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Authors: Linda Lael Miller

Tags: #Westerns, #Fiction, #Romance, #Western, #Historical, #General

High Country Bride

BOOK: High Country Bride
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“Linda Lael Miller creates vibrant characters and stories I defy you to forget.”

—Debbie Macomber

 

“Sensuality, passion, excitement, and drama…are Ms. Miller’s hallmarks.”


Romantic Times

 
High Country Bride
 

Rafe McKettrick: Proud, passionate, and hot-tempered, he’s determined to win his inheritance—but he never dreamed it would mean surrendering his heart.

Emmeline Harding: Charming and adventurous, she hides an inner fire and passion that carries her out West—to marry a man she’s never met.

PRAISE FOR THE HEARTWARMING NOVELS OF LINDA LAEL MILLER

 

THE LAST CHANCE CAFÉ

 

“An entertaining story that will please new fans [as well as] old ones by updating her popular historical Primrose Creek series.”


Booklist

 

SPRINGWATER WEDDING

 

“Fans will be thrilled to join the action, suspense, and romance portrayed in [Linda Lael Miller’s contemporary fiction].”


Romantic Times

 

“Pure delight from the beginning to the satisfying ending…. Miller is a master craftswoman at creating unusual story lines [and] charming characters.”


Rendezvous

 

“Miller’s strength is her portrayal of the history and traditions that distinguish Springwater and its residents.”


Publishers Weekly

 

“The perfect recipe for love…. Miller writes with a warm and loving heart.”


BookPage

 

COURTING SUSANNAH

 

“Enjoyable…. Linda Lael Miller provides her audience with a wonderful look at an Americana romance.”

—Harriet Klausner,
Midwest Book Review

 

TWO BROTHERS

 

“A fun read, full of Ms. Miller’s simmering sensuality and humor, plus two fabulous brothers who will steal your heart.”


Romantic Times

 

“Great western romance….
The Lawman
is a five-star tale….
The Gunslinger
is an entertaining, fun-to-read story…. Both novels are excellent.”


Affaire de Coeur

 

ONE WISH

 

“[A] story rich in tenderness, romance, and love…. An excellent book from an author destined to lead the romance genre into the next century.”


Rendezvous

 

“An author who genuinely cares about her characters, Miller also expresses the exuberance of Western life in her fresh, human, and empathetic prose and lively plot.”


Booklist

 

PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS IN LINDA LAEL MILLER’S MARVELOUS SERIES

 

THE WOMEN OF PRIMROSE CREEK

 

“[A] warm saga…. Anybody who enjoys reading about the pioneers who tamed the West will enjoy
Bridget…. Christy
is an enjoyable, lighthearted romp….
Skye
is a delightful battle of the sexes….
Megan
is a warm tale of redemption…the most sensitive and compassionate of the quartet.”

—Harriet Klausner, Barnesandnoble.com

 

THE ACCLAIMED BESTSELLING SERIES

 

SPRINGWATER SEASONS

 

“A delightful and delicious miniseries….
Rachel
will charm you, enchant you, delight you, and quite simply hook you….
Miranda
is a sensual marriage-of-convenience tale guaranteed to warm your heart all the way down to your toes…. The warmth that spreads through
Jessica
is captivating…. The gentle beauty of the tales and the delightful, warmhearted characters bring a slice of Americana straight onto readers’ ‘keeper’ shelves. Linda Lael Miller’s miniseries is a gift to treasure.”


Romantic Times

 

“All the books in this collection have the Linda Lael Miller touch…./font>


Affaire de Coeur

 
 
Also by Linda Lael Miller
 

Banner O’Brien

Corbin’s Fancy

Memory’s Embrace

My Darling Melissa

Angelfire

Desire and Destiny

Fletcher’s Woman

Lauralee

Moonfire

Wanton Angel

Willow

Princess Annie

The Legacy

Taming Charlotte

Yankee Wife

Daniel’s Bride

Lily and the Major

Emma and the Outlaw

Caroline and the Raider

Pirates

Knights

My Outlaw

The Vow

Two Brothers

Springwater

Springwater Seasons series:

Rachel

Savannah

Miranda

Jessica

A Springwater Christmas

One Wish

The Women of Primrose Creek series:

