Authors: Em Petrova
All Rights Reserved
Copyright Em Petrova July 2015
Cover Design by Love, Lust and Lipstick Stains
Electronic Book Publication July 2015
Five brides for five brothers…at least that’s the deal the Daltons have struck with their boys. Each son must marry in order to inherit a piece of the ranch they love so much.
When the Daltons find the herd outgrowing their numbers, they have no choice but to hire a ranch hand. Kade, sent to pick up the hand named Ryan, is happy to have a bachelor comrade to hang around. Being the only unmarried Dalton boy is hard to swallow. But once he sees Ryan is really a little redheaded spitfire with curves for miles, his instinct is to hightail it.
After Ryan’s father died and her mother took off for a life of her own, Ryan grew up fast—and strong. Anything men could do, she did better, faster and longer. So Kade telling her she can’t only makes her more determined to prove herself. She’s also mad enough to spit nails—when she’s not burning for the hunky cowboy, that is.
While they thoroughly dislike each other, they must work together to keep the ranch running smoothly. Kade’s desires for Ryan are sloping toward dangerous, and she’s had enough of the big cowboy getting in her space and not showing what he’s made of. But as a natural disaster strikes the ranch, they’re forced together. Question is, who will come out on top?
Dalton Boys Book 5
“C’mon, you lazy skunks. We’ve got cattle to move.” Kade slapped his gloved hands together, raising a cloud of dust. He and his brothers stood together in the pre-dawn gloom before the corral of horses.
“Who you callin’ a skunk? It’s you I smell,” Beck drawled. “Besides, I’ll stick with my trusty mount.” Beck patted his favorite horse, one that had never been completely broken. It was unpredictable in the fields, but Beck didn’t seem to mind.
Kade liked his animals a little more biddable. If he couldn’t lure it out of the corral with a treat, he wouldn’t be riding it.
“Grab that whippy mustang, Kade,” Beck urged, pulling back on his reins to keep his mount under control.
Kade rubbed his gloved hand over his chin. His brothers thought of him as being old before his time and set in his ways. He could bust his ass trying to seat a wild mustang this morning or go the easy route.
“C’mon, Kade,” Beck urged.
“Get on that big black, brother,” Witt called.
“All right. I’ll give it one shot. If I get my neck broken, I’ll go back to the barn and get my trusty paint mare.”
A hoot of encouragement rose from the sidelines as Kade went straight for the black. Palm out, offering a bribe.
“You need to do that to the ladies, Kade,” Beck said.
He shot his brother a look. Kade was the last unmarried brother on the Paradise Valley Ranch and never lived it down. They reminded him day and night. For the most part, Kade was a good sport about still being single, but at times he longed to shut his brothers up by bringing home a hot woman.
“Is this how you got Sabrina—held out an oat bar and she ran into your arms?” The black was fifteen hands high and as feisty as they came. It would make a good horse once broken, but until then, Kade used caution. He didn’t feel like getting trampled today.
“I like ‘em a little rough around the edges.” Beck smoothed his hand down his horse’s neck, but Kade understood his brother meant more than four-legged beasts.
Kade spat into the dust and held out a sugar lump. A chestnut horse several feet away picked up his head while the black ignored him. Well, he wouldn’t be too choosy. If the chestnut wanted to ride today, Kade would oblige.
The black ran to the far corner and Kade gave up luring it. He curled his fingers to beckon the chestnut closer. It shied away, circled back. Kade held his ground, urging the horse to him.
“I see you aren’t choosy, Kade. It’s a wonder you weren’t the first of us brothers to be married.” Beck rode past with an irritating chuckle.
Kade gave a snort. Today Beck’s ribbing got under his skin more than he cared to admit, though.
In a few minutes he had the chestnut horse saddled and was riding out of the corral, past three of his brothers, who were still choosing from the wilder stock
Cash grabbed the nearest horse and hurled himself onto his bare back. The animal bucked and several whoops sounded from his brothers and the ranch hand, Manny.
Kade watched their antics for a few more seconds before heading out into the pasture. As he gazed across the expanse of land barely touched by the rising sun, he sobered. If only he could get through a morning without being reminded by his brothers that they’d awakened beside a woman and Kade hadn’t.
Yeah, he was well aware of a lot of things. He still lived in his same old bedroom where he’d grown up, with posters of baseball players on the walls and a stack of
magazines next to his bed.
The land he couldn’t own yet—hell, if he ever did—haunted him.
Put a wife on this patch of dirt and it’s yours, son.
His pa’s words should piss him off far more than they did. But Kade was smart enough to know the ranch wouldn’t survive without all five brothers on it. They were spread thin as it was. When Pa retired to his leather recliner for good, the brothers would take over the legacy. Followed by all the little Daltons inhabiting it.
He pushed out a sigh and caught up to his pa. Soon his brothers flanked them along with Manny, and they rode out to drive the cattle back to the home ranch. Word was, bad weather was coming and they wanted them nearby. Easier to keep an eye on them.
Mindlessly, Kade handled his horse and let his thoughts wander. After they got the cattle in, he might have enough time to run into the small town of Vixen, sit at the bar and have a beer or two. He never stopped dreaming a pretty little newcomer would take the stool beside him. She’d have great conversation and a body hot enough to scorch.
