The weariness settled in not long after her ship arrived in Boston. The anger, the pain, and the betrayal still consumed her heart. The grandness of the wild territory looming ahead did nothing to assuage these feelings. It seemed so long ago that she held her father’s hand as he lay dying, though barely eight months had passed. She still remembered his final words as though he’d spoken only a moment ago. “Ye’re not alone in the world, me darling girl.” Gazing out the train window, across the expanse of land that marked only the beginning of her journey, Brenna realized her father couldn’t have foreseen where those final words would lead her.
In the countryside of Borthwick, Edinburghshire, Scotland 1869
The mare fought bravely to bring the young filly into this world, and her struggles paid off. The beautiful silver-coated filly glanced around curiously as it sought purchase on its wobbly legs. Her mother nudged the little one until it stood triumphantly and quickly sought out nourishment. The young girl on the cusp of womanhood watched with rapt attention at the miracle, then turned from the stall and raced to the main house.
“Papa! Mama! Come quickly!”
Brenna jumped up and down in the doorway of the parlor, turned around, and headed back for the stable without bothering to see if her parents followed.
Her father chuckled at the retreating girl and his wife smiled. “You did promise her a new filly.”
“So I did.” He laughed again and reached for his wife’s hand. “Let us go and see if that’s what she’ll be getting.”
Duncan and Rebecca Cameron walked along the green grass to the stable that had born dozens of foals and fillies over the years. Brenna had impatiently waited in great anticipation for this one day to come, for this special filly to be born. Her first horse to raise just as she chose and the most perfect gift she’d ever received.
The couple walked up and stood beside their daughter, looking over the stall door at the young filly staring curiously back at them. Brenna stood between them, and sensed their excitement nearly matched her own.
“It will be a bit of time before she can be ridden, but she’s a fine-looking filly, Brenna.”
“She’s beautiful, Papa.”
“That she is,” her mother said, and placed an arm around her shoulder. “What do you say we leave her to her mother.”
Brenna looked up at her father, pleading with him to let her stay out there. Her just-a-little-longer plea almost always worked when she looked at him with her small smile and wide eyes.
“Not this time, darling girl.” He pulled his daughter and wife close to him and walked toward the stable entrance.
“There’ll be plenty of time for ye to spend with her, but yer mother’s right.”
“Well, may I come out tomorrow? At sunrise?”
Her father chuckled again. “Yes, at sunrise.”
Brenna knelt over the recently tilled soil, side by side with her mother. Together they sowed the flower seeds for a new garden they chose to plant near the orchard. It had always been one of her most cherished times, those hours she spent with her mother in the gardens or with her father at the stable. Few young people Brenna’s age lived in their small village, but she didn’t mind.
Her parents and the people who worked at Cameron Manor were her family and friends. She took her school lessons every day after she and her mother tended the gardens; her parents insisted she be educated. Her tutor, Mrs. Parks, a delightful older woman from London, spoke French and even traveled to Africa before her husband died. She encouraged Brenna to think freely and beyond the ideas written in textbooks. Brenna was delighted when her father presented her with a beautiful globe shipped from London. She spent hours asking him about his travels and how he met her mother.
Brenna remembered asking him once about her birth and if she had any other family. Her father grew quiet for a time, smiled at her, and said all the family she needed lived at Cameron Manor. He seemed so sad—she didn’t ask again.
Not long after her tenth birthday, Duncan tried to teach her how to fish in one of the lochs on their estate. Brenna loved being outside, riding horses, and gardening with her mother, but she certainly didn’t like worms or watching fish squiggle and squirm on the hooks. Her father seemed happy, though, so she smiled and tried not to grimace much. Secretly she thought he knew how she felt because he didn’t take her fishing again. Instead, they enjoyed long walks through the woods as he pointed out the various plants, trees, and wildlife when fortune favored them enough to catch a glimpse of a deer or fox. Her father carefully showed her the boundaries of their land so she wouldn’t wander into areas where hunters may mistake her or her horse for wild game. Over the years, Brenna led a sheltered life at Cameron Manor, but she couldn’t imagine spending her life anywhere else.
In the countryside of Borthwick, Edinburghshire, Scotland 1875
One week after Brenna’s eighteenth birthday, on a rare spring day when the sun shone with enthusiasm, Brenna’s parents hoped she would join them for a leisurely ride. Brenna’s mare, Heather, enjoyed a good run that morning so she opted to ride another mount for the afternoon. Brenna often woke early to ride so her father wouldn’t discover her preference to ride without a saddle. She discovered early on that though saddles offered convenience, she and Heather preferred riding without the confinement. Her mother rode one of the geldings since her mare carried another foal.
The family coveted such beautiful days. Scotland’s weather could change abruptly, so they took immediate advantage of glorious weather.
