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Cowboy for Penelope

A few big surprises at Ford Ranch...


Early December

Penelope wrapped her arms around her middle and shivered at the sight of the fat white flakes falling faster and faster on the other side of the window. She wasn’t sure why she was shivering, since the fireplace in the living room was doing a marvelous job of keeping her and her winter plants warm. She supposed it was a shiver of fear — the fear of failing.


The inner walls of the farmhouse were lined with pots and buckets that were spewing with greenery. There were leaves and vines trailing everywhere, up the walls in places and down to the floor in other places. Unfortunately, not a single vegetable or piece of fruit was forming on any of the plants. Where blooms should have been were simply more leaves. The article she'd read on the topic of indoor farming had warned her against planting anything that bloomed, but she'd ignored the author's advice — so sure she could coax a few tiny tomatoes and strawberries into existence. So hopeful, at least. So wrong, apparently.


“What am I missing?” She moaned the words aloud. A few short months ago, she’d been so convinced she would be able to grow plants indoors throughout the winter. And, in fact, she had. However, what good were plants that didn’t produce anything edible other than their leaves? Sure, she could harvest a few salads out of what she'd managed to grow, but her precious garden would be decimated all too soon if she did that. In her daydreams, she’d pictured a very different kind of harvest, one she could pick from the plants again and again and again.


The side door to the kitchen banged open and closed. She was grateful it was located between the fireplace and the cookstove. Their radiating heat would quickly offset the burst of cold air the new arrival was sure to have brought with him.


Mars Copeland tromped into the room with his boots still on. The snow on his toes quickly melted and dripped in rivulets onto her rag rug in the doorway. She would’ve preferred it if he’d taken his boots off by the back door. However, he’d spent so many years living alone on the streets of Atlanta that it was taking time to rehumanize him.


The sandy-haired seventeen-year-old dipped his head to follow her gaze, his sapphire blue eyes taking on a rueful glint. “I’m sorry. I keep forgetting.”


“At least you’re standing on a rug.” As Penelope studied him, she felt a smile tug at her lips. A few months had passed since she and her husband, Jameson, had taken in her young cousin, and he was only now starting to put a little weight on his desperately thin frame.


“I, er…” He motioned awkwardly at the row of plants in front of her. “I was talking to a few of the other range riders about your indoor garden.” He unconsciously straightened at the mention of the “other range riders.” Pride radiated from the planes and angles of his features over the fact that he was now a part of this hallowed group of cowboys. His pride, however, didn’t entirely erase the concern stamped in wrinkles across his forehead.


“I suppose you shared a good laugh with them.” She bit her lower lip, well aware of how much amusement she’d stirred among the ranch staff with her forward-thinking project, a project that held all the earmarks of failure.


“Naw, they stopped laughing after the plants popped up. Well, mostly,” he clarified, looking a little sheepish.


“It’s okay to laugh,” she sighed. “They were right. I can’t grow food indoors.” She unwrapped her arms from her waist to wave dismally at the cloud of greenery. “I tried, but it didn’t work.”


Mars propped his gloved hands on his lanky hips as he stooped to peer at the pot closest to the doorway where he was standing. “They ain’t so sure about that, Pen.”


She paused in the act of spinning away from him. Twirling back in his direction, she demanded, “What do you mean?”


His calculating gaze scanned the room, moving a little slower over the windows. “They said your garden is acting like the patches of crops out yonder that don’t get enough sunlight, and I think I know why.” Bending down to pull off his boots, he strode across the living room in his sock feet to the nearest window. Reaching up with both hands, he pushed her lace-edged blue and white checkered curtains open wider.


The room became noticeably brighter.

Her lips parted in amazement. “Oh, Mars! I think you may be right.” Because of the number of ranch hands her husband and his brothers employed, she’d always kept curtains on the windows. Not only did they dress up the various rooms throughout the house, but they also lent her and her mother-in-law a modicum of privacy while they cooked, cleaned, and sewed.


“Here.” On a burst of inspiration, she moved across the room to stand beside him. “Help me take them down.”


