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An Uninvited Bride for the Widowed Rancher Preview

An Uninvited Bride for the Widowed Rancher Preview

When Dakota decided to move to the Far West as a mail-order bride, she never expected to meet with the man of her dreams. 

Raised in a big city, she knows firsthand how hard life can be. After her sister dies in an accident, she has no other option but to move to the Wild West in pursuit of happiness and help. But when she arrives there, she’s shocked to find out that the tormented rancher knows nothing about her…

Logan’s heart aches to this day. After losing his wife, he’s become cold and shut-off, refusing to let anyone in. But when Dakota arrives at the ranch, claiming to have exchanged letters with him, Logan finds himself falling in love all over again…

As people threaten to take the ranch, Logan and Dakota’s love is put to the test. Can they overcome everything and allow love to take control?


January, Boston

“I appreciate you two girls so much,” Mrs. Wiggins said, squeezing first Dakota North’s hand, then Meredith’s. “Without my Robert here any longer, I’ve been so thankful that God sent you two along.”

The crowd bustled around the three of them, lining the edge of the platform as they awaited the next train.

Dakota smiled at the older woman. “Well, we’ve done what we could for you. Do you have everything you need for the journey?”

“I think so.” Mrs. Wiggins patted the bag beside her, then rubbed a wrinkled hand along her handbag. All of her life was packed up in the two bags. Dakota couldn’t imagine leaving everything she had known to live somewhere else at her age, though the prospect of the open air out west was a little inviting. “And if I forget something, I suppose my daughter will be able to take care of it once I arrive. Me . . . going out west at my age.” She shook her head like she couldn’t believe it was happening.

Dakota and her sister Meredith exchanged knowing smiles. Mrs. Wiggins lived next to them for the past few years, and though Dakota had thought her a little odd at first, she had soon taken over the place of mother in her life. She was so eager to cook for the two of them preparing gourmet meals far beyond Dakota’s skill. Dakota knew that she would miss the older woman.

A whistle sounded far off, and Dakota peered down the track before looking back at her sister and dear friend. “I think your train is almost here.”

“Yes,” Meredith agreed, touching one of her blond locks. “The last train was northbound. This one must be yours.”

“It must be the train bound for Texas,” Mrs. Wiggins agreed. Tears formed in her eyes and leaked around the edges of her glasses as she gripped Dakota’s hand again. “Dakota, I sincerely cannot tell you what you have meant for me. If I hadn’t had you coming over to read to me every day after Robert passed, I’m not sure” She sniffed, and Mrs. Wiggins squeezed her hand again. Dakota squeezed her hand right back.

Mrs. Wiggins grabbed Meredith’s hand with her other free one. “If I hadn’t had you both to keep me company. I wouldn’t have been able to get through those years.”

Meredith smiled at the woman, grabbing Dakota’s hand to complete the circle. “We will miss you sincerely, Mrs. Wiggins, but your daughter will love to have you live with her, I’m sure.”

Dakota felt Meredith’s smooth hand slip free of hers as she pulled the small, bird-like woman into a hug. When Dakota let go, Meredith wasn’t beside them anymore. Meredith had moved a few steps away and was staring in the opposite direction.

“What are those men doing?” she muttered.

Dakota flicked a glance in the direction of the men. “I don’t know,” she replied, without really taking in what they might or might not be doing. They only had a few minutes left with Mrs. Wiggins, and her sister was worried about someone on the other side of the platform.

“I was happy to read to you,” she told Mrs. Wiggins. “We explored so many worlds together.”

Mrs. Wiggins reached for her handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes as the train pulled to a complete stop in front of them. “I believe my time has come. Can you help me carry my bag onto the train?” she asked.

Dakota bent down and grabbed the bigger bag, grunting in an unladylike fashion as she did so.

“Oh, dear, I’m not sure which compartment I need to take,” Mrs. Wiggins said.

Dakota turned to Meredith who had the woman’s ticket, but Meredith wasn’t there anymore. She was halfway across the platform.

“Meredith!” Dakota called, setting the heavy bag down again. “Where are you?” Her voice trailed off as a commanding, male voice shouted loudly.