Bridget

Christy

Skye

Megan

Courting Susannah

Springwater Wedding

My Lady Beloved (writing as Lael St. James)

My Lady Wayward (writing as Lael St. James)

Last Chance Café

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

An
Original
Publication of POCKET BOOKS

 

A Pocket Star Book published by POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

Copyright © 2002 by Linda Lael Miller

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

ISBN-13: 978-0-7434-2457-8
ISBN-10: 0-7434-2457-3

POCKET STAR BOOKS and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Visit us on the World Wide Web:
http://www.SimonSays.com

 

For my nieces:

 

Kelly Lael,

Angela Lang,

Samantha Lang,

Jenni Readman,

And great niece

Courtney Lael

With much love

 
Prologue
 
Early Winter 1884
 
Arizona Territory
 
 

A
NGUS
M
C
K
ETTRICK
hated every thorn and cactus, every sprig of sagebrush, every juniper tree and jack-rabbit and hunk of red rock for fifty miles in all directions, and if he could have scorched the land bare as a pig’s hide at rendering time, he’d have done it, yes, sir. He’d have laughed while the flames roared from one end of that ranch to the other, consuming it all.

He stood high on a hilltop, gazing now at Georgia’s marker, a snow-white angel, chiseled from the finest Italian marble and big as a full-grown woman. He’d ordered it a week after his wife passed over, had it sent all the way from New Orleans, Louisiana. Georgia’s people hailed from that godforsaken country, with its swamps and alligaors and wet heat, and seemed to favor fine stonework, not just on their graves but in their gardens, too. Angus reckoned it was because so many of them had French in their blood and were thus inclined toward frippery and fuss.

“Georgia,” he said, right out loud, since they were alone there, the two of them, in that high, windswept place. “I turned seventy-five today.” She’d know that, of course; she surely kept track of him, even from the other side. Had she been among the living, she’d have built him one of her brown sugar and molasses cakes to mark the occasion. “Far as I’m concerned, that’s plum old enough for anybody, but I guess the good Lord doesn’t see it that way.” The good Lord, in Angus’s experience, was a contrary sort, slow to act and as likely to be cussed as to be kind when He did, but real just the same.

Angus extended a hoary finger, traced her name and the carefully chosen words of remembrance carved into the white stone pedestal, atop which the angel stood on one bare and delicate foot, trumpet raised, eyes set upon the heavens, ready to take flight.

G
EORGIA
B
EAUDREAUX
M
C
K
ETTRICK
C
HERISHED
W
IFE
, B
ELOVED
M
OTHER
T
AKEN TOO SOON

 

Beneath were the dates that enclosed her life like brackets:
BORN SEPTEMBER
13, 1824,
DIED JUNE
17, 1870. It seemed a travesty to Angus, the mere attempt to confine so much beauty, so much love and laughter and vitality—all the vast configuration of traits that had been his Georgia—to a handful of vanished years.

If only he could have gone in her place. It was a coward’s wish, he knew, but he’d made it often since her passing. It wouldn’t have served, his passing over first, though, because as strong as she was, as smart as she was, Georgia probably couldn’t have held on to the ranch all this time, a woman on her own, and the boys, the eldest just fifteen when she died, would have been more hindrance than help.

Hell, they were
still
more hindrance than help, all three of them.

Angus laid a hand on the angel’s foot, ruminating.“It’s past time those lads of ours had done with their carousing and got themselves settled down, I’m thinking,” he said, when he’d gotten all his maverick thoughts rounded up and herded in the same direction. “Our Rafe, he’s going to turn thirty this June, and he’s nothing but a rascal, brawling in the saloons and chasing women. Thinks there’s one opinion in all the world that matters, and that’s his own. Why, he spent half the winter in and out of jail. And Kade’s no better, he just plays his cards closer to his vest, that’s all. As for Jeb—” He paused, shook his head. “That young’un is good-lookin’ as the devil before the fall, wild as a mustang, and ornery as a three-legged mule. I was too easy on ’em, Georgia. I listened to you, and never laid a hand on one of them, but I see now that I should have taken a strap to their hides once in a while. Yes, indeed. They might have been worth something today if I’d hauled them off to the woodshed now and again, the way my pa did me.”