“All the way off the curtain rod?” His expressive blue eyes grew wide.


“Yes, please.” Working together, they made short work of the task. Soon, both picture windows were bare of adornments, and even more light than before was pouring into the room.


Because it was snowing so hard outside, the full golden blast of the morning sun was somewhat muted by the crystals. However, a glaring white glow was still spreading across the room, enveloping the precious plants with light.


Mars slung an arm around her shoulders as they surveyed the results together. “We’ll know for sure in a day or two if it’s going to work.”


“It will,” she whispered. She could feel it in her bones. Turning her face impulsively toward his, she murmured, “I’m fast forgetting what it was like living in Texas without you. I hope I never have to do it again.” It was a question that had been burning on the tip of her tongue for days.


His arm tightened around her shoulders. “I’m not going back to Atlanta, if that’s what you’re really asking.”


“It is.” Relief coursed through her. Along with it came the prickle of tears.


“Whoa!” He scowled in concern at her. “I didn’t mean to make you cry, Pen.”


“You didn’t.”


He gestured helplessly at her face. “I’m not trying to argue, but you’re two snaps away from…”


The first tear rolled down her cheek.


“Pen!” he cried in agony, dropping his arm from her shoulders to face her. “What’s wrong? Should I go fetch Jameson?”


“There’s no need. I’m here.”


Penelope whirled around to find her husband striding through the doorway from the kitchen. She’d been so busy taking down curtains with Mars that she’d not heard him enter the house.


Jameson’s half-Hispanic features were mostly hidden beneath the brim of his Stetson. He pushed it up to allow his anxious dark gaze to drink her in. After one short look at her, he held out his arms.


With a strangled sob, she stepped into his embrace, sliding her arms around his middle and pressing her cheek to his coat. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve been out of sorts all morning.” She burrowed closer, pouring out her heart to him. “We’re fast running out of money, and the plants won’t bloom, and—”


“Shhh.” He gathered her closer, crooning softly in her ear. “You’ve pushed too hard, is all.”


“I’m sorry for making her cry,” Mars muttered somewhere from behind her.


“It’s not his fault,” she mumbled against her husband’s coat. “He was just trying to help me with the garden.”


“I’d much rather head into El Gato and rob one of their banks,” her cousin grumbled. “Then I could quit feeling guilty about giving you an extra mouth to feed while times are so tough.”


“No!” Penelope and Jameson hollered at the same time.


Mars snickered. “I wasn’t planning on it. I only meant that I could.” His expression sobered. “That is, if you ever needed me to.”


His reference to his past life as a pickpocket made Penelope inexplicably sad. And a little irritated, too. “Absolutely not!” she snapped. “We just got you back on the straight and narrow. We’ll make these stubborn plants grow somehow.” She gave him a hard look of warning. “Until then, you are officially banned from riding into El Gato.”


“I was only jesting,” he protested.


She knew he loved riding into town for errands with the Ford brothers. However, if he was even having thoughts about returning to his life of crime, she was going to do everything in her power to remove the temptation.


Jameson interjected calmly. “How about you head back to the range, Mars, and leave me to tend to whatever is troubling your cousin?”


She heard scuffling sounds as the teen pulled on his boots, then his footfalls as he traversed the kitchen. The side door opened and closed again. Then silence settled over the room.


“There. We’re alone now.” Jameson’s cool mouth brushed her earlobe, offsetting the rush of inexplicable heat to her face at his announcement that they were alone. “If you’re still in the mood to blister someone’s hide, let me have it.”


“No,” she grumbled, fisting her hands in the fabric of his coat. “I’m not mad at anyone.”

“Could have fooled me,” he returned gently. “And Mars.”


“I’m not mad,” she repeated. “I just woke up feeling lightheaded. I was dizzy all morning. And though nothing happened to cause it, I now feel like curling up in some dark corner and weeping until the sun goes down. Ugh!” She lightly pounded his shoulders with her fists. “How is it possible to be this out of sorts for no good reason?”


“Maybe you’re ill.” He drew back enough to peer down at her again. Pulling off one of his gloves, he pressed the back of his hand to her forehead.