“Conductors off the train now! We will shoot!”

Bam! A shot fired as though to prove they were serious, and Dakota fell to her knees next to Mrs. Wiggins who was holding her handbag closer.

“Dakota, where’s your sister?” Mrs. Wiggins asked, her voice trembling. “She’s . . . I don’t know.”

Dakota peered between legs and around dresses, but everyone looked different when they were huddled on the floor. She didn’t dare lift her head to see. She couldn’t risk drawing the train robbers’ attention toward her.

She sat there, the platform’s boards pressed against her legs, one hand on Mrs. Wiggins, feeling each breath as they waited for something to happen. Dakota sent up a little prayer that the sheriff would hear the commotion and come running with his own gun.

“Hand over the money!” one of the men shouted at the train conductor who hurried to do as they asked.

Dakota dared to turn her head so that she could see the train conductor re-entering the train to retrieve the money. That was when she saw his feet weren’t the only ones moving. She spotted a familiar purple dress. It was Meredith. She was approaching the train robbers from behind.

What was she thinking?

“H … here’s the money,” the train conductor said, his voice shaking.

“Place the money on the ground, then back away and get on the ground.”

Dakota watched one of the pairs of feet back away and brought his body to the ground. The train conductor’s sparkling uniform was sparkling no more.

Her eyes darted to the two train robbers. She only saw one now. Where had the other gone? And what was her sister doing?

Dakota opened her mouth to say something, but her sister was too far away. The best thing Dakota could do was to keep Mrs. Wiggins safe. Mrs. Wiggins was sniffling next to Dakota, and Dakota patted her back, trying to reassure her as she watched Meredith make her move.

“Stop right there!” Meredith called. The train robber whirled on her, and Dakota lifted her chin so that she could see more clearly what was going on. There was a gun pointed right in her sister’s direction.

“Leave that man alone,” Meredith commanded.

The train robber laughed. He actually thought this was funny! “Well, seeing as you’ve told me to leave him alone, I guess I should just go on home without any money, now, shouldn’t I?”

“What you’re doing isn’t right,” Meredith told him, her hands on her hips. Dakota couldn’t see as far up as her eyes without moving, but she knew the defiant look that would be in her sister’s eyes. It was one Dakota had admired many a time, one that had gotten Dakota a job when Dakota couldn’t get one herself. But now, Meredith was just being foolish.

“May not seem right to you,” the train robber said. “But I earned this here money. You think it’s easy robbing trains? No, it takes a lot of planning. You keep on doing your work, and I’ll keep on doing mine.”

Meredith didn’t step away even as Dakota urged her to do so.

“Come on,” Dakota said under her breath. “Meredith, walk away. He’s dangerous.” Her mouth slowly dried out like a cotton field in a drought.

“It’s not right. These train conductors have been working hard too, and they don’t deserve


Meredith wasn’t standing in the same place anymore, and it took Dakota a moment to realize what had happened.

She pressed a hand to her mouth as tears clouded her vision. Meredith wasn’t moving from the spot where she had crumpled on the floor. The train robber turned back to the bag of money the conductor had placed on the floor. He grabbed it up and called to his friend.

“Let’s get out of here.”

Dakota heard hurried footsteps approach where she was huddled on the ground with Mrs. Wiggins, then the train robbers were gone. The platform slowly came to life as people began rising carefully, not sure if it was safe to move.

Dakota left Mrs. Wiggins and dashed over to where her sister lay. “A doctor!” she called along the way. ‘We need a doctor!”

She crouched beside her sister, but she already saw the crimson staining her purple dress.

“Meredith,” she said as she rolled her sister onto her back. She had no idea what the proper medical procedure might be. Should she move her or not? She did know that stopping the flow of blood was pertinent, so she reached for her shawl and pressed it against the wound that seemed to be stemming from Meredith’s stomach.

Meredith’s eyes fluttered open, and Dakota looked into the blue that mirrored her own. “Meredith, talk to me,” Dakota begged, aware that a few people were starting to gather around them.

Meredith’s lips twitched. “I love you, Dakota,” she said. Dakota swiped angrily at the tears clouding her vision. She wasn’t going to let Meredith die. That couldn’t happen. She needed Meredith.

