for a while. Ever since their father had laid down the law abou the ranch, they'd been at odds.
Reaching the hotel's front door, Jeb put out one leather-gloved hand and wrenched it open in mocking deference. "After you," he told Kade. The look in his eyes was downright irascible.
Kade gave his brother a scathing once-over, squared his shoulders, and stepped over the threshold. The lobby was warm and cheerful, with curtains and carpets and china-globed lamps, offering a pleasant contrast to the hardship of the trail, and a blaze was crackling on the hearth of a newly added fieldstone fireplace. Steamy, savory smells wafted from the direction of the dining room, the only restaurant in town. It didn't compare to the ones in lively Tombstone, where there were any number of such establishments, including ice cream parlors, but if there had to be just one eatery in Indian Rock, Kade was grateful it was a good one.
A small nun with striking blue-green eyes stood behind the registration desk. His brain dulled by fatigue, Kade blinked once, certain he was seeing things, before he remembered meeting the young woman on a couple of other occasions, once at a party a few months back, on the ranch, and on a previous visit to the hotel. She'd come in on the stagecoach one day, by the account he'd heard, and Emmeline and her mother had seen she was down on her luck and offered her work at the hotel. Something about her worried at his memory like the teeth of a dog, but he put it down to being road weary and saddle sore.
Sister Mandy, she called herself, he recalled that much. He smiled a little and ambled toward her, with Jeb chinking along a few strides behind. Irreverently, he wondered what she's look like in a party dress.
"Welcome to the Arizona Hotel," she said, watching him in a wary way, as though taking his measure. She looked about half-ready to bolt for the nearest exit. She probably figured him for an outlaw, with his seedy countenance, and that amused him as much as her disguise. Whatever Sister Mandy was, she was no more a nun than he was an outlaw; he would have bet his favorite saddle on that. Or traded it for a real good look at her.
"Would you gentlemen like a room?" she asked.
Kade remembered his manners -- he hadn't had much call to use them of late, so he was somewhat out of practice -- and removed his hat. "Two rooms," he said, without looking at Jeb. He'd been bunking on the opposite side of a campfire from that polecat for almost a week as it was, and he needed some elbow room, literally and figuratively. "Please."
Sister Mandy nodded and swiveled the registration book around for Kade to sign. He picked up the pen, dipped it into an open inkwell, and wrote his name with a flourish. Jeb penned his own signature underneath, barely legible, like always.
"I'll be wanting a bath," Jeb said. Seemed he hadn't forgotten how to talk after all, damn the luck.
"You need one," Kade observed, without looking at his brother. He was spoiling to tie into somebody, had been since they'd left Tombstone, but he'd bide his time. Becky had worked hard to make the Arizona Hotel a respectable place, and the last thing she needed -- or would tolerate -- was a brawl in her cheerful lobby. Besides, a lady was present. So to speak.
"Go to hell," Jeb responded blithely. Out of the corner of his eye, Kade saw his brother flex his left hand and knew he felt the same longing as he did to throw a punch and feel it connect.
"That's fifty cents extra," Mandy said, raising her voice a little, looking from one of them to another, clearly discomforted. The words they'd exchanged had been mild enough, but the testy undercurrent was unmistakable. Kade felt a moment's shame for alarming the girl, though he wouldn't credit Jeb with the decency to do the same. "With the room, that will be two dollars," she finished.
Jeb laid the money on the desk and gestured for a key with a beckoning motion of his fingers. Kade was reaching for his own wallet when Emmeline swept in from the dining room, looking flushed and plump and happy, and thereby distracting them all. She and Rafe had gotten off to an uneven start where matrimony was concerned, but if her expression was anything to go by, they'd resolved the worst of their difficulties and reached a comfortable accord of some sort.
"You're back!" she cried, pleased, approaching Jeb and Kade and rising on tiptoe to favor each of them with a sisterly kiss on the cheek. Kade found himself wishing, yet again, that he'd taken the time for a bath and barbering somewhere along the way. "We've been worried into a regular fret, every one of us. Where have you been all these weeks?"
Kade and Jeb glanced at each other in a desultory fashion, but when Kade turned back to his fair-haired, bright-eyed sister-in-law, he was wearing a stock smile. She was Rafe's and had been from the first, and he'd best be about accepting the truth of the matter, but facing it sounded a lonesome refrain inside him all the same. "That's too long a story to tell when I'm this hungry," he said. He cocked his head toward the lobby window overlooking the street. "Where is everybody? The place looks like a ghost town."
Emmeline reached back, fiddling with the ties of her apron. Some of the glow faded from her face and countenance. "Folks are -- nervous. There's been some trouble -- "
At the edge of his vision, Kade saw Sister Mandy put away his money and Jeb's, and set two brass keys on the desk. Her color seemed a little high. So there was a flesh-and-blood woman under that get-up.
"What kind of trouble?" Jeb asked, reaching for one of the keys, before Kade could get the words out. Though he'd never said as much, Kade suspected that Jeb, too, had cherished a few sweet illusions where Emmeline was concerned. She'd blown into their family like a fresh breeze on a hot, dry day, arriving from Kansas City as a mail-order bride, and none of them had been the same since. Especially Rafe.
Emmeline bit her lower lip. "There's talk of some gunplay between the ranches." She inclined her head toward the hotel dining room. "Come along, and I'll get you both a plate of food -- you probably haven't had anything that wasn't cooked over a campfire in days. I'll explain while you eat."