An hour into their ride, a light sprinkling of rain began. Brenna thought nothing of it because the sun still shone brightly through the clouds. When the wind picked up, she turned a worried look over her shoulder toward her parents.
“We’d best head back in!” Her father’s shout carried across the howling wind. “The storm’ll have us soaking before long!”
Brenna turned around to answer her father, but shouting against the wind proved fruitless. She quickly closed the distance between them when a crack of thunder shuddered through the sky and frightened the animals. They started back as quickly as they could without causing injury to anyone, but another crack of thunder sounded close by and she watched as her mother’s horse frightened. Rebecca couldn’t calm the animal and it reared back, dropping her off the saddle before catching its leg in mud and falling over on top of her.
Duncan shouted for his wife, dismounted, and ran toward her as quickly as his legs allowed. The gelding had broken his leg and couldn’t move, pinning Rebecca under its heavy mass. Brenna jumped off the mare and ran toward her parents, shielding her eyes from the pelting rain, which began to fall in earnest. She ignored the stinging pain as heavy drops made contact with her skin.
“Mama!” Brenna knelt down next to her mother’s head and watched as her father tried to encourage the animal to move enough so they could pull Rebecca out from under it.
Brenna held onto her mother’s cold hand and covered her with her body as best she could to shield her from the downpour.
“Brenna!” Her father looked at her and shouted over the storm. “Go, as fast as ye can and bring help.”
“Papa.” Brenna felt like a little girl again, uncertain what to do.
“Brenna, go! I’ll stay with yer mother!” He shouted over the sounds of clapping thunder and gusting winds. “Go!”
Brenna mounted the mare and raced toward home, pleading over and over that they’d make it there without further injury so she could get help to her mother.
“Iain!” Brenna raced toward the stable, shouting Iain’s name. He and his wife, Maggie, loyally served the Camerons for more than twenty years, and Brenna considered them part of the family. If anyone could help, it was Iain.
“Iain, please!” Brenna dismounted and turned, shouting his name again when he raced toward her.
“Brenna lass, whatever is wrong?”
She stood with rain-soaked hair and clothes and could not hide the panic from her eyes.
“Where are yer parents, lass?”
“Near the cliffs by Fowler’s Cove.” Brenna bent over, her breaths coming in short gasps. “Hurry, please. Mama’s trapped under her horse.”
Under different circumstances, Brenna could have admired how swiftly the older man moved into action. He rang the emergency bell by the stable door, which brought the few other servants outside. Maggie and the stable boy, who had been carrying wood inside, rushed across the grounds to the stables. Iain waited for the boy with saddled horses.
Brenna moved to remount, but Iain laid a strong hand on her shoulder.
“Stay here, lass,” he said, even as she shook her head.
“Ye’ll hurt them more if something happened to ye. Stay.”
Brenna couldn’t take that risk. Iain’s wife wrapped an arm around Brenna’s waist, and they watched the two riders race into the storm.
Two weeks passed since the afternoon when the storm swept through and carried away bits of Brenna’s heart. An accident. Everyone called it a terrible accident, but Brenna didn’t want to think about it. She couldn’t because her father needed her to be strong. He refused to leave Rebecca’s side from the moment they finally pulled the horse off of her body. Brenna didn’t have a chance to say good-bye to her mother. By the time they brought her home, she had been unconscious. When the doctor finally arrived, Rebecca had passed.
“Papa?” Brenna softly closed the door behind her as she walked into her father’s study. The room remained dark, much as it had been since her mother’s death. He rarely left that room and rarely ate or slept.
Brenna walked quietly over the thick rug and knelt in front of the heavy chair, where her father spent many hours. She took his hands off his lap and held them softly in her own.
“Papa?” Brenna spoke in hushed tones, but this time he lifted his eyes to hers.
“She’s gone, Brenna.” His voiced sounded painfully hoarse, and she pulled the blanket up higher on his chest. “Me beautiful Rebecca is gone.”
“I know.” Brenna held back the tears, which threatened to fall. “But she’s still with us and she would not want to see you this way.”
This time Duncan leaned forward and wrapped his arms around his daughter. “I know, me darling girl. I can hear her now telling me to put away me whiskey and open the windows.”
“I can hear her too.”
“We’ll be all right, won’t we, lass?”
“Yes, Papa, we’ll be all right.
Excerpted from Gallagher's Pride by MK McClintock. Copyright © 2012 by MK McClintock. Published by Trappers Peak Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.
Rousseau Mansion, New Orleans, October 1883
Nothing existed of the life she had known.
Her slender arm wrapped around the little boy’s shoulder and pulled him closer to her side. She could feel his slight trembling and wished more than anything that she could take away his sadness. They were alone in the world. They had each other, and she prayed that would be enough for them both.