She pressed her shawl harder onto the wound with one hand while her other hand stroked away Meredith’s blond, curly hair.

“Why did you do that?” she asked. “You shouldn’t have tried to stop them. They had guns, and you knew that.”

“But it wasn’t right,” Meredith protested, wincing as she spoke. “I couldn’t just let them take money. They could have hurt someone else.”

“They hurt you,” Dakota said. She looked up at the faces watching them. “Is anyone a doctor? Can one of you get a doctor, please? She needs a doctor.”

Mrs. Wiggins appeared among the crowd, dragging her big bag behind her.

“Oh, Meredith,” she said, bracing herself on Dakota’s shoulder as she bent next to the girl. “No, my girl. You’re not supposed to pass before me.” She laid a wrinkled hand on the young girl’s face, and Dakota watched mesmerized as Mrs. Wiggins began to pray. Of course! Prayer could stop this!

Dakota continued to stop the flow of blood with one hand as she grabbed Meredith’s hand and began praying as best she could in the train station. “God, please keep Meredith safe. Please get a doctor here as soon as possible to help her.”

Meredith squeezed Dakota’s hand faintly, and Dakota’s eyes flew open. “What” she started to ask.

Meredith’s eyes looked different. There was something about them that seemed to resign herself to her fate.

“Meredith,” Dakota said, looking for courage within her. She couldn’t think of anything to tell her sister. After all the years they had spent together, Dakota was here with her on her deathbed, and she couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” a deep voice shouted behind the crowd. “I’m a doctor. Let me through.” The crowd finally parted when they heard that.

A man came through with a little black bag and knelt instantly beside Meredith. “I’m a doctor. My name is Henry Swanson, and I’m going to see if I can help you today. Is that okay with you?”

Meredith barely moved her head a fraction of an inch. Dakota removed her shawl, realizing for the first time how blood-soaked it was. “She’s been shot,” Dakota told him.

Dakota watched the doctor’s face closely, but he didn’t look pleased by the announcement. “Please tell me you can do something,” Dakota begged.

“I’ve never actually dealt with a gunshot before. I was thinking this would be more of a fainting situation. Well, I . . . suppose I should

Dakota gritted her teeth. Of course, the doctor who came on the scene would have no idea what he was doing. Dakota pressed the shawl back onto her sister’s stomach while the doctor began digging through his bag for some sort of instrument to help him.

“Meredith,” Dakota said, but as she looked at her sister’s face again, she saw her eyes close slowly. “Don’t close your eyes!” Dakota shouted at Meredith. There was some measure of fluttering as Meredith attempted to obey her instructions, but she didn’t open her eyes again.

Dakota squeezed her sister’s hand, trying to remember how to pray as she stared at her in fright. Her sister’s grip became limp, slipping out of Dakota’s hold. Dakota’s jaw worked up and down, trying to remember what she should do, trying to understand what was happening.

A voice very far off called for the passengers to board the train to Texas, but Dakota brushed the voice away. Texas wasn’t important. Only Meredith was important. The doctor pulled an instrument from his bag and began checking Meredith’s heartbeat.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “It seems as though she’s passed.”

“No,” Dakota told him. She gently slapped her sister’s cheek. “Meredith, wake up. You can’t close your eyes. I’m not going to let you lose a lot of blood, but you have to keep your eyes open.”

“Miss,” the doctor said, gently pulling her back from her sister. “She’s gone.”

“No!” Dakota fairly shouted, struggling against the man’s grip. He wouldn’t pull her away from her sister just when she was needed.

The world around them slowly began to find life again. People who were leaving the station left, and those who were boarding the train began to board.

“Dakota,” Mrs. Wiggins said from a bench a few feet away.

Dakota finally looked up and made eye contact with her dear friend. “That doctor didn’t even try! He’s just left me here to deal with it on my own! I don’t know anything about medicine.”

“Dakota, come sit with me here.”

“I can’t leave Meredith.”

“Dakota, she’s no longer with us. She’s gone up to join our savior now.”

