After being caught in a compromising clinch with his boss's granddaughter, ranch foreman Eli Forrester was forced into a shotgun marriage with Melanie Kincaid. Eli had never wanted anyone as much as he did beautiful Melanie. But he'd learned the hard way not to let anyone get too close. Which meant that they could share heated glances and soul-searing kisses, but Eli wouldn't let her thaw his cold, hard heart. Still, it wasn't easy when every instinct told him that the city spitfire was the woman who could offer the solace he craved….
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Garrett Kincaid and his grandson, Collin, were riding handsome roan horses through Kincaid fields that were lushly green and peppered with spring wildflowers. Winter had been long and bitter, and both men were grateful that April, though windy and sometimes rainy, had gradually warmed the earth. May was just around the corner, and weather forecasters had predicted daytime temperatures in the seventies for weeks to come.
Collin had always liked spending time with his grandfather, but since his father''s death six months before, Collin had put forth a special effort to keep Garrett company. Larry had been Garrett''s only son, and while Collin had his own emotions to deal with over the premature death of his father, he was more concerned about his seventy-two-year-old grandfather than himself. Truth was, Larry hadn''t bothered much with either of his children, Collin or his sister, Melanie.
So Collin wasn''t sure just how he should be feeling. Occasionally, he''d had a good time with his dad, and those memories were heartwarming. For the most part, though, Larry hadn''t been much of a father, and Collin couldn''t quite get past that painful fact.
What Collin had been missing since Larry''s death was the normal twinkle in Garrett''s blue eyes, and he knew that he would do almost anything to ease his grandfather''s pain. A parent should not outlive his children. It was what Garrett had said the day of Larry''s funeral, and Collin suspected that thought was still uppermost in Garrett''s mind.
Garrett and Collin had been riding in silence for a while. Collin had tried to open a dialogue with a few different topics, but Garrett had shown his disinterest with one- or two-word responses. So Collin was surprised when his grandfather said, "I''ve been doing some thinking, Collin, and it occurs to me that I failed with both of my children."
Collin was quick to protest. "Don''t feel that way, Granddad. I''ve lived with you since I was fourteen, and I never saw you treat Dad or Aunt Alice in any way but fairly."
"Whatever went wrong happened years before you came to the ranch, Collin," Garrett said sadly. He looked off into the distance as though examining his own past. After a few moments, he spoke again. "Since your grandmother, Laura, was as perfect as anyone can be, I can only deduce that I am to blame for my children''s faults and mistakes." Garrett sighed. "God knows I tried, though. Especially with your dad."
"You sure didn''t cause Dad to gamble and chase women," Collin said vehemently. "He didn''t learn those things from you, Granddad."
"No, he didn''t," Garrett agreed. "But what makes a man ruin his own life by living that way?"
The sorrow in his grandfather''s voice raised Collin''s hackles. Grief was normal at a time like this, and in some cases maybe guilt was part of the healing process. But in Collin''s opinion, Garrett Kincaid had done nothing to feel guilty about with either of his children.
"I wasn''t very old, but I remember when Mom left Dad and took Melanie and me to California. I didn''t know her reasons for leaving then, but I knew a drastic change was taking place in our lives. She got a job and made things good for us kids, and then she married Steven Barlow. That was okay, too. I was able to spend summers here at the ranch, and I remember looking forward to June all winter so I could come back to Montana.
"Then I hit puberty and turned into a nightmare teenager. I remember the things I did and the sass I gave Mom and Steven. When they simply couldn''t stand my behavior one more minute and had reached the end of their rope, they phoned you and asked if I could try living here on a full-time basis. You said yes, Granddad, and I recall very distinctly the surly, bigmouthed fourteen-year-old I was when I got here. Do you remember what you said to me my first day here?"
"No, I don''t. What was it?" Garrett asked.
"You said, ''Collin, no one is going to tell you what to do on this ranch. You can hang around the house twenty-four hours a day as long as you''re quiet at night so the rest of us can get our sleep. Or you can get on a horse, join the crew and earn a paycheck. It''s your decision.'' You walked off then and left me to stew about it.
"I thought of running away and even wrote out a list of what I''d take with me. I was positive no one wanted me. Mom had given up on me and sent me here, Dad was always gone somewhere, Aunt Alice made it plain that she''d rather eat a frog than even speak to me, and you...well, that was what finally sank in. You were the real thing, Granddad, and deep down I knew that if I made the slightest effort, you''d meet me more than halfway.