They stood and listened as the priest gave the final blessing, and two men lowered the caskets into the ground. The few other mourners who had been kind enough to attend the funeral asked her to leave with them, but she needed the closure. She needed her eyes to see what her heart refused to accept. “An unfortunate affair,” everyone called the incident, for it wasn’t every day that a man murdered his wife and then shot himself. Isabelle wished not to think on the possible reasons why, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. She never imagined her family to be anything but happy. Their father’s death, however, revealed the truth. No one spoke of it with them, of course, but the lawyer had made the situation quite clear.
They were penniless.
Isabelle thought back to the days before college, when she kept the family’s books. Did I miss the signs? She remembered her father’s stories and struggles about commerce during the war and knew how difficult it had been for him. They enjoyed great prosperity after they left Philadelphia for New Orleans five years after the War Between the States ended. His struggles paid off, and wise investments in land and timber after the war ensured the Rousseau’s wealth. Her mother did not seem to care about the hard work it took her husband to make it through the war, but she enjoyed spending his hard-earned money. She thought of little more than to host party after party, ball after ball.
Isabelle recalled their last ball—her mother lay unmoving on the ballroom floor. Dr. Simmons assured them of a full recovery.
Her mother’s episodes began four months later. She argued with her husband over the most mundane details of their lives. She treated the servants and children deplorably. Isabelle’s father placed his wife under the care of a doctor, and after a month of treatments, she returned to her family, once again herself. No one knew what caused the illness.
Isabelle’s father gave her the opportunity to attend college—she wanted to be a teacher. When she returned from school, she had planned to take a position at Landers Preparatory School for Girls rather than keep the family books. Therefore, she didn’t know the truth of their dire finances. The only truth Isabelle knew now stood solemnly next to her. She would give up everything for him, but right now she needed to find a way to support him properly.
Isabelle managed to set aside enough funds from her modest teacher’s salary to last a few months, but they couldn’t stay in New Orleans. She wouldn’t do that to Andrew. She refused to let him grow up in a city where whispers and gossip could reach his ears.
Gently and with great love, she guided her brother away from the church cemetery to the waiting buggy. They’d be without a buggy after today, for the bank wanted all of the property, down to the last piece of furniture and candlestick in her home, to pay off her father’s recent and massive debts. The lawyer kindly informed them that they may stay at the mansion until the end of the week.
Isabelle helped her brother into the waiting buggy and sat down beside him, pulling him close and covering them both with the light, woolen, travel blanket. He’d been silent in the three days since their parents’ death, and she worried for him fiercely. She swore to herself to find a way to give him a better existence and to help chase away his haunting memories.
Andrew fell asleep with his head of golden hair resting against the crook of her shoulder, as the smart-looking black curricle made its way through the streets to the home they no longer owned. Without waking her brother, Isabelle pulled out the small advertisement she had found the week before in the paper. She didn’t know at the time that what should have been an adventurous idea would now be a necessity. It was a chance at a new beginning, and she longed to grasp it, if for no other reason than to keep her brother safe. With resolve, she placed the notice back in her voluminous skirt pocket and laid her head back against the buggy. Sleep and appetite had eluded her the past few days, but at least for these precious moments, she closed her eyes and dreamed of what could be.
Her life now followed a path she never imagined, but a more traditional path was no longer an option. Her lack of desire for marriage or to carry on in society had vexed her mother for many years. Most women and acquaintances of her age married and dutifully began families of their own. They frequented the city’s best tea rooms and spent their evenings at parties, while their children stayed at home with nannies. That might have been her had she made other choices. Isabelle preferred not to socialize, but she was always encouraged to attend the balls and parties, much to Isabelle’s dismay. She knew her mother’s only purpose had been to ensure her daughter’s place in society and secure a good marriage with a man of wealth and influence. Her tall stature, long, golden hair, and soft-gray eyes made her popular among society’s young gentlemen. Isabelle recalled the last time a young man courted her—an experience she had no desire to entertain a second time.
Isabelle studied the mansion one last time. The driver loaded the luggage onto the buggy for the ride to the train station, and the heavy air of the Garden District weighed heavy on her skin. She had imagined such a different future.
No matter how her father had left them in the end, he had given them a good home. He didn’t arrange a marriage for her as many other fathers in their social circle had done.
Isabelle gazed out the window of the train as it slowly carried her and Andrew into a wilderness that excited her as much as frightened her.
During the war, Isabelle had heard stories of men and boys heading west to avoid joining the fight. Their family had been lucky in that regard. With her father old enough to have been left alone and her brother not yet born, their family had remained intact. When her father moved the family to New Orleans, society welcomed them, regardless of where they had lived during the war. Their French heritage and wealth had certainly helped.