Jeb and Kade took a table by the window in the next room, and Emmeline brought them coffee first thing, bustling a little, then put in their orders for a pair of fried chicken dinners.
"Has there been any shooting?" Jeb demanded once Emmeline had served the food and joined them at the table. "Or just talk?" He looked even more amenable to the idea of a good fight than he had out there in the lobby, though now he seemed ready to take on half the territory, not just Kade. Typically, he didn't wait for an answer, but jumped to the first conclusion with a foothold. "It's got to do with Holt Cavanagh buying the Chandler place out from under Pa, hasn't it? He's gone and cut off the water to the Triple M." Cavanagh was more than just an irksome neighbor, he was a half brother to Rafe, Jeb, and Kade -- Angus's son by his first wife, born in Texas and left behind as a babe when Ellie McKettrick had died and the old man had taken it into his head to go north. They hadn't known Holt existed until recently, when he'd hired on at the Triple M pretending to be a regular cowhand, and he was still a burr under their collective hide. Cavanagh's main reason for coming to Indian Rock, it seemed to Kade, was to rankle the McKettricks as much as possible, and while he had his agreeable moments, he was making a good job of it.
Emmeline hesitated, fidgeted a bit with her hair. A few people were venturing out onto the street by then, even though the snow was coming down faster, whipped into bitter little twisters by the rising wind. Kade was doubly glad to be in out of the weather, though he wished they'd had better news awaiting them. A bare-knuckle row in back of the barn with one or more of his brothers was one thing. A bunch of rowdy cowboys riding all over the countryside gunning for each other was another.
"It hasn't come down to bullets yet," she said. "Not so far, anyhow. But there's been some nasty talk between the Triple M and the Circle C, and a few other outfits have taken sides. Some fence lines were cut, some cattle rustled, that sort of thing."
Kade picked up a piece of chicken and bit into it. His stomach was so empty it seemed to be gnawing at his backbone, and he didn't figure he'd be able to think clearly until he'd seen to the matter. "What's Rafe got to say about all this?" he asked, taking advantage of a gap in his chewing and swallowing. Rafe was foreman of the Triple M for the time being, and their pa's mandate notwithstanding, that galled Kade. By his reckoning, Angus McKettrick had been flat wrong to give one of his sons authority over the others, but these days, his opinion didn't appear to account for much.
Emmeline sighed, fiddling with the checkered gingham curtains at the window. "He's worried," she admitted. "So far, it's just been mischief, mostly, but if there's violence of any kind, there could be a range war."
History had recorded many a bloody fight between competing ranchers all over the West, and Kade didn't want to see it happen on or around the Triple M. "Has he talked to Cavanagh?" he asked. Holt had a good-sized chunk of land, and the several springs that fed the creek running through the Triple M were squarely within his property. If he wanted to cause real grief for the McKettricks, all he had to do was change the course of the stream or build himself a dam.
"They've had words," Emmeline admitted. She tried to smile and fell a little short of the mark. "You know how hardheaded Rafe is, and Holt is as bad or worse. All they've done so far is lock horns and exchange accusations. A couple of times, I thought they might actually come to blows." Innocent Emmeline. She'd grown up in the city, in a household of women, even if it was a high-toned brothel, and she knew nothing of the ways of brothers raised to scuffle like bear cubs. Adjusting to life on the Triple M must have been a monumental effort for her, and Kade, for one, admired her grit and gumption.
"Where's our big brother now?" Jeb wanted to know. He'd evidently eaten as much as he cared to and pushed his plate away to sip the stout coffee. Kade, on the other hand, was seriously thinking about ordering another chicken dinner, since the first one hadn't hit bottom yet. Nothing much interfered with his appetite, including talk of a range war.
"He's out with a crew of men, mending fence and rounding up strays," she said. The wistful look that rose in her eyes was gone in a flicker. Kade wondered if, for all her apparent well-being, there might be a problem between her and Rafe after all.
"And you're staying in town?" Kade asked, summoning up a convivial smile. "What about that fine house Rafe built for the two of you over across the creek from us? Is it standing empty these days?"
Emmeline shook her head, and all of the sudden she looked tired. Kade felt a pang of concern; if Emmeline was in the family way, Rafe was certain to win control of the Triple M for good. Much as Kade would have liked to be an uncle, he wanted to be a father first. A father with a legacy to leave.
"Becky's been up in Flagstaff with John Lewis for a week," Emmeline said, "so I've been helping Clive and Sister Mandy look after the hotel." Becky Fairmont, also known as Becky Harding, depending on her state of mind and the phase of the moon, was Emmeline's mother, and John Lewis, the town marshal, was her beau. The two of them had churned Indian Rock's version of polite society into a regular dither, carrying on the way they did; the ladies down at the spanking-new church were bound to be spending more time on gossip than prayer and hymn singing. Good thing none of them knew the family secret, that Becky had been a madam back in Kansas City, before turning to innkeeping.
Jeb let out a long sigh and sat back, folding his arms. He looked as disreputable as Kade felt, being sorely in need of scouring, and he didn't smell much better than a sweat-lathered mule. "I'm heading for the Triple M tomorrow," he told Emmeline. "I'd be glad to borrow a buckboard from Old ...
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