After thirteen years, roving rancher Eli Coulter had finally returned home to the Triple C. He was glad to be back with his brothers; less so to revisit the dark memories that had driven them all away. Intrepid reporter Amanda Blake insisted she meant no harm. Her persistent prying into Eli’s past made him edgy, though. Or was it just her closeness that had him unnerved?
After working with Eli for several weeks, Amanda had to admit it: she was falling for her research subject. She knew it was foolish to pin any hopes on the gruff bachelor. But as the holidays approached, the sensitive writer couldn’t help but dream of her own happy ending with the sexy cowboy…
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San Luis, Spain
“Excuse me. Mr. Coulter — Eli Coulter?”
Eli looked up from his newspaper. From behind the cover of dark sunglass lenses, he quickly assessed the middle-aged man standing next to his table. The hot Spanish sunshine poured over the umbrella-shaded tables clustered outside the café doorway and the man’s face was flushed with color, perspiration dotting his upper lip.
“I’m Eli Coulter,” he said, noting the man’s American accent and wondering what had brought him to this small village in rural Spain.
Relief washed over the other man’s face. “Thank god,” he said with feeling. “I’ve been looking for you for months.”
“Yeah? Why?” His curiosity stirred, Eli gestured at an empty seat across the table.
“Thanks.” The American settled into the wooden chair and pulled out a snowy handkerchief to wipe his brow. He took a slim leather case from his shirt pocket and extracted a card, holding it out. “I’m Jack Sinclair, with Sinclair Detective Agency.”
Eli took the card, glanced at it, and absently tapped it on the tabletop, narrowing his eyes over Sinclair. “What is it you want with me?”
“Your brothers, Zach and Cade, want you to contact them at this number as soon as possible,” Sinclair said. He took a slip of paper from the leather case and slid it across the polished white tabletop to Eli.
Eli glanced at the phone number before tucking the note and the Sinclair Agency’s card into his shirt pocket. “Where are they?” he asked. He knew both his brother’s cell phone numbers by heart and neither matched the one on the note.
“As far as I’m aware, they’re both at the Triple C ranch outside Indian Springs,” Sinclair replied.
Surprised, Eli didn’t respond. He could hardly believe Cade and Zach had willingly returned to the family ranch. His three older brothers, Cade, Zach and Brodie, had only stayed in Montana after they left high school because they refused to leave him alone with their alcoholic father. The morning after he’d graduated, however, all four had loaded their pickups and driven away. Joseph Coulter had warned them that if they left, not to come back until they heard he was dead. All of them vowed they’d never return. That was thirteen years ago.
But Zach and Cade are back on the Triple C. Does that mean something happened to Dad? Even if Joseph was dead, Eli couldn’t help but wonder why his brothers were at the ranch. There was no possibility their father had left them anything in his will.
Joseph Coulter hated all four of his sons with equal animosity.
“Can I tell your family you’ll contact them soon?”
Eli realized the detective was speaking. He glanced up and wondered how many times the man had repeated his question.
“Yes.” Eli glanced at his watch. “I’ll do that now.”
“Great.” The older man stood as Eli did and the two shook hands. “I’m glad to hear it.”
The two parted ways, Eli to stride swiftly up the cobblestone street to the sprawling stucco home of his host, reclusive sculptor Lucan Montoya. For the past year, the elderly Spaniard had been Eli’s mentor. The apprenticeship had proven invaluable; only two weeks remained of their time together and Eli was reluctant to see it end.
He’d considered staying on in San Luis, continuing to work with Lucan. But if his brothers needed him, that wouldn’t be possible.
Given the remoteness of the small Spanish village and it’s lack of cell phone service, it took nearly an hour to reach his brother Zach.
Eli grinned at Zach’s impatient demand. “The least you could do is say >hello, how are you,” he commented mildly.
“Eli?” Zach’s deep voice held surprise and relief. “Damn, it’s about time you called. Where are you?”
“I’m in Spain,” Eli told him. “I’ve been here for months. I’ve been meaning to check-in but my cell phone doesn’t get service here. Then a detective showed up today and told me I needed to call you.”
“We’ve been looking for you, Eli.” Zach’s voice turned grim. “The old man died.”
Eli hadn’t seen his father in thirteen years but hearing Zach confirm what he’d suspected had the power to stun him. Shock held him silent.
“Dad left the Triple C and nearly everything else he owned to the four of us,” Zach went on.
“That’s impossible,” Eli said flatly, finding his voice. “He hated our guts. Why would he leave us the ranch?”
“Apparently he sobered up and had a change of heart after we left,” Zach told him.
“I’ll be damned.” Eli didn’t know what to make of the news. “I never thought he’d stop drinking – or stop hating us.”
“Me either,” Zach admitted.
“So,” Eli tried to focus on the here and now, and not on the memories pushing to get out of the box he’d locked them in years ago. “What are you and Cade doing in Indian Springs?”
“Cade’s running the ranch and I’ve almost got the Lodge ready to open again. Dad left the ranch to all four of us but he left specific pieces to each of us – he left you Mom’s studio, Eli.”