That acceptance mattered little now. She left behind no one who meant anything to her. When it became known that she and her brother had been left penniless, many of those she called friends stopped visiting after they’d paid their initial respects. One young man offered marriage. She declined and immediately sent a telegram to Briarwood, Montana Territory, accepting the position as a schoolteacher.
Isabelle scanned the changing landscape. The last three days offered views of dense trees and farmland but nothing to excite her about what lay ahead. Before they left, she had spent hours reading accounts about massive mountains so high a person could never climb them and land so vast that people lived lifetimes on it and never saw everything.
She glanced down at her brother, who rested quietly in the seat next to hers, his head against her arm. Isabelle brought her gaze back to the landscape and welcomed a small rush of pleasure at what she saw in the distance. The grand mountains loomed over the landscape, and pine trees became more plentiful the closer they came to those majestic peaks. Her heart raced as excitement overpowered the fear, and for a short time, she allowed herself the pleasure of imagining something better.
Excerpted from Gallagher's Hope by MK McClintock. Copyright © 2012 by MK McClintock. Published by Trappers Peak Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.
Montana Territory, October 1883
I won’t be far behind you. Ramsey’s words echoed through Eliza’s thoughts. When she had asked for time to prepare her family for his return, she didn’t expect this much time. There’s something I have to do, he had told her. They now had more to lose than ever before—a new generation of Gallaghers lived at Hawk’s Peak.
I won’t be far behind you.
Eliza had been able to hold off the inevitable tongue-lashing she knew her brothers wanted to deliver, but she’d be unable to forestall them much longer. For now, she could be grateful their ire was directed elsewhere.
“You remember what we talked about, Eliza?” Ethan glanced briefly at his brother and then looked directly at her.
Eliza nodded. “I remember, but just this time.”
“We’ll take what we can get, sis,” Gabriel said.
“That’s settled then.” Ethan stood to move from behind the desk. “Gabriel will take two men and head north, and I’ll take two more and head south in case Jeb misinformed us. If we leave tomorrow, we may be able to catch up with Hunter, or at the very least, discover exactly where he’s going. The rest of the men will stay here—we still have cattle to look after and we’re not leaving any of you alone. Now, I’ll go out and let the men know the—”
“Rider coming in!” someone shouted from outside. Ethan rushed to the window and Gabriel quickly joined him. The snow had stopped, and now the cold air misted around the mountains. Eliza stood beside them and saw the lines of the horse and man as they raced over frozen earth toward them. Something familiar stood out about the rider, and Eliza moved to the railing in an attempt to see more of him. Broad shoulders filled a dark coat, open to show the heavy woolen shirt beneath. His brown felt hat remained in place despite the speed of his ride. Long limbs fell on either side of the magnificent stallion—a horse familiar to Eliza.
The rider came to an abrupt stop in front of the hitching post and lifted deep green eyes to the three on the porch. Gabriel heard his sister gasp and turned to her, but her eyes remained on the man sitting atop a thoroughbred similar to his Zeus.
“What’s going on?” Gabriel faced his sister. “Do you know this man?”
Ethan hit the side of Gabriel’s arm and walked to the edge of the porch. “Take a closer look, brother.”
Gabriel did and when the man stared back, seven years slipped away. “Ramsey?”
“Sorry I’m late, Gallagher.” Ramsey remained on his horse. “I had a devil of a time with the weather through the pass.”
“What are you talking about?” Ethan’s gaze shifted back and forth between Ramsey and his sister. Both continued to stare at each other. “We heard you’d be coming out this way, but as I live and breathe Ramsey, I didn’t believe it.”
“I could have used an extra week, but Gabriel’s friend, Jeb, said you needed a marshal fast. He found me on the trail outside of Bozeman.”
Eliza spoke up. “What does that have to do with—oh my.”
Ramsey moved the edge of his heavy coat aside to reveal the small, round silver badge pinned to his wool vest.
“How is that possible? You didn’t say—”
“There’s a lot I didn’t tell you, Eliza.” Ramsey dismounted and tied his horse to the post. He took a moment to glance around at the men approaching from two sides. “I’m glad to see you have numbers,” he said and moved up to the porch.
Gabriel leaned against the railing. “You’re the marshal?”
“When?” Eliza took a few steps toward Ramsey.
“Just after you left.” Ramsey smiled at her. “I figured it would come in handy.”
Once, years ago, they had called Ramsey a friend. Whenever they happened to be on the same trail or in town at the same time, they enjoyed Ramsey’s company. Why Ramsey worked for Hunter was a question asked more than once among the Gallaghers. It wasn’t until later that they discovered the possibility that Ramsey was Nathan Hunter’s grandson.
