What do newcomers find abounding in Woolly West towns?
Answer: Quaintness and charm.
Nathan Hazard was mad enough to chew barbed wire. Cyrus Alistair was dead, but even in death the old curmudgeon had managed to thwart Nathan’s attempts to buy his land. Cyrus had bequeathed his tiny Montana sheep ranch to a distant relative from Virginia, someone named Harry Alistair. For years that piece of property had been an itch Nathan couldn’t scratch—a tiny scrap of Alistair land sitting square in the middle of the Hazard ranch—the last vestige of a hundred–year–old feud between the Hazards and the Alistairs.
Nathan had just learned from John Wilkinson, the executor of the Alistair estate, that Cyrus’s heir hadn’t let any grass grow under his feet. Harry Alistair had already arrived in the Boulder River Valley to take possession of Cyrus’s ranch. Nathan only hoped the newest hard–nosed, ornery Alistair hadn’t gotten too settled in. Because he wasn’t staying. Not if Nathan had anything to say about it. Oh, he planned to offer a fair price. He was even willing to be generous if it came to that. But he was going to have that land.
Nathan gunned the engine on his pickup, disdaining the cavernous ruts in the dirt road that led to Cyrus’s tiny, weather–beaten log cabin. It was a pretty good bet that once Harry Alistair got a look at the run–down condition of Cyrus’s property, the Easterner would see the wisdom of selling. Cyrus’s ranch—what there was of it— was falling down. There weren’t more than five hundred sheep on the whole place.
Besides, what could a man from Williamsburg, Virginia, know about raising sheep? The greenhorn would probably take one look at the work, and risk, involved in trying to make a go of such a small, dilapidated spread and be glad to have Nathan take it off his hands. Nathan didn’t contemplate what he would do if Harry Alistair refused to sell, because he simply wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
As he drove up to the cabin, Nathan saw someone bounce up from one of the broken–down sheep pens that surrounded the barn. That had to be Harry Alistair. Nathan couldn’t tell what the greenhorn was doing, but from the man’s agitated movements it was plain something was wrong. A second later the fellow was racing for the barn. He came out another second later carrying a handful of supplies. Once again he ducked out of sight in the sheep pen.
Nathan sighed in disgust. The newcomer sure hadn’t wasted any time getting himself into a pickle. For a moment Nathan considered turning his truck around and driving away. But despite the Hazard–Alistair feud, he couldn’t leave without offering a helping hand. There were rules in the West that governed such conduct. A man in trouble wasn’t friend or foe; he was merely a man in trouble. As such, he was entitled to whatever assistance Nathan could offer. Once the trouble was past and they were on equal footing again, Nathan could feel free to treat this Alistair as the mortal enemy the century–old feud made him.
Nathan slammed on the brakes and left his truck door hanging open as he raced across the snowy ground toward the sheep pen on foot. The closer Nathan got, the more his brow furrowed. The man had stood up again and put a hand behind his neck to rub the tension there. He was tall, but the body Nathan saw was gangly, the shoulders narrow. The man’s face was smooth, unlined. Nathan hadn’t been expecting someone so young and…the only word that came to mind was delicate, but he shied from thinking it. He watched the greenhorn drop out of sight again. With that graceful downward movement Nathan realized what had caused his confusion. That was no man in Cyrus Alistair’s sheep pen—it was a woman!
When Nathan arrived at her side, he saw the problem right away. A sheep was birthing, but the lamb wasn’t presenting correctly. The ewe was baaing in distress. The woman had dropped to her knees and was crooning to the animal in a low, raspy voice that sent shivers up Nathan’s spine.
The woman was concentrating so hard on what she was doing that she wasn’t even aware of Nathan until he asked, “Need some help?”
“What? Oh!” She looked up at him with stricken brown eyes. Her teeth were clenched on her lower lip and her cheeks were pale. He noticed her hand was trembling as she brushed her brown hair out of her eyes with a slender forearm. “Yes. Please. I don’t know what to do.”
Nathan felt a constriction in his chest at the desperate note in her voice. He had an uncontrollable urge to protect her from the tragic reality she faced. The feeling was unfamiliar, and therefore uncomfortable. He ignored it as best he could and quickly rolled up his sleeves. “Do you have some disinfectant handy?”