Somehow, coming from the lips of someone she trusted, it was easier to digest. Dakota took a deep shuddering breath and sat beside Mrs. Wiggins on the bench. Meredith didn’t deserve that. No one did, but especially not her thoughtful older sister.

Mrs. Wiggins wrapped her arm around Dakota’s shoulders as they sat in silence and digested what had just happened.

Mrs. Wiggins finally spoke in a soft voice. “You know how your sister was. She very much cared for others, and perhaps if she hadn’t stood up to them, they would have hurt someone else. We’ll never know.”

Dakota stared at her sister laying on the platform, not moving, as her mind screamed in protest. Everyone curved a wide berth around her, some looking with interest, others avoiding eye contact at all. Now that the interesting part of the show was over, they just wanted to get on with their lives. The problem was that Dakota’s life would never be the same.

She lowered her face into her hands, stained as they were with Meredith’s blood and cried. She couldn’t continue. She couldn’t go on. Meredith was the center of her world. Dakota leaned into Mrs. Wiggins, her heart wrenching within her.

Chapter One

Dakota scraped the blackened rice out of the pot and onto her plate. Black or not, she would eat it. She didn’t have the funds to buy more. Dakota carried the plate over to the miniature table set with two chairs.

Dakota began forking the tasteless rice into her mouth. She normally would have propped a book on the table to read a few pages while eating, but she couldn’t stomach the ending she was fast approaching. She already knew how it would end, with all of the characters happy and smiling, and Dakota left by herself once again.

Dakota stared at the plate of rice as she remembered the meals her sister used to cook. Meredith had been the “mother” of the two of them, always helping Dakota wash and hang her clothes to dry when she had had a long day, cooking no matter how many hours she had already worked herself. Now, Dakota felt so much more alone.

She closed her eyes as tears trickled down her face and into the rice, remembering one occasion that had seemed so normal when it happened. Now, Dakota treasured the moment.

“Dakota!” Meredith sang out when Dakota arrived home, tired from another day of work.

“Meredith,” Dakota had half-heartedly sang back. “How can you be so cheerful? All I want to do is sleep.”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t had a chance to sleep today.”

“You think my work is so easy,” Dakota had teased her sister. “Perhaps, I’m not working with my hands as much as you do, but that’s only because I’m not so talented as you are.”

“You say that I have the talent, but I think putting up with a grumpy old lady requires more talent than I have.”

“She’s only grumpy sometimes,” Dakota had remembered. “Besides, she has her reasons. If you had had two children die in the war, and your husband die from disease, then I suppose you would have reason to be most serious as well.”

“You’re right, Dakota. I shouldn’t judge, but I still don’t know how you manage to remain cheerful while keeping her company.”

“She’s paying me to keep her company. How else should I keep my job?” Dakota had examined the food that Meredith had made. She was always sneaking in a sweet when possible, because she knew that Dakota loved them so much.

Just as Dakota was trying to remember what kind of pie Meredith had baked the day in question, she heard a firm knock at her door.

Dakota frowned. Who would come visiting her? It wasn’t as though she and Meredith had time for many friends. Though they attended church regularly, they often avoided the social events as they required some sort of contribution on their part whether monetarily or baking food.

“Good evening?” Dakota called out as she opened the door a crack. She was a woman living alone. She shouldn’t open the door to just anyone.

“Good evening, Miss North,” the man said just outside the door. Dakota recognized him as the owner of the apartments, and she instantly stiffened. She had been avoiding him for the last ten days, because she didn’t have enough to pay her rent.

“I’ve come to collect the rent due at the beginning of the month.”

Dakota clenched her hands together behind her back as she tried to think of a reasonable excuse. She had had ten days to think of one. She wasn’t sure why she couldn’t think of something plausible now.

“Mr. Winters. I can give you half the rent, but I’ll need a few extra days for the other half.”

Mr. Winters studied her closely. “Well, go ahead and give me the half you have,” he said.

“Oh,” Dakota jumped and re-entered the small space to find the stash of coins she had set aside for rent. She dumped the ones for rent into her hand, leaving a few in the bag for her food over the next few days.