Eliza had never imagined that their family would be joined with Nathan Hunter, but when Brenna Cameron had showed up in Briarwood a year ago, looking for her grandfather, no one could have stopped the events which followed. Brenna may have been the granddaughter of their fiercest enemy, but love was determined to win, despite everything. Marrying Brenna was the smartest thing Ethan had ever done, and Eliza happily called her “family.”
Ethan stepped forward and slapped a hand on Ramsey’s shoulder. “You have some explaining to do.”
“I know that, but there’s something else I have to do first.”
The front door slowly eased open, and Brenna poked her head out and looked at her husband. “Will our guest be joining us for breakfast?”
Ethan lifted her hand from the edge of the door and pulled her outside.
“It’s as cold as the Highland hills out here, Ethan.”
Ethan removed his coat and draped it over his wife’s shoulders and leaned down. “There’s someone you need to meet,” he whispered against her ear.
“Who might that be?” Brenna stepped back into her husband and gasped. “Faith, but it can’t be!”
Brenna stepped forward toward the image of her father as she remembered him from her days as a child. “Are you really here? Is it truly you?”
Ramsey stepped forward and turned all of his attention to the woman before him. He lifted his hands to her face, one on each side, and raised her tear-filled eyes.
“It’s really me, Brenna.”
Brenna looked at Eliza. “This is your doing? You found him.”
Eliza smiled at her sister-in-law. “He was easier to find than I thought.”
“I’m sorry she had to come all the way to Kentucky to find me, but I’m grateful she did.” Ramsey shared a momentary glance with Eliza before turning back to his sister. “I would have come back, but I’ll admit that Eliza was the motivation I needed to see you.”
Brenna stepped back from him. “You would have come here without telling me?”
Ramsey didn’t hesitate before answering. “I wish I had the answer you’d want to hear.” He looked over at Ethan and Gabriel, who waited patiently while he spoke to Brenna. “I heard about your troubles and planned to do what I could—without telling you,” he admitted.
Ethan looked fondly at his sister. “Eliza has a way of changing a person’s way of thinking.”
Ramsey nodded. “Yes, she does.”
Brenna drew his attention with her quiet words. “Tell me you’re staying.”
Ramsey saw the unmistakable pleading in Brenna’s eyes, and yet he refused to make a guarantee on the unknown. “I don’t know yet.”
“If it’s time you need, I’ll understand. I won’t ask for what you can’t give. We’re nearly strangers, but I hope we can change that.”
“So do I.” Ramsey returned her smile. Brenna’s warm and genuine smile was a foreign sensation. In Kentucky, he had called the Tremaine family his friends, but they knew only what little he had shared over the three years he’d known them. When he had left his grandfather’s ranch seven years ago, he built a strong barrier around the part of him capable of feeling real emotion. Whether that barrier would crumble remained to be seen. He couldn’t predict what would happen while he was in Montana, and he refused to cause his sister pain by making promises he wasn’t sure he could keep.
Brenna interrupted his thoughts. “Grandmother is here.”
Ramsey shifted his focus to the house and then to Ethan. “What happened?”
“Hunter went looking for her, and we thought this was the safest place for her. She was here when Mabel passed and chose to stay.”
“It’d be best if she is told before I see her.”
Eliza waited for the small group to move into the house, and yet Ramsey and Brenna remained transfixed outside. The morning sun offered little light and no warmth. Eliza looked up to the sky and watched the heavy gray clouds settle comfortably around the mountain peaks. In those few moments, it wasn’t the promise of a heavy winter that loomed in the air or the struggles that lay ahead with Hunter and his men. A brother and sister had been reunited, never having known the beauty of that special bond. Eliza looked at Ethan and then to Gabriel. She understood that bond. Her chest constricted, and the need to walk away overwhelmed her. Stepping toward Ramsey’s horse, she took the reins from Jake, who had been the closest ranch hand when Ramsey rode up.
“I can look after him, Eliza,” said Jake.
Eliza shook her head. “I’d like to see to him.”
Jake tilted his head at the edginess in her voice but released the reins and stepped back as she turned the horse toward the stable.
“Where’s she going?” Gabriel stared after his sister’s retreating back.
Ramsey turned momentarily away from Brenna to watch Eliza walk away with his horse. He looked back to his sister and smiled. “There’s something I need to do, but I’ll be back soon, I promise.”
Brenna nodded. “I’ll let Grandmother know you’re here.”
“Thank you.” Ramsey squeezed Brenna’s hand as he imagined a brother would do. He nodded to Ethan and Gabriel, then walked quickly over the snow-covered ground to follow Eliza’s boot prints.
Though a good size, the stable was now crowded with more than just the horses for which it had been built. When Ramsey had stopped off in Briarwood, Loren, the storekeeper, told him about the barn burning and the housekeeper’s death. He had met Mabel only once but remembered talk of her kindness in town. She had been part of the Gallaghers’ family, and they had lost her because of his family.