Again, Eli was stunned into silence. Melanie Coulter had been a sculptor, on the brink of becoming world famous, when a tragic accident while swimming with her four sons in the creek near her studio had taken her life. The day of her funeral, Joseph Coulter had sealed her studio and forbidden his sons to enter.
“The inheritance taxes on the ranch are huge and there aren’t any cash assets. We need you to come home,” Zach continued. “The only way we’re going to save the place is if we all stick together and find a way to make this work.”
“I’ll come,” Eli said slowly, shaking off the shock that held him and considering the logistics. “I have two more weeks here to finish a commission, then I’ll head for Montana.” He frowned, thinking with lightning speed. “Where’s Brodie?” he asked. “Is he there with you?”
Zach’s slight pause filled Eli with foreboding.
“He’s in California,” Zach said finally.
“Why isn’t he with you and Cade at the ranch?”
“He was hurt, got thrown by a bull and shattered his leg.” Zach’s voice was grim. “He’s done riding rodeo.”
“Damn.” Eli muttered. Brodie was a year older than him and rodeo had been his life since he was old enough to climb on a horse. He’d been named All Around Champion three times, and after years of hard work, was at the top of his career. Eli couldn’t imagine a life for Brodie that didn’t include rodeo.
“Cade and I went to see him – he’s in a hospital recovery center in Ukiah, north of San Francisco.”
“Is he coming to the ranch when they release him?”
“He said he wouldn’t, but Cade and I hope he will.”
Eli drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “All right – have you got a pen? Here’s my land line phone number if you need to reach me over the next two weeks.” Eli quickly recited Lucan’s number. “If you don’t hear from me again, don’t worry, I’m going to be working flat out to finish here. Then I’ll head back to Montana.”
“Great. I’ll tell Cade – and Eli…”
“I’m glad you’re coming home.” Zach’s voice rasped, roughened with feeling.
“See you soon.” Eli had mixed feelings – he’d be glad to see his brothers. But returning to the Triple C and all the bad memories the ranch would surely hold?
He wasn’t at all sure he was looking forward to that part of the trip.
* * * * *
Two weeks later, the jet airplane carrying Eli began its descent in preparation for landing in Billings.
He yawned, scrubbed his hand over his face, and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. He’d left Spain nearly three days ago and the long drive from San Luis to Madrid, followed by an endless round of waiting in airports and hours spent sitting on planes had left his eyes feeling gritty, burning from lack of sleep.
Dropping his hand, he blinked to clear his vision and gazed out the window. Far below, the distinctive rise of tall buttes stood out amid rolling miles of sage prairie that stretched from horizon to horizon.
I should be at the Triple C in another four hours, give or take, he thought. He’d rent a vehicle to drive the last three hours north of Billings to reach Indian Springs. There were no planes, trains or buses that could take him the last stage of his journey home to rural Montana.
And that was one of the things he’d always loved about the Triple C. Homesteaded by his Coulter ancestors in the late 1800’s, the huge ranch sprawled over thousands of acres. Eli remembered his mother telling him the Triple C was one of the biggest spreads in Montana, second only to the slightly larger McCloud ranch to the north.
He still had trouble believing the Triple C now belonged to him and his brothers. Thirteen years ago, driving away from the land he loved had been gutwrenching. Nevertheless, he’d been determined to leave the chaos of life with his alcoholic father and the increasingly frequent explosions of rage and violence.
He’d wanted peace and the ability to control his own destiny. Most of all, he wanted the freedom to focus on becoming a better artist. He’d traveled the world since then, never putting down roots, and over time, he’d convinced himself he no longer missed Montana and the sprawling Triple C.
But with the landscape of prairie spread out below him beneath Montana’s cloudless blue sky, he had to wonder if he’d been kidding himself.
The pilot’s voice sounded in the cabin, pulling Eli’s brooding gaze and attention away from the view outside his window.
An hour later he’d landed, rented a pickup truck, and drove north on the highway toward Indian Springs.
The late afternoon sun slanted into the cab, heating the interior. Eli left the window rolled down, his arm resting on the sill, the breeze filling the cab with the scent of sage and clean, clear air unclogged by smog and exhaust.
The digital clock on the dashboard told him it was just after nine p.m. when he slowed, turning off the highway to drive beneath a high arch of wrought-iron that spelled out Coulter Cattle Company. The formal name had long ago been shortened to the Triple C by family and locals.
The gravel ranch road was smooth beneath the truck’s wheels. Eli’s lips curved in a faint smile.
I can tell Cade’s home, he thought. His oldest brother’s attention to detail was thorough and Cade had never put up with potholes for long. Each of the boys had become adept at using the blade on the big John Deere tractor to grade the gravel road and keep it in good condition. But Cade had been the best at moving snow in winter and smoothing out ridges in spring and summer.
Eli crested a rise and he caught his first look at his childhood home. Across the valley below him, beyond the creek and its bridge, was the cluster of buildings that made up the headquarters of the Triple C.