When she turned around, Mr. Winters was right behind her. “You only have half, you say?” he asked with a pointed look at the bag.

“Yes, I only have half,” Dakota responded angrily, dumping the coins messily into his hands so that he had to dive onto the floor for a few of them. “I’m not used to paying for everything myself, but I’ll do the best I can to get you the rest of the rent in the next few days.”

Mr. Winters pocketed the coins once he had finished counting them. “By that time, you’ll have another month’s rent due. How will you be able to pay for that if you’re still paying this month’s late?”

“Oh, well, I’ll figure it out. I’m not used to” Dakota broke off. Mr. Winters didn’t care about her excuses, and they both knew that Meredith was no longer with them. That apparently did not matter to Mr. Winters.

“You should plan to have your things out by the end of the month,” Mr. Winters told her harshly. “I’ll have another tenant moving in.”

“I haven’t missed any payments, though!” Dakota protested.

Mr. Winters’ eyebrows rose as he touched his newly filled pocket. “You don’t call this a missed payment? I’ve never had to come knocking on your door before, and I don’t like to make it a habit for my tenants. I’ll tell you what.” He folded his arms across his stomach. “I’ll make a deal with you. If you are able to pay the rest of this month’s rent within the next four days, I’ll let you stay one more month. If not, then you better be gone by the end of the month.”

Dakota’s throat constricted as she stared Mr. Winters back dead in the eye. He had no heart. He really had no heart.

Once he left, Dakota shut the door soundly behind him and secured the little lock. She counted the remaining coins. She knew it would be enough for food for a couple of days, but she needed more than that. The problem was that she hadn’t been able to get a job since everything happened with Meredith. Her constant long face kept anyone from being interested in hiring her as a long-term companion. She couldn’t even fake being cheerful long enough to get a job.

It was decided. She would have to work in something she was less skilled at doing, something she hated, but something she was fairly sure she could complete.

Dakota wrapped herself in a shawl to ward off the frosty evening and marched toward the front door. Once outside, she realized how cold it had really gotten. Winter was not over yet, not by a long shot, but she still needed to get work, and she needed it immediately.

She went to some of the addresses where she had gone with her sister occasionally. When Dakota was done with a long day of work, she would help her sister return the freshly laundered clothes.

The first house Dakota approached was almost a mansion. It dwarfed the houses on either side, and Dakota knew that whoever lived inside would have the money to pay her fairly. The only downfall was that she didn’t know how much they had been paying her sister.

Dakota knocked on the door with the silver knocker. The girl who answered the door clearly had a lowly position within the house.

“How can I help you, Mis” the girl’s question was cut off when she caught sight of Dakota’s clothes. Dakota pressed her lips into the semblance of a smile and looked just above the girl’s head.

“I’m here to collect the washing,” she said. “My sister, Meredith, used to do the washing, but she’s had a terrible accident and is no longer able to do it.”

The girl looked Dakota up and down. She was wearing one of her older dresses, the blue one, and Dakota knew the girl was focusing on the grease stain on the side. Dakota moved her hand to cover it self-consciously. Perhaps Dakota should have taken care to put on fresh clothes before she came, though she didn’t think her outfit was so bad as to deserve all of that scrutiny. Her outfit wouldn’t stop her from doing an excellent job on their washing.

“We’ve already got a new washing girl,” the servant replied. “I don’t think the missus would want to hire you anyway.” Then, without giving her a chance to meet the missus herself, the servant closed the door in Dakota’s face.

Dakota took a deep breath, smoothed her wrinkled dress with her chapped, red hands and continued down the street to another house where Meredith had collected the washing.

She threw back her shoulders and attempted to find some courage before she rapped loudly on the door.

The servant who answered the door gave Dakota much the same once-over as she evaluated her state of dress. “I’m here to collect the washing,” Dakota told her.

“You’re not the curly-haired girl who normally comes, and you’re supposed to come to the side entrance.”

Dakota’s eyes darted to the other side of the porch where she and Meredith had approached to drop off the clothes. “Well, I’m her sister,” Dakota said. “Meredith had a terrible, um, accident, and is no longer able to wash the clothes.” Dakota swallowed past the lump in her throat.