“Yes. Here.” She poured disinfectant over his hands and arms.
Nathan shook off the excess and knelt beside the ewe. After a quick examination, he said flatly, “This lamb is dead.”
“Oh, no! It’s all my fault.”
“Maybe not,” Nathan contradicted. “Can’t always save a case of dystocia.”
“The lamb is out of position. Its head is bent back, not forward along its legs like it ought to be.”
“I read in a book what to do for a problem delivery. I just didn’t realize…” She reached out a hand to briefly touch the lamb’s foot that extended from the ewe. “Will the mother die, too?”
“Not if I can help it,” Nathan said grimly. There was a long silence while he used soapy water to help the dead lamb slip free of the womb. Almost immediately contractions began again. “There’s another lamb.”
“Is it alive?” the woman asked, her voice full of hope.
“Don’t know yet.” Nathan wanted the lamb to be born alive more than he’d wanted anything in a long time. Which made no sense at all. This was an Alistair sheep.
“Here it comes!” she exclaimed. “Is it all right?”
Nathan waited to see whether the lamb would suck air. When it didn’t, he grabbed a nearby gunnysack and rubbed vigorously. The lamb responded by bleating pitifully. And Nathan let out the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding.
“It’s alive,” she said in a tear–choked voice.
“That it is,” Nathan said with satisfaction. He cut the umbilical cord about an inch and a half from the lamb’s navel and asked, “Where’s the iodine?”
Nathan helped the ewe to her feet while the woman ran to fetch a wide–mouthed jar full of iodine. When she returned he held the lamb up by its front legs and sloshed the jar over the navel cord until it was covered with iodine. He set the lamb back down beside its mother where, after some bumping and searching with its nose, it found a teat and began to nurse.
Nathan glanced at the woman to share the moment, which he found profoundly moving no matter how many times he’d seen it. Once he did, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
She was watching the nursing lamb, and her whole face reflected a kind of joy he had seldom seen and wasn’t sure he had ever felt. When the lamb made a loud, slurping sound, a laugh of relief bubbled up from her throat. And she looked up into his eyes and smiled.
He was stunned. Poleaxed. Smitten. In a long–ago time he would have thrown her on his horse and ridden off into the sunset. But this was now, and he was a civilized man. So he simply swallowed hard, gritted his teeth and smiled back.
Her smile revealed a slight space between her front teeth that made her look almost winsome. A dimple appeared in her left cheek when the smile became a grin. Her hair had fallen back over her brows, and it took all his willpower not to brush it back. Her nose was small and tilted up at the end, and he noticed her cheeks, now that they weren’t so pale, were covered with a scattering of freckles. Her lips were full, despite the wide smile, and her chin, tilted up toward him, seemed to ask for his touch. He had actually lifted a hand toward her when he realized what he was about to do.
Nathan was confused by the strength of his attraction to the woman. He didn’t need—refused to take on—any more obligations in his lifetime. This was a woman who looked in great need of a lot of care and attention. This kind of woman spelled RESPONSIBILITY in capital letters. He shrugged inwardly. He had done his share of taking care of the helpless. He hadn’t begrudged the sacrifice, because it had been necessary, but he was definitely gun–shy.
When he chose a woman to share his life, it would be someone who could stand on her own two feet, someone who could be a helpmate and an equal partner. He would never choose someone like the winsome woman kneeling before him, whose glowing brown eyes beseeched him to take her into his arms and comfort her.
Not by a long shot!
Nathan bolted to his feet, abruptly ending the intense feeling of closeness he felt with the woman. “Where the hell is Harry Alistair?” he demanded in a curt voice. “And what the hell are you doing out here trying to handle a complicated lambing all alone?”
His stomach knotted when he saw the hurt look in her eyes at his abrupt tone of voice, but he didn’t have a chance even to think about apologizing before a spark of defiance lit up her beautiful brown eyes and she rose to her feet. Her hands balled into fists and found her hipbones. She was tall. Really tall. He stood six foot three and she was staring him practically in the eye.