The delicious coolness felt heavenly. She reached up to hold his hand there a little longer. “If you didn’t have to get back out to the barn, I’d beg you to keep your hand on my forehead for the next dozen hours or so.” A shaky chuckle escaped her.


His answering smile was crooked and a little puzzled. “You don’t feel feverish. That’s a good sign.”


“Agreed. I don’t feel ill, just not good.” She hardly knew how to explain her condition, because she’d never felt anything quite like it before. All she knew was that it was better now that her husband was here. “Everything I’m feeling today is sharper. Louder. Stronger, somehow.” She shook her head in wonderment. “The scent of the bacon during breakfast was so powerful it nearly made me swoon.”


Her husband suddenly threw back his head and laughed.


She stared at him, experiencing the sudden urge to box his ears. “I didn’t expect you to find my suffering so amusing.” A moment ago, she’d simply been on edge. Now she was genuinely growing angry.


He sobered, or tried to. A wide smile continued to split his bronze features. Gently rubbing his hands up and down her arms, he cuddled her closer. “Darlin’, I suspect you’re in the family way.”


Oh, dear heavens! Another wave of dizziness shook her, making her cling to him again. “Not fair,” she murmured faintly, knowing his theory was probably correct. “Oh, Jameson! If anyone had told me that becoming a mother was going to make me feel like I was losing my mind…”


He bent to hook an arm beneath her knees as they gave out. Scooping her up against his chest, he carried her to their bedroom to lay her gently against the pillows. “You are not losing your mind. I’ll go fetch my mother. She’ll know what to do to make you feel better.”


Paloma Clanton now lived with Gray in their newly renovated cabin. It was about a quarter of a mile closer to the canyons rising behind the farmhouse. Though Penelope was happy about their recent marriage, she missed spending as much time with Paloma as she had when the woman had lived with her and Jameson.


She took a moment to catch her breath, willing the dizziness to pass. Then she sat up, surprised that her husband expected her to spend time in bed when there was so much work to be done. “What will make me feel better is getting all of these plants to grow.” She waved her hands at the line of pots against the inner wall of their bedroom. “Our canned goods and preserves are fast dwindling, as we knew they would.” She shook her head. “And our attorney keeps saying he hasn’t heard a word about my inheritance.”


If Gray hadn’t married Paloma when he did and pooled his money with theirs, they would’ve been in even worse shape. Even so, there was no denying the fact that money was tight.


Jameson hiked one denim-clad hip against the edge of the bed and reached for her hand. “What can I do to help?”


Her head spun as she gazed around the room. “We need to take down all the curtains this morning, water the plants again, and keep the fires burning in every hearth.”


He nodded. “Consider it done.”


She hated keeping him from his work outside. But it was either that or end up like a sack of turnips on the floor. She supervised the tasks as best she could from the bed. By the time he finished, she was nearly back to her normal self.


“I’m still going to fetch my mother,” he promised, leaning over the bed to brush his mouth against hers.


“That won’t be necessary. I’m fine now.” She kissed him back, then nearly swooned again as the scent of horses and hay assailed her.

“Are you sure about that?” he inquired huskily, nudging her back against the pillows once again.


“I am,” she assured him primly, though her voice came out a trifle breathless.


“You’re a horrible liar, darlin’.” He shook his head at her, gazing deeply into her eyes.


“I’m trying to be fine,” she bleated, feeling guilty. “But you tried to warn me about not getting into the family way while things were so difficult here on the ranch, and I didn’t listen.” If she hadn’t been so insistent on the topic, he would still be sleeping by the hearth in their bedroom at night, instead of in their bed.


“I have no regrets,” he said firmly. “With the help of God, we’re going to get through this blasted winter. Things will get better come spring. I promise.”


However, the hard set to his jaw didn’t match his words, telling her he was as worried as she was. He was simply trying to hide it from her.


* * *


Things weren’t any better by the time he returned from the field that evening, though. If anything, his jaw was harder and grimmer than when they’d parted earlier.