The servant looked at her for a few more moments as the cold wind blew around them. “I don’t know if we can trust you with our clothes. You do look like her, but I don’t know who you are.”

“I can, um, wash them right here in the house if you prefer,” Dakota offered before the door could be closed in her face.

“The missus doesn’t like the racket it makes. That’s why she hires it out. Good evening.” The door shut in her face.

Dakota’s shoulder slumped forward. She couldn’t give up. It wasn’t an option, but the weight of being alone in the world combined with the sudden end to her idea seemed too much to handle. Dakota gripped the rail tightly as she walked down the steps, trying not to tumble over under the weight.

“I have more houses I can try,” Dakota told herself. “And if they all say no, then I can find new houses.”

Dakota took a couple of deep breaths of piercingly cold air, then continued on her way. She approached house after house and received much the same answer. All but one of them had already found someone else to wash the clothes. Dakota accepted the basket of dirty clothes from the one house willing to take a chance on her under the requirement that she bring them back the next day before dark.

Dakota lugged the basket home and set it next to the large bin her sister had always used for the washing. Night was already falling outside, so she couldn’t very well wash the clothes in the tiny courtyard and hang them to dry in the sun. Still, if she wanted them to be dry by the next evening, she should probably do the washing that night and hang them inside so they could begin drying.

Dakota lugged the big tub to the pump and pumped the icy water out of its handle, tugging up and down up and down, until her arms ached from the movement.

Finally, the tub was almost full, so she began dragging it back toward her apartment.

“Be quiet!” one of the other tenants shouted through a window. “Some of us are trying to get children to go to sleep. Can’t do that with all your noise!”

Dakota didn’t want to annoy her neighbors, but it was seemingly impossible to move the big tub back to her apartment without making a lot of noise. She tried the best she could to do it quickly. Finally, she shut the door on her angry neighbor’s shouts and began the work before her.

As Dakota scrubbed the clothes hard, her knuckles turning red, she wondered how much longer she could do this. She wasn’t used to being the only one to bring money into the house, and for the first time since her sister died, Dakota felt angry with her.

“How dare she go and leave me to do everything?” Dakota stormed as she rubbed a dress along the washing board. “She knows I’m not good at these household tasks, and she has to go be a hero.” Dakota’s tears joined the cold, soapy water as she washed dress after dress, hanging them up to drip on the floor around the kitchen. She knew her sister hadn’t left her on purpose, but her feelings didn’t seem to understand that.

Finally, Dakota had finished. She knew it was late. The city streets outside were silent, but she still couldn’t sleep. She lay in the big bed that she had shared with Meredith and wondered what would happen to her when the landlord kicked her out.

Chapter Two

Logan Griner surveyed the wall. Those three chinks had been keeping him up at night, letting in the cold, winter wind. He was determined to close them up and make sure he was able to get a good night’s sleep.

He reached into the bucket of mud and slopped some into the other bucket with goat hair. He grabbed a stick and swirled the mixture around, but it still wasn’t right. Not enough mud. He added a little more and stirred again, glancing over the bed to the holes in the wall.

Finally, the mixture looked solid enough, not too runny. He spit into his hands, then scooped some up and began lumping it into the holes in the wall. Utah could get several feet of snow in the winter, and while the worst of the snow had probably melted, there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t see another big snowfall.

He still needed to decide which crops to plant in which fields, but he had been putting off the task. Spring was coming, however, and wouldn’t allow him to put it off much longer.

Someone knocked on Logan’s door, and he shook his head, his hands still covered in his mixture for blocking the holes.

“Come in!” he called across the cabin. It was only two rooms, not like the person couldn’t hear him, whoever it might be calling after dinner.

He heard the door open, letting in a chill wind that wrapped its cold fingers around Logan’s spine.

“Hullo!” his aunt’s voice called as she shut the door soundly behind her.

“Aunt Vivian,” he said. “I’m back here.”

“Your fire is dying,” she scolded from the main room. “You can’t let your fire go out on a night like this.”