Something soothed, settled inside Eli. Surprised, he absentmindedly rubbed his hand over the left side of his chest.
What the hell? He hadn’t expected to feel anything good. He hadn’t wanted to come back to Montana and if Zach hadn’t told him he was needed, he would have gone back to New Mexico when he left Spain.
Lights winked on in the cluster of buildings across the valley and Eli realized that full dark wasn’t far away.
He took his foot off the brake, the truck picking up speed as he drove across the valley and rattled over the bridge before reaching the house and outbuildings. The muted sound of music floated in the open cab windows as he switched off the engine and pushed open the door.
Eli paused as the music struck a chord with him. What was it Zach had said when Eli called to tell him he was on his way home?
Oh, yeah, he thought. Zach said he’s having a party to reopen the Lodge.
He frowned, trying to calculate days and failing. He didn’t remember what day it was, exactly, but figured there was a good chance the Lodge opening was tonight.
He glanced at the house, dark except for the glowing light over the door on the front porch.
His stomach chose that moment to rumble in loud protest.
If Zach’s throwing a party, there has to be food, he thought.
Eli pulled the pickup door closed again and switched on the engine once more, leaving the ranchyard to drive down the gravel lane that led from the house and barns, along the creek to the Lodge.
He rounded a bend and before him, the Lodge and its grounds were ablaze with light. Couples strolled across the drive and onto the lawn that slanted down to the creek.
Eli eased the truck around the circular drive, stopping to let guests pass in front of his bumper, and double-parked in front of the main entryway.
Without giving a thought to his faded jeans, boots, and travel-wrinkled shirt, he stepped out onto the drive and climbed the shallow steps to the long veranda that nearly circled the Lodge.
He stepped inside the lobby and halted, his gaze searching the crowd for Cade and Zach.
* * * * *
Amanda Blake sipped champagne, the crystal flute cool in her hand, and tried to pay attention to the conversation. She stood with her friends, a married couple who were the delighted winners of opening-week-reservations at the Lodge, and two other couples. Despite the interesting company, however, her focus wandered as she looked about the beautiful lobby of the Coulter Lodge. The expansive area was thronged with guests. Men in suits and women in cocktail dresses mingled with ranchers wearing pearl-snapped western shirts, bolo ties and cowboy boots. Scattered through the crowd were several girls in pretty summer dresses casting glances at teen-age boys in crisp shirts, slacks and boots.
Clearly, she thought with approval, the Coulters had invited not only their guests and out-of-town media people, but also their neighbors and local friends, creating a vibrant mix. The high-ceilinged room was filled with chatter and laughter that occasionally drowned out the four musicians stationed at the far end of the room.
She half-turned from her small group, letting her gaze skim the room, taking in the huge stone fireplace at one end, the massive silver and copper sculpture of mustangs in full gallop mounted on the wall behind the reception desk. Amusement curved her mouth as she noted a small cluster of teen-agers giggling in the corner before she shifted her gaze on to the main entry.
Amanda made a mental note to thank her friends for inviting her tonight. This inside view of the newly renovated Coulter Lodge was invaluable information for the biography she was writing on Melanie Coulter, the artist who had created the fabulous wall sculpture of horses.
And if she were lucky, she thought, perhaps she would have a chance to speak to the artist’s sons, Cade and Zach Coulter, about granting her an interview. They hadn’t been cooperative when she’d approached them nearly a week ago but she hadn’t given up hope of finding a way to convince them.
She narrowed her eyes, wondering idly how tall the custom entry door was since the carved piece over the top seemed much higher than normal.
Her musings were abruptly interrupted by the man who stepped over the threshold and into the room, halting a few feet inside.
Amanda caught her breath, feeling her eyes go wide as she stared.
He was dressed in a rumpled white shirt, open at the neck, the sleeves rolled back over powerful forearms. Faded jeans covered his long legs and he wore dusty black cowboy boots.
His attire was far more casual than any of the other guests but it wasn’t his clothing that riveted Amanda. He had coal black hair that fell from a widow’s peak to brush against the white collar of his shirt at his nape. The planes of his face were sharp and clear, with high sculpted cheekbones and a strong jaw, his mouth sensual below a straight nose. But it was the eyes that held her. Below slashes of eyebrows as black as the glossy fall of his shaggy hair, his thicklashed eyes were astonishingly, unbelievably green – so pale a green they seemed overlaid with ice.
Amanda shivered. He exuded an aura of quiet, restrained power that seemed to vibrate the very air around him. He appeared supremely unconcerned that guests were turning to look at him as his gaze moved over the room.
As she watched, unable to look away, the stranger’s mouth curved, a smile lighting his face, turning it from handsome to movie-star gorgeous.
Cade and Zach Coulter strode through the crowd and reached him, taking turns to clasp his hand and pull him into hard hugs.
With the three black-haired, green-eyed, tall and powerful men standing side-by-side, recognition hit Amanda like a freight train.
Oh, my god. That’s Eli Coulter.