“You’re looking for Harry Alistair?” she asked in a deceptively calm voice.
“That’s between him and me. Look, do you know where he is or not?”
But that was all she said. Nathan was damned if he was going to play games with her. He yanked the worn Stetson off his head, forked an agitated hand through his blond hair and settled the cowboy hat back in place over his brow. He placed his fists on his hips in a powerful masculine version of her pose and grated out, “Well, where the hell is he?”
“He’s standing right here.”
There was a long pause while Nathan registered what she’d said. “You’re Harry Alistair?”
“Actually, my name is Harriet.” She forgave him for his rudeness with one of those engaging smiles and said, “But my friends all call me Harry.”
She stuck out her hand for him to shake, and before he could curb his automatic reaction, he had her hand clasped in his. It was soft. Too damn soft for a woman who hoped to survive the hard life of a Montana sheep rancher. He held on to her hand as he examined her—the Harry Alistair he had come to see—more closely.
He was looking for reasons to find fault with her, to prove he couldn’t possibly be physically attracted to her, and he found them. She was dressed in a really god–awful outfit: brand–new bibbed overalls, a red–and–black plaid wool shirt, a down vest, galoshes, for heaven’s sake, and a Harley’s Feed Store baseball cap, which meant she’d already been to Slim Harley’s Feed Store in Big Timber. Nathan hadn’t realized her hair was so long, but what hadn’t escaped to frame her face fell in two childish braids over each shoulder practically to her breasts.
Nothing wrong with them, a voice inside noted.
Nathan forced his eyes back up to her face, which now bore an expression of amusement. A flush crept up his neck. There was no way he could hide it or stop it. His Swedish ancestors had bequeathed him blue eyes and blond hair and skin that got ruddy in the sun but never tanned. Unfortunately his Nordic complexion also displayed his feelings when he most wanted them hidden. He dropped her hand as though it had caught fire.
“We have to talk,” he said flatly.
“I’d like that,” Harry replied. “After everything we’ve just been through together, I feel like we’re old friends, Mr.— Oh, my,” she said with a self–deprecating laugh. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Come on inside, Nathan Hazard, and have a cup of coffee, and we’ll talk.”
Nathan was pretty sure he could conduct his business right here. After all, how many words did it take to say “I want to buy this place”? Only six. But he was curious to see the inside of Cyrus Alistair’s place. He had heard the tiny log cabin called “rustic” by those who had actually been inside, though they were few and far between.
Against his better judgment Nathan said, “Sure. A cup of coffee sounds good.”
“I don’t have things very organized,” Harry apologized.
Nathan soon realized that was an understatement. Harry took him in through the back door, which led to the kitchen. What he saw was chaos. What he felt was disappointment. Because despite everything he had already seen of her, he’d been holding out hope that he was wrong about Harry Alistair.
The shambles he beheld in the kitchen of the tiny cabin—dishes piled high in the sink, half–empty bottles of formula on the counters, uneaten meals side by side with stacks of books on the table, several bags of garbage in one corner, and a lamb sleeping on a wadded–up blanket in the other—confirmed his worst fears. Harry Alistair needed a caretaker. This wasn’t a woman who was ever going to be anyone’s equal partner.
Harry had kicked off her galoshes when she came in the door and let them lie where they fell. Her down vest warmed the back of the kitchen chair, and she hooked her Harley’s Feed Store cap on a deer antler that graced the dingy, wooden–planked wall.
Poor woman, he thought. She must have given up trying to deal with all the mess and clutter. He hardened himself against feeling sympathy for her.
He was more convinced than ever that he would be doing her a favor by buying Cyrus’s place from her.
While he stood staring, Harry grabbed some pottery mugs for the coffee from kitchen cupboards that appeared to be all but bare. He was able to notice that because all the cupboards hung open on dragging hinges. As quickly as she shoved the painted yellow kitchen cupboards closed, they sprang open again. And stayed that way. She turned to him, shrugged and let go with another one of her smiles. He stuck his hands deep into his pockets to keep from reaching out to enfold her in his arms.
Not the woman for me, he said to himself.