Logan heard the bang of logs as his aunt rearranged the fire. She had a special hand for building big fires, hence the delicious meals she cooked every night. Logan placed one more hunk of the mud mixture on the wall. It didn’t look the nicest, but he was more worried about staying warm. He emerged from his room, his hands dirty.

Just as he had suspected, his aunt was bending over the fire, rearranging it. Her graying hair was pulled back in a tight bun as it had been every day of Logan’s life. She stood up and started to approach him for a hug when she spotted his hands.

“What in the world can you possibly be doing at this time of night with your hands like that?” she asked.

“I was just patching up some chinks,” Logan explained. “I couldn’t stand another night with the wind wiggling through the gaps. Besides, there’s not much to do on the ranch once the sun has gone down.”

“You’re supposed to rest once the sun has gone down. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” she said. Logan plunged his hands into the icy cold bucket of water in the corner that he had fetched to wash his face in the morning. He soon plucked them out and wiped them on a towel before standing before the fire to get warm again. His aunt had settled into one of the chairs facing the fire, and her face relaxed.

“What brings you to my cabin?” Logan asked.

“You act as though I’ve made a real journey,” his aunt laughed. “It’s just across the field.

“Well, for someone of your age, and at this time of night, that is a real journey,” Logan replied.

“Someone of my age? What are you trying to say, my boy?”

Logan held his hands up, trying to free himself from any insult she may have found in his words. “I was simply saying, what couldn’t wait until tomorrow when I come to eat?”

“There are a few things I’ve been wanting to discuss without your cousins present. I figured tonight was as good as any. They’ve all turned in early to try to warm up.”

Logan hadn’t been prepared for a serious talk that evening, but his aunt was one of the few people with whom he could talk freely. He trusted her opinion more than anyone else in his life, partly because he hardly remembered his parents at all. She had always been the one there for him when he needed advice. Living with her and his uncle had made them both as close to parents as he would ever have.

“How are you doing living in this cabin by yourself?”

Her question brought about sad thoughts, and Logan turned to the fire to hide the emotion in his voice. “I’m . . . doing fine. It’s not as though I’m in this cabin much. There is a lot of work to do to prepare the ranch for spring. The last of the snow may be drying up in a few days, and if that’s the last frost, then we may need to start tilling the fields. Have you

His aunt held up her hands. “I know you need to work out which fields will lay fallow, but I’m not here to talk about that tonight. I’m sure your uncle will be happy to give you advice on the subject.”

Logan smiled. It wasn’t the first time his aunt had had to remind him of how he often liked to talk about the ranch too much. He automatically poked at the fire to give his hands something to do. Twirling the metal fire poker, he sat back down.

“You know that you’re welcome to come back with us at any time. The house we’re living in technically belongs to you.”

Logan hadn’t been eager to claim the ranch as his own when he discovered it was his. His brothers had fought him for the property, and Logan had backed away. He didn’t need any more family troubles. As long as he had enough land to grow crops to support himself, then he was a happy fellow.

“Aunt Vivian, I’ve told you that I’m never going to do that. Now what Bobby and Mark decide to do, I can’t know.”

“Bobby doesn’t know what he wants to do,” his aunt smiled. “But he’s been talking about taking a wife.”

“Has he?” Logan turned to his aunt with interest. Logan wasn’t the type to sit around the general store gossiping, but when it involved his younger brother, he would always be interested.

“The way I understand it, he might be seeing a lady in town. She’s the banker’s niece, I believe. Now, I haven’t confirmed it. That’s just what I’ve overheard.”

Logan shook his head. There were five years between himself and his younger brother. While he knew that twenty was certainly old enough to begin courting and potentially marry someone, he couldn’t see his brother as anyone other than the little kid who had tripped after him always wanting to play. However, Bobby was a full-grown man now, and he was probably itching to move out of the main ranch house and live on his own.

“I’ll let you know if it seems to be something serious and not just town gossip.”

Logan nodded, staring at the fire. He twirled the poker again, then timed a few pokes at the logs to adjust them before they fell.

“Have you . . . thought about marrying?” his aunt asked cautiously.

Logan sighed. This topic of conversation was his least favorite, but he knew that his aunt was well-meaning. “Aunt Viv, I don’t know if I can. I’m just . . . I’d rather focus on the ranch.”