“What’s wrong?” she asked quickly.


“Mars is missing,” he informed her curtly. “And one of the horses.”


“Oh!” Hating herself for napping away the afternoon, she swung her legs sluggishly over the side of the bed. She pressed both hands to her chest. “What happened?”


“Nothing that I know of. He was gone by the time I made it back to the barn.”


“Why didn’t you come back inside and tell me?” She swallowed hard, knowing this was her fault. She’d been too harsh with her cousin earlier. She’d pushed him away.


“Because you needed your rest,” Jameson assured, taking a seat on the edge of their bed again. “Worrying about Mars all afternoon wouldn’t have done you a lick of good.”


Tears stung her eyelids. “I should have never let him know I was worried about money — not with his past.” The poor lad had spent most of his childhood worrying about what he would eat next, and sometimes simply going hungry.


“He’ll come home.” Jameson’s bleak expression told her he was as worried about her cousin as she was.


The snowstorm finally ended, and night overtook them, but Mars still did not return.


The next morning, Jameson and a pair of range riders set their course for El Gato in the drifting snow. It wasn’t safe to travel alone in this weather.


Penelope watched them from the window until they disappeared. Then she drearily turned back to face her mother-in-law. “This is all my fault,” she rasped.


“Nonsense!” Paloma smoothed her sun-kissed hands down her striped skirt. Half the stripes were as blue as the sky outside, and the yellow ones brought to mind a cluster of daffodils. “Mars has a mind of his own. Most males do.” A chuckle escaped her. It was a pretty sound. She’d laughed a lot more since she’d married their senior ranch hand and chief horse trainer, Gray.


Penelope was taken aback by the woman’s apparent lack of concern. “What if he went to town to make good on his word and rob a bank?”


“He won’t.”


“How can you be so sure?” Penelope cried, wanting to believe her.


“Because he has a good home now, and he’s not foolish enough to jeopardize it.”


“I wish I shared your confidence,” Penelope sighed, wishing more than anything that her last words to her young cousin hadn’t been so harsh. “I truly do.”


“He also has a good heart,” her mother-in-law informed her matter-of-factly.

Alas, the lad’s good heart did not bring him home before the end of the day. Or the next day. Jameson and the range riders remained gone, as well.


On the third day, the remaining Ford brothers gathered on the front porch of the farmhouse at high noon. They were bundled to their ears against the cold.


Unable to bear watching them from inside the window and wondering what they were saying, Penelope tugged on her coat and joined them. She found them soberly debating which three of them would be mounting the trio of horses tethered at the base of the porch steps.


“I’m going with you,” she announced firmly.


Jameson’s next younger brother shook his dark head firmly at her as he smashed his Stetson harder on his head. “No, you are not.”


“He’s my husband!” She lifted her chin and took a defiant step closer.


He didn’t budge. “You’re my favorite sister-in-law.”


“I’m your only sister-in-law!”


“You’re also carrying my first niece or nephew in your belly,” he reminded coolly. “We’ll not be risking your life or theirs.”


“I have to go,” she insisted brokenly. “You can’t expect me to just sit here and…wait!” Her voice rose to a shrill squeak of protest.

“We’ll bring him back,” Keegan promised, leaning closer to envelop her in a bear hug. “We won’t return without him,” he added fiercely against her temple.


“What about Mars?” she quavered, hating how weak her pregnancy had made her.


“We’ll find him, too.” His voice wasn’t nearly as gruff with conviction, though.


Which didn’t make him any less right about her needing to remain behind. She was in no condition to travel.


A commotion in the distance made the Ford brothers pivot to face the road, hands moving to their holsters. Keegan did the same, though he kept Penelope firmly ensconced in his embrace.


She caught her breath at the outline of horses and riders approaching from the distance. “Oh, Keegan,” she murmured faintly. “Do you think it’s them?”


Still keeping an arm locked around her, he lifted a hand to shade his eyes against the sunlight. “I do.” Excitement infused his voice.


“How many are there?” Her voice was thready with emotion.


“Three horses and three riders.”


Her heart sank.


“No, there are four!”