He turned his head, looked out over the land that had soaked up so much of his blood and sweat and spit since he first came there from Texas, way back in 1853. He’d been a young man then, torn asunder, in some deep and private region of the soul, by the loss of his first wife, Ellie, who’d perished giving birth to their son. Overwhelmed, he’d left thenfant behind, for Ellie’s people to raise; maybe that was the greatest regret of his life, the secret sin that prickled his conscience like a burr, even after all these years.

The plain, unflattering truth was that he’d blamed that little baby for Ellie’s being gone, turned his back on his own flesh and blood. It was wrongheaded of him—he’d acted like a damn fool jackass and he knew it—and still he’d never been able to get past that feeling of quiet, unreasoning rage. He’d walked away from Florence and Dill’s place, Dill being Ellie’s favorite brother, not daring to look back, and joined up with a big cattle outfit, helping to drive a herd of longhorns north to Kansas City.

He’d had a few letters from Florence over the years, telling him Holt was a fine, sturdy boy with a good head on his shoulders, and Angus had sent a few dollars their way whenever he could, scratching out a terse reply if he had writing paper handy. Flo never once asked him for anything, would have died first, but she and Dill ran a hardscrabble farm, and raising a son was a costly process.

Gradually, the letter writing ceased. On the day Holt turned twenty-one, Angus arranged for a bank in Denver to wire the boy his legacy, a thousand dollars for every year of his young life. Holt, stiff-necked as any McKettrick before him, had turned right around and wired it back, every cent.

Stubborn himself, Angus had put the funds aside, still earmarked for Holt, and they’d been gathering interest ever since.

Now, Angus had nearly thirty thousand acres, grass enough for a sizable herd of cattle and almost as many horses, though he’d started with just a half section, a broken-down horse, and an old ox. He smiled, remembering those early days. There had been a great deal of sorrow and hardship, and yet, in many ways, that had been the best part of his life, because his years with Georgia, the loving years, the healing years, had still been ahead of him, waiting to be lived.

He chuckled rawly and shook his head. She’d lasted one term as the schoolmarm in Indian Rock, Georgia had, and then, worn out by his dogged style of courtship, she’d finally thrown up her hands, laughing, and said she’d marry him.

Looking out over the land, he turned somber again. He squared his shoulders and jutted out his strong Scottish-Irish chin.“Georgia,” he said, in the tone of a man expecting an argument, “it’s time those sons of ours learned some responsibility, got themselves married off proper, gave you and me some grandchildren. I’m laying down the law. They’ve run hog wild long enough, and now, by God, they’re going to start acting like men!”

The only answer was the sweet spring breeze, ruffling his white hair.

Angus breathed it in, as if it bore some wordless message from Georgia, and put his hat back on. He whistled for his horse, a venerable black and white gelding named Navajo, and swung up into the saddle with only slightly less ease than usual. Though Angus had the rheumatism in all his joints, he’d been on horseback most every day of his life, and he mounted and dismounted with no more bother than if he’d spat or scratched his head. The reins resting lightly in the palm of his left hand, Angus tugged at his hat brim with the other, in a gesture of farewell, and headed down the steep hillside toward home.

When he reached the barn, after a quarter of an hour of hard traveling, he turned Navajo over to Finn Williams, one of the hands, and set off in the direction of the house, spurs jingling a deceptively merry tune as he went. He came into the kitchen through the back door, by way of the porch, and almost forgot to take off his hat.

“You don’t walk on my floors with spurs on your boots, Mr. McKettrick,” said Concepcion, who’d been keeping house for him ever since her husband, Manuel, a sheepherder, had gotten himself cut up and then hanged by a bunch of outlaw cowpunchers, some twenty years back. She was kneading bread dough at the big plank worktable next to the fireplace, her face and the bodice of her calico dress smudged with flour. “How many times must I tell you?”

He flung the woman a narrow look, but he backtracked to the threshold, unfastened his spurs, and tossed them out onto the porch with a resounding clang. Then he hung up his hat and coat on their allotted pegs next to the door.

“Where,” he began, with portent,“are my sons?”

Concepcion arched her eyebrows, shrugged her shoulders. “How should I know?” she asked, she who knew everything about everybody, not only in the McKettrick household but for miles around, too.