There was silence for some time, and Logan’s mind wandered to the gaps in the bedroom wall. Would his concoction be dry by the time he climbed into bed? Most importantly, would it help keep him warmer?

“I know it’s not something you want to talk about, but I wanted to bring it up to you,” Aunt Vivian said. “There’s a nice young lady who’s just moved into town. She’s living with her older brother the fellow who owns the pig farm. Her parents passed, and I thought maybe if you met her

Logan shook his head. “No thank you, Aunt Vivian. I’m happy living here by myself. Besides, your cooking keeps me plenty satisfied.” Logan patted his stomach as he remembered the pork loins she had cooked up that evening.

“If I need to start burning my cooking so you’ll get married. I’m happy to do it,” Aunt Vivian joked.

“Please don’t,” Logan begged.

He acted jovially, but he was disappointed that the topic of marriage was what his aunt had wanted to discuss. He had told her time and time again that he wasn’t interested in getting married at this time in his life. The ranch was more important. He wouldn’t make a proper husband with the many duties he had around the ranch. They were all logical reasons not to marry, especially with Bobby still expecting a third of the ranch’s profits but not putting in a third of the necessary work.

His aunt continued to stare into the fire, and Logan settled back into his chair, his mind wandering to his own thoughts. He remembered growing up with his aunt and uncle, two perfectly fine people. He didn’t know his parents, at least he couldn’t remember them, but his aunt had told him many a story about his mother and her shenanigans as a young child.

“Would you like me to whip up some tea before I go?” his aunt finally asked, rising from her chair.

Logan nodded automatically even though he was perfectly capable of making the tea himself. He poked at the fire a few more times, then assisted his aunt in preparing the cups as the water sat over the fire.

“Did you walk or ride here?” Logan asked as he carefully poured the boiling water.

“I walked,” his aunt responded.

Logan shook his head at her ruefully. “Are you trying to catch your death of cold?”

His aunt laughed. It was a line she had used on him many a time. “Not particularly,” she responded, “though I suppose if it’s my time to go, then it’s my time. I’m sure you menfolk would figure out how to get along without me.”

“Now don’t say anything like that,” Logan scolded her. “You know how much we all rely on you. Could you imagine Uncle George trying to cook us all a meal. In fact, it might take all of us in the kitchen to cook half the meal you make.”

Aunt Vivian squeezed his arm. “You’re too kind,” she said.

“I’ll take you back,” Logan told her, sipping his tea. It was still too hot, and it scorched his tongue before he could swallow it. His tongue prickled, and he took a few deep breaths, cold air filling his lungs once more.

“No need to get the horses out of bed now,” his aunt told him.

“If you think I’m going to let you walk back alone, you’re not thinking right. I’m not sure how you escaped out here on your own, but I’ll make sure you get home safely.”

Aunt Vivian finally accepted his offer, as he knew she would, and Logan retrieved one of his two horses. He guided her around to the front of his cabin and helped his aunt on first before swinging on behind her.

As they rode back to the house where he had grown up, Logan figured this was as good a time as any to be serious with his aunt. “I appreciate you caring about me so much, Aunt Vivian, but I’ll get married if and when I’m ready. Please don’t bring it up again.”

His aunt squeezed his hand. “I can respect that, Logan. I just worry about you. I don’t like you living alone. It gives you too much time with your thoughts.”

Logan didn’t respond. There were nights when he couldn’t do anything but think in circles, blaming himself for all of the misfortune that had befallen his family, but other nights, he was fine. He had to hope that he would be able to move forward soon.

“Here you go,” Logan said, pulling up in front of the larger house.

Uncle George came hurrying out. “Vivian, what are you doing wandering off on your own? It’s a cold night, and none of the boys knew where you had gone! With everything that’s been going on around these ranches” he shook his head.

“Thank you, Logan, for bringing her home. This woman takes care of everyone else so much that she forgets to take care of herself.” Logan smiled as his aunt began her usual banter with his uncle. As he turned his horse back toward the ranch, loneliness began to set in. It wasn’t a new feeling, but that didn’t mean that it hurt any less.

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