Jameson was riding at the front of the pack, with Mars only a few paces behind him.


Penelope anxiously scanned their features as they approached. They were smiling, so were the two range riders behind them. A wave of anger nearly choked her.


“How dare they look so happy,” she seethed in a low voice to Keegan. “They had us worried sick!” She couldn’t imagine why they had been gone so long. They could have ridden back in the snow. They were skilled horsemen, every one of them.


Jameson leaped from his horse first, tossing his reins to his youngest brother.


Lance took the reins, scowling in curiosity. “Where’s the fire?”


“If it’s all the same to you, I’m a little anxious to see my wife.” Jameson took the porch steps two at a time to reach her side.


Keegan stepped back from her with his arms raised as Jameson swooped in to bestow the tenderest of kisses on Penelope. “How are you feeling?” His voice was husky with longing and worry.


Though she kissed him back, she scolded against his lips. “I’ve been out of my mind with worry for you.”


“I promised you I would bring Mars back,” he reminded, giving her another lingering kiss.


“It took you long enough!” She was close to tears. Then again, she was never far from tears these days. “What, in Heaven’s name, have the two of you been up to?”


“I was hunting for Mars, as previously stated.” He gave her another swift, hard kiss before straightening. “Mars, on the other hand, was hunting for your attorney.”


She frowned in puzzlement at her husband. “Why?”


“He can tell the story better than me.” Grinning, Jameson turned with her to face the front yard.


Mars was standing at the base of the porch steps with a piece of paper extended.


“What’s this?” She stared at the paper.


“Your inheritance,” he said simply, bounding up the steps to hand it over.

She gripped the precious piece of paper, feeling dizzy all over again. It was a good thing her husband was still holding on to her, because the document stated that her inheritance was finally forthcoming. The amount was staggering.


“Ford Ranch is saved,” she said wonderingly. “Oh, Jameson!” The nightmare was over, and just in time for the holidays, too. Christmas was right around the corner. There would be plenty of money for food, plenty of hay for the horses, and plenty of seeds to plant come springtime.


“Thank you, Mars.” Her voice broke as she held an arm out to him. “You are, without a doubt, the most wonderful cousin a girl could have.” She was so thankful that the good Lord had seen fit to give her another chance to show him just how much she loved him.


He looked abashed as he jogged up the steps to give her a quick hug. “Aw! That’s what family’s for, Pen.” The pride in his voice as he met her husband’s gaze, nearly made her heart burst.


As it turned out, the precious legal document wasn’t the only surprise of the day. The moment the Fords crowded into the entry foyer of the farmhouse, Penelope gave a gasp of delight.


“They’re blooming!” She pointed.


Jameson’s dark gaze followed the direction of her arm. “You did it, darlin’!” With a crow of delight, he picked her up and started to spin her around.


“No spinning, please!” Her breathless squeal of alarm gave him pause.


“Very well, darlin’.” Instead, he dipped her over his arm for a long and slow kiss of celebration. “You did it,” he whispered again, nuzzling the edge of her mouth. “My beautiful southern belle had turned out to be finest pioneer woman in all of Texas!”


It was high praise, indeed. Her husband wasn’t one to hand out frivolous compliments. If he said something, he meant it.


Amidst a round of teasing comments, his brothers retired to the dining room to feast on the trays of cinnamon rolls she and Paloma had set out in the hopes of sending off their next round of riders with full stomachs.


“Thank you.” She palmed her husband’s cheeks, feeling like she’d finally earned her place in El Vaquero. Her inheritance money was nice, but a body couldn’t eat money. Out here in the wilderness, the miracle of a winter harvest was an even bigger blessing.


“I love you, Jameson Ford.”


“I love you more,” he returned in a rough voice.


“There should be a rule against arguing with a woman in the family way,” she chided merrily.


“But there’s not,” he teased huskily. “I love you more than I thought was possible, and I’m going to love you even more tomorrow, Mrs. Ford.”


He dipped his head over hers to punctuate the beautiful promise with a kiss that left her dizzy all over again — this time from happiness.

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