Angus figured her nose was still a little out of joint because that morning, at breakfast, he’d told her straight out that she was getting a little beefy and ought to cut back some on her vittles. Now, he favored her with a glower, and she didn’t even pretend to be cowed. She could be almost as fierce as old Geronimo himself, and just as likely to stake a man out on an anthill if he crossed her once too often.

“All right, then,” she said. “Rafe went to town day before yesterday, which you would know already if you ever listened to a word I say, and Kade left the house this morning, right after you did—something about a horse. Jeb is still in bed.”

Angus glared up at the ceiling.“Is the boy ailing?”

Concepcion smiled fondly. She’d fussed over those three scoundrels like an old hen, ever since Georgia had passed away, taken their part against him, their own pa, separated them when they got to tussling fit to kill one another. Oh, yes, she loved them, loved them like they were her own, and she made no secret of it, either. “He’s just tired, I think,” she said.

Angus went to the base of the rear stairway and clasped the newel post with such force that it snapped off in his hand. “Jeb!” he yelled, his thunderous voice echoing. “Roll your hind end out of that bed and get down here, pronto!”

The boy appeared on the upper landing just about the time Angus was ready to head up there and drag him out by the hair. He was blinking, Jeb was, wearing a pair of misbuttoned trousers and nothing else, and he looked affronted at being disturbed.

He was twenty years old, dammit. Why, at Jeb’s age, Angus had been earning a living for the better part of five years.

“What is it, Pa?” he asked.

“It’s ten in the morning,” Angus bellowed in reply, pounding the newel post back into place with the side of one fist. “What do you think you’re doing, lolling around in bed like some old whore after a big night? We’ve got a ranch to run here!”

Jeb flushed, and his eyes—McKettrick blue, Georgia had called them—flashed. “I know that, Pa,” he said. “I just spent a week running the fence lines in a buckboard, remember?”

So he had. The reminder took some of the edgeoff Angus’s bluster, but not much. “Get dressed,” he said. “I want you to find your brothers, both of them, and make sure they’re here at dinnertime.” Dinner, on the Triple M, was the midday meal, not just another word for supper, like in some places, where folks didn’t know what was what.“I’ve got something to say to all of you.”

Jeb muttered an imprecation that would probably have gotten him horsewhipped if Angus had heard it clearly, but he staggered back to his room, got himself dressed, and rode out within twenty minutes, in search of Rafe and Kade.

The mantel clock was striking two when the family sat down at the long table in the kitchen, and all the boys were there, cleaned up, too, though Rafe looked some the worse for wear, with a big green and purple shiner practically obliterating his right eye. He’d been talking politics again, it would seem; if that young fellow didn’t start a range war all on his own, it would be a miracle.

Kade clearly wanted to be elsewhere, and Jeb was still riled because he’d had to roust himself out of bed before noon.

“I’ve come to a decision,” Angus told them.

They waited.

Angus cleared his throat. “I’m an old man. Seventy-five, in fact. Ready to hang up my riggin’ and take it easy for a while. Maybe even turn my toes up for good.” He stopped, drew a deep breath, and released it.“But before I do that, dammit, I want a grandchild. An heir.”

The boys looked at one another, then at him, but no one spoke.

Angus went on. “So here’s what I decided. First one of you gets himself married and produces a child—son or daughter, it doesn’t matter to me—will have this house, a pile of my money, three-quarters of the herd, and all the mineral and water rights.”

That got a rise out of them, as he’d known it would. Rafe nearly overturned the bench he was sitting on. Kade scowled, and Jeb looked like he was ready to yank down the oil lamp suspended over the table and take a bite out of it.

“Wait a minute, Pa,” Rafe said, testy-like. “You always said you were going to divide everything evenly, between the three of us. Now, it’s all going to one. What I want to know is, where does this fine plan leave the other two?”

Angus smiled. “Why, it leaves them sucking hind tit, of course,” he said. “Taking their orders from whoever had the good sense to take me seriously and get himself a wife and baby. Now, pass me those mashed potatoes.”

Kade slid the big crockery bowl, heaped with steaming spuds, to his father. His expression was grim. He had Georgia’s deep brown hair, with glints of red, along with her green eyes, and a generous measure of her stubborn nature, too. “You want us to go out and get married. Just like that.”

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