Eliza turned at the sound of boots on wooden planks but continued with the task of removing the saddle and blanket from Ramsey’s horse. She heard him come up behind her and watched his hand smooth over the stallion’s back.
“Thank you for looking after him.”
Eliza nodded and picked up a horse brush out of a nearby bucket and slowly moved the soft bristles over the animal’s shoulder. Ramsey covered her hand with his, halting her progress. She lifted bright blue eyes to his green. He didn’t release his hold on her hand or the brush.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you everything. I had to be certain it would work out,” he said quietly. “After everything I failed to do for my sister, for your family, I wanted to be certain there was no way out this time for my grandfather.”
“It’s easier to call him Hunter.”
“You’re forgetting that’s also my name.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” She slid the brush down the horse’s side, forcing Ramsey to release his hold on her. “You were born a Cameron.”
“I haven’t earned the right to use their name.”
“I imagine Brenna would see things differently.” Eliza set the brush in the bucket and pushed Ramsey out of the way. She moved his horse into the last empty stall and checked the water and feed before closing the gate.
Ramsey stepped forward to run a hand over the horse’s muzzle. He gave Eliza his full attention, as though nothing else mattered but what she might say.
“Have you once stopped to think that perhaps you’ve suffered as much as your sister?”
“Why? Because she’s a woman? Because she suffered at the hands of the man who is kin to you both?”
“She could have—”
“Died? Yes, she could have been killed. We’ve all come close, and we’ve all lost people important to us.” Eliza concentrated to prevent the tears from filling her eyes. “This isn’t about what the Gallaghers have suffered. We’ll get our justice, but don’t compare your losses with Brenna’s because from where I’m standing, you’ve lost as much, if not more.”
“Eliza, how in the hell can you say that? She lost everything!”
“If I thought it were possible, I’d beat some sense into you!” Eliza took a deep breath. “You both lost parents, you both lost the chance to know each other, and you both have a grandfather who destroyed your lives.” Eliza calmed down enough to close the distance between them. “You had to live with a horrible man, and then when you discovered the truth, you had to live with the knowledge that you had parents and a sister you might never know.”
Ramsey nearly turned away from her, but Eliza gently brushed her fingers over the light growth of hair on his jaw. “You’ve suffered enough, but if we help each other, we can end the suffering of both our families.”
He lifted his eyes to study Eliza. “Have your brothers ever told you you’re bossy?”
She laughed. She didn’t know what else to do, and it felt wonderful. “All of the time.”
“Thank you,” he whispered, leaning into her and resting his forehead against hers.
“Brenna is waiting, and I imagine your grandmother now knows you’re here,” Eliza said quietly after taking another deep breath.
Ramsey nodded and pulled back. He held out his arm to her. “Walk with me?”
“I generally get to know a fella before I go strolling on his arm.”
He smiled. “Perhaps we could skip a step or two.”
Eliza considered him carefully, uncertain if he was responding to her light humor or if he was serious. She slid her arm through his and walked beside him through the snow to the house. Her eyes shifted briefly to the remains of the burned barn.
“I am sorry for your loss,” he said softly. “I know she meant a great deal to your family.”
She didn’t respond, and they continued to walk in silence. Eliza struggled daily with the knowledge that their continued fighting with Hunter had led to Mabel’s death. Their housekeeper, Mabel, had been a surrogate mother when theirs passed away, but more importantly, she had been their friend, and Eliza still ached from the loss. When they reached the porch steps, she stopped and faced Ramsey. “Do you really believe that badge you’re wearing will make a difference?”
Ramsey lowered his arm. “It can’t hurt. Better to do this on the right side of the law.”
“My brothers want to see this end as much as I do, but they’ve tried to work within the law and that hasn’t done us any good.”
“I didn’t ask for the badge with the thought it would scare my grandfather into turning himself in,” Ramsey said.
“Badge or not, there are going to be more deaths before this is over.”
Ramsey placed one leg up on the first step and leaned into Eliza. “Let’s make sure it’s not one of us.”
The front door opened, and Ethan stepped partially over the threshold that held the outer door. “If the two of you are done catching up, we’ll have that talk now, Eliza.”
Eliza briefly looked at Ramsey. “I’ll see you at supper.”
“No, he’s coming too,” Ethan said.
“I will, but there’s something I have to do first,” Ramsey said.
Ethan studied him a moment and then nodded. He left the door ajar but walked back into the house, and Eliza knew he expected them both to follow.
Ramsey stepped up next to Eliza on the porch and held open the door. “I’ve always thought it best to get the hurting over quickly.”
“Clearly you don’t remember my brothers,” Eliza mumbled and walked past Ramsey into the house.