"So, you see, I know what kind of parent you were because you raised me, Granddad. The reason I''m not in jail somewhere or bumming around the country is because of you. And I know you raised Dad and Aunt Alice with the same values, so you''ve got to stop blaming yourself because they didn''t turn out as well as I did." Collin grinned then, turning his face toward Garrett.
Garrett saw that devilish, teasing grin and couldn''t help laughing. "All right, all right. I''ll stop feeling sorry for myself. You always could perk me up, Collin." Garrett''s smile faded. "But no matter how saintly you proclaim me to be, Collin, I''ve made one very serious mistake that even you can''t gloss over. It''s Melanie. When I saw her at the funeral, I realized that I don''t know her."
"It was real good of Mom to come with Melanie, don''t you think, Granddad? I didn''t expect her to, but you know when we talked, Mom said that she never stopped liking Dad. She couldn''t live with his gambling and womanizing, but she said that he was the most charming man she''d ever known."
"That was one of Larry''s problems," Garrett said quietly. "Almost everyone liked his lively personality, and he''d always had a knack for making people laugh." Garrett sighed. "He just didn''t like hard work, Collin. I could never count on his help with the ranch."
"But you paid him anyway."
"He was my son, and with all his faults I loved him." Garrett glanced at his grandson. "We''ve ridden far enough for today." They turned their horses around. "Getting back to Melanie," Garrett went on, "I want to see her again. Do you think she would come for a visit if I called and invited?"
Collin couldn''t say that he knew his baby sister all that well, either. She was six years younger and had been only eight when he''d been sent to the ranch as a teenager. Garrett''s words about the importance of family hit home at that moment. A man should know his only sibling.
"I have no idea if she''d come, Granddad, but I hope so. I''d like to know her better, too."
Garrett had never made a secret of the fact that he was grooming Collin to run the ranch one day, so when the current foreman quit the year before, Collin had thought the foreman''s job would be just about the best experience he could rack up. He''d mentioned it to his grandfather, who''d said in reply, "If you were the foreman, you wouldn''t have the time to actually run the ranch. There''s a lot more to it than working outside with the men, Collin. I insisted on your going to college to broaden your knowledge of the world in general, which, I feel, opened your mind to the endless opportunities available to today''s young men and women. You might not fully grasp what I mean by all this right now, but I''m quite sure you will, in time."
So the foreman of the Kincaid Elk Springs ranch was a man named Eli Forrester, and Collin could never say that his grandfather had made a bad choice. In fact, everyone on the place liked and respected Eli. Eli fitted in so well that Collin almost felt as if he''d acquired a brother and Garrett another grandson. It made Collin chuckle to think of something so far out, but there was no denying that Eli seemed more like family than employee.
After his long ride with Garrett, Collin spotted Eli near a corral and called, "Hey, Eli!"
The twenty-eight-year-old foreman turned and nodded. Most of his face was shadowed by his hat, but Collin didn''t have to see Eli''s face to know that he wasn''t smiling because Eli hardly ever smiled. What''s more, Eli was one of those people who rarely talked about himself. So other than a few things--Eli wasn''t married and he''d been born and raised somewhere back East--no one really knew much about him. Collin was curious about Eli, but Garrett had told him not to ask questions. "Every man is entitled to his privacy, Collin," he''d pointed out.
Some of the other hands were rubbing down their horses when Garrett and Collin arrived at the big horse barn and dismounted. "Collin, please see to my horse," Garrett said.
"Yes, sir," Collin replied. He almost asked if Garrett was going to phone Melanie right away, but he stopped himself in time. Garrett had always preferred keeping family matters in the family, and Collin knew he would not appreciate being questioned about a personal issue in front of the men.
Eli strode forth to intersect Garrett''s route to the house. "I got the mail and gave it to Mrs. Clary, Garrett." He fell in step with his employer.
"Good. Everything go okay today?"
"Yes, sir. That low ground in the south pasture is as spongy as you said it would be, so we moved about forty head of cattle to another field. Give it a chance to dry out. Shouldn''t take long if this warm weather holds. Plus, I checked the alfalfa fields, and a week of this sunshine is about all it will take to mature the first cutting of the season."
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