In the years he’d known the Gallaghers, Ramsey failed to receive an invite to Hawk’s Peak. He’d been friendly with Ethan and Gabriel and had always noticed Eliza, but as a member of the Double Bar outfit, he had never expected an invitation. Nor did he blame the Gallaghers for not extending one. His grandfather had practiced the art of underhanded deception, but Ramsey remained on the Double Bar for all of those years out of loyalty to his grandmother. When he left, it was with the hope of protecting everyone else. A mistake he couldn’t change, but one he hoped to make right.
Ramsey now walked through the Gallaghers’ home and realized the wood and stone construction was merely protection from the elements. The people within those walls gave the structure life and meaning. He envied the warmth and kindness he saw in the small framed photographs on surfaces smelling faintly of beeswax. The worn rugs muffled the sound of his boots and attested to years of good use by a large family. The welcome scents of home cooking wafted from another part of the house and reminded him of the days before his grandmother ceased her efforts to make a home for his grandfather.
He watched Eliza walk toward a room off the left side of the hallway. She turned to face him. “Are you coming?”
He nodded. “In a minute. Where’s Elizabeth?”
Eliza smiled and pointed to a large open door farther down the hallway on the right.
“I just need a minute.”
“My brothers will wait,” she said and disappeared into the library.
Ramsey stopped under the doorframe that led into the kitchen and took a moment to watch the woman who had loved him all the years of his life. Every time he suffered emptiness at the loss of his parents, or of never having known his sister, he remembered everything Elizabeth had sacrificed for him. The pain he experienced of life without his family filled him, but Elizabeth’s love he carried with him during the ten long years he’d been away.
A younger woman walked in behind him. “I’m sorry, sir; I didn’t know anyone else was here.” Her words caught Elizabeth’s attention.
“Brenna told me you’d come,” his grandmother said, and though she didn’t move, she looked at the young woman. “It’s all right, Isabelle. This is my . . . grandson.”
Isabelle glanced quickly between him and Elizabeth, excused herself, and quietly left the room.
Ramsey stepped toward Elizabeth and lifted the towel from her grip. “I gave you a lot of cause not to believe I’d come back.”
“I didn’t give up hope.”
“No, but perhaps I did.” Ramsey’s eyes skimmed over the face that had brought him years of smiles. “I need to take care of something with Eliza and her brothers, but I want to talk—soon.”
“I’d like that, Ramsey.” She hesitated a moment and then pulled his larger frame into her arms.
Elizabeth pulled back and said, “I don’t imagine her brothers are waiting patiently. Go, we’ll have our time.”
Ramsey studied her for a moment longer, squeezed her hands, and exited the kitchen.
When he returned to the library, he paused to study the occupants. Ethan stood behind the oak desk and waited with hands splayed on the desk’s surface. Gabriel stood next to him, his arms crossed—neither man said anything. Ethan indicated the empty leather chair next to the one Eliza currently occupied. Her eyes met his briefly—they both knew what this was about—and they didn’t have long to wait.
Ethan leaned forward, his large hands bracing his weight, his eyes intent on Eliza. “We know better than to question your reasons for doing what you do. You’ve had some foolish ideas in the past, but never did I believe you would sneak away like you did.”
Eliza objected. “I didn’t sneak—exactly. I left a note explaining where I’d gone.”
“Much appreciated,” Gabriel said sarcastically. “Listen, Eliza, I wanted to thrash you when I first realized what you’d done, but I was willing to wait until you returned and explained why.”
“You know why. I believed finding Ramsey was necessary.”
“And it couldn’t wait?” Ethan’s dark blue eyes conveyed his disappointment. “You couldn’t have told Gabriel?”
“Gabriel wouldn’t have allowed me to go alone any more than you would have. He couldn’t go with me and leave the ranch unattended. It was the logical choice.”
Ethan paused in his questions for a moment, and Eliza imagined him reenacting the scenario, except this time with both him and Gabriel cognizant of her plans. Though in Ethan’s scheme, she would have been locked in her bedroom until they thought she’d regained her good sense.
“Do you really believe going the way you did was logical?” Ethan’s voice calmed. “If something had happened to you, it could have been weeks or months before we knew about it.”
“Whether or not I believe it was the best choice doesn’t matter now. I believed it at the time,” Eliza said. “I made a decision and once I do—”
“You don’t let the idea go,” Ethan said. “No matter how foolish.” Ethan exhaled and lowered his head, his voice quiet. “When Gabriel showed me your telegram, I tamped down the worry because I thought you’d turn around halfway there and come home. When you didn’t . . .”
“Worrying you is the only regret I have, but I can’t change what I did.” Eliza stood, and Ramsey followed suit. She was immensely grateful he remained quiet, but it was easier knowing he was there. “I know how much you both wanted answers when I first returned, but then Mabel . . . then too much happened. I’ll answer all of your questions, but please know that I was always safe.”
“We’re all we have,” Gabriel said calmly. “Just don’t do anything like that again without telling us first.”
“I promise,” Eliza replied.
“Can’t say that we’re done with you, Ramsey,” Gabriel said, shifting his focus.
“I expected not.”
“I’m going to trust Eliza when she said nothing happened, but she was gone long enough to require sleeping under someone’s roof.” Ethan turned to Eliza. “Unless of course you stayed in a hotel.”
Ramsey looked briefly at Eliza, his expression telling her that his turn for explanations had come.
“Yes, we slept under the same roof, but only a few nights, and I assure you we were not alone. My friend, Nathaniel, his sister, Mallory, their father, and a house filled with servants can attest to that.”
“The Tremaines,” Ethan said quietly.
Ramsey nodded. “Eliza told me about the letters you received from them. They had only meant to help you in finding me, but you weren’t the first to come looking. They kept me out of their plan for fear that Brenna wasn’t who she claimed to be, that she wasn’t the sister I’d told them about.”
“Wait a minute.” Confused, Gabriel asked, “Who else was looking for you?”
“For a long time, it was my grandfather—Hunter. Once he realized I’d left without telling him, he sent telegrams to sheriffs in towns close by and then as far as Wyoming and the Dakotas. I only learned of it because I knew two of the sheriffs.”
“He never found you?”
“He came close, once.”
Ethan nodded, and then turned to look at his sister. “Would you mind giving us a few minutes alone with Ramsey?”
Eliza looked from Ramsey to her brothers. “I thought you had questions.”
Ethan turned his attention back to Ramsey. “We have plenty of them.”
Eliza’s eyes met Ramsey’s and he nodded. Understanding that he was now the one requesting for her to leave, Eliza looked once more at her brothers with a look that undeniably warned them not to blame Ramsey for anything she had done.
Once Eliza closed the door of the library, Ethan invited Ramsey to sit down while he settled himself in the chair behind the desk. Gabriel stepped across the room to occupy the place Eliza had vacated.
“We were surprised when Eliza showed up here alone.”
Ramsey turned to look at Gabriel. “I couldn’t take her where I was going, and she was anxious to return home. Knowing what’s happened since, I can understand why she didn’t wait. It didn’t sit well with her—being away so long. I’m the one who convinced her to stay on a few days when she likely would have left the day after arriving.”
“I’ll admit I still don’t understand what prompted her to go so suddenly,” Ethan said. “But, we’ve learned to trust Eliza’s judgment. Scolding her as we did—”
“I wouldn’t have done differently if she were my sister.”
Ethan focused on Ramsey with eyes more worldly, yet otherwise identical to Eliza’s.
“But she’s not your sister.”
“I won’t deny there were times we found ourselves alone,” Ramsey said, choosing his next words carefully, “but even if time had allowed for something to occur, nothing would have happened.”
“I believe you,” Ethan said after a moment. “In fact, I’m grateful you were there when she arrived.”
“I imagine she’s capable enough to have dealt with whatever circumstances arose, had I not been.”
Gabriel’s light laughter seemed out of place, considering the conversation, but Ramsey envied his ability to lighten the mood. He remembered Gabriel as the Gallagher who could charm his way into any woman’s heart, laugh at his own shortcomings, and still have the strength to get the work done or die trying. “She likes knowing she’s unreadable.”
“She usually is.” Ramsey’s tone turned quiet and serious. “There were moments I thought I knew exactly what she was thinking, but whenever I believed I’d caught up to her, she’d already thought five more steps ahead of me.”
“That’s our Eliza—damn frustrating.” Ethan leaned back and crossed strong arms over his chest. “You went to some trouble for that shiny metal you pinned to your chest. Care to tell us how or why? We all know we’d do what has to be done with or without a badge.”
“The how isn’t important. But as to the why—the badge has its advantages.”
“Care to elaborate?” Gabriel asked.
“No.” Ramsey leaned back into the chair, looking carefully between Ethan and Gabriel. “I’m going to ask you both for something I haven’t yet earned, but I need you to trust me.”
Silence met Ramsey’s request as both Gallaghers contemplated his request. Moments of speechlessness filled the library, the only sounds coming from the thick walls, reminding them the ranch house lived.
“I don’t mean to state the obvious, but you’ve been gone a long time, Ramsey,” Ethan said. “I’ll admit I’d be hesitant to trust you without explanation, but Eliza trusts you, and for now, that’s enough for me.”
Ramsey slowly nodded. “I appreciate that, and I hope you’ll feel that way later.”
Excerpted from Gallagher's Choice by MK McClintock. Copyright © 2013 by MK McClintock. Published by Trappers Peak Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.