Who was he kidding? Vixen was a dead zone. Any ladies there were married or smelled like Aunt Diane—rose and lavender with a hint of mothballs. But their area of Texas was so remote, finding a woman to woo was harder than any back-breaking labor.
An hour later he and the rest of the guys split off, going seven directions, circling the herd. The cattle fanned over a bigger area than they could handle. Witt and Hank were bellowing orders. The dogs were barking and nipping at the heels of the cattle.
Pa was purple with rage and Beck trying to argue with him about which direction they should circle. Manny was doing his best to hold the perimeter.
A calf broke free of the group and Kade gripped his rope.
“Leave it, Kade! We’ve got more trouble here. We’ll find it later.”
He ignored Cash and watched the spring calf bolting from the fray. Yeah, they could spend hours searching for it—and it could be too late. Coyotes could get it, or it would just lie down and stay hidden and die.
No, he couldn’t let that happen.
“I’m going after it.” He jammed his spurs into his horse’s sides and jolted forward.
Several shouts followed him, but he had eyes only for the calf. Frightened by the herd being swiftly moved, it ran blindly. Kade kept on it, zigzagging across the land. His horse was swifter and it didn’t take long to get within lassoing distance. He threw. The rope fitted around the animal’s ears and Kade yanked. The little cow released a mournful cry.
Another shout brought Kade’s head up, and he looked back to see half a dozen more animals breaking for wider pastures.
For a heartbeat, he could almost hear his pa giving him hell for creating a weak spot in the perimeter. “Damn.” He leaped off his horse and bound the calf’s legs then quickly placed it over the saddle.
With the calf safe, he whirled and headed toward the runners. Cash and Beck galloped ahead of him, fighting with each other and snapping confusing orders at the dogs.
Witt’s horse stumbled.
Jesus, what was going on? The Dalton boys were off their game today, and Kade would rather live in the barn than listen to his pa’s impending lecture. Even his momma’s fresh biscuits wouldn’t lure Kade to the dinner table tonight.
He rode back and forth along the cattle line, keeping them in position while his brothers went after the runners. Funny, a few minutes ago they’d told him to forget the strays, Kade mused.
Shouts made him twist in his saddle, one hand on the calf to keep it from sliding off.
Hank jumped to the ground, grabbed Witt’s thigh and yanked him from his horse. Witt threw a punch and Hank ducked, but the second arc of Witt’s fist connected. Hank’s head jerked to the side even as he shoved Witt.
Five riders bore down on the pair, thinking to break it up before they killed each other. The brothers were so evenly matched in strength, nobody’d be standing once they really loosed their rage.
Cash hit the ground, dust flying. Hank stampeded him. They landed hard and rolled. Beck smashed his fist into Witt’s side. Manny and Pa used their horses to weave between the bodies just as if they were trying to break up cattle.
It didn’t work.
Grinning, Kade looked on for a split second then jumped into the fray.
* * * * *
When Kade and his brothers entered the kitchen for second breakfast, every female eye widened in shock. By Kade’s estimate, they had two bloody noses, a cut lip, several bruised ribs and no less than a dozen busted knuckles.
Momma’s gasp rang through the room and she shot off the bench at the long table. “What in the world happened out there? Did you meet up with a couple bears?” She crossed the room quicker than he’d believed possible, reaching for the first face in line, which happened to be his.
Kade winced as she prodded the edge of a cut on his cheekbone. His brothers’ wives leapt up with similar cries of concern. Cash’s wife Maya had a baby over her shoulder, in the process of burping her. Twin dark eyes stared at Kade, giving him a more uneasy feeling than the stare from his mother.
None of them should be acting this way. What were they teaching the young’uns?
A few boot stomps heralded Pa had come into the house. The brothers silenced as the only man who could instill fear in their hearts at their ages walked into the room.
He looked at the line of them, and Kade felt four years old again. It was too much like that time they’d opened the pig pen and let all the pigs escape. Then they’d taken turns trying to ride the big ones and rolling in the mud with their new piglets. Every one of them had gotten a stern talking to that day, and Kade had a feeling it was about to happen again.
Momma’s gaze landed on their pa. Kade turned away from the look they exchanged, eyeing the baby instead.
“What happened out there?” Maya asked Cash.
He wore a smear of blood on his brow bone and cradled his bruised knuckles in his other hand. He shook his head softly as he met his wife’s gaze. “Just a misunderstanding.”
“Looks like more than a misunderstanding.” Maya glanced from brother to brother, then turned to Kade. “Why do you look less injured than your brothers?” Her tone was accusatory.
He bristled and opened his mouth to speak but Cash cut in. “Witt and I started it.”
“No, Beck and I did.” Witt shifted his jaw gingerly, and Kade remembered the glancing blow his brother had taken from Hank.
“That ain’t the way I remember it,” Hank said.
Pa shook his head and dropped to his seat at the head of the long table. Platters of sausage and biscuits were settled there, steaming and smelling delicious. “I don’t give a damn who started it. It’s over,” he said. “Now we’re sitting down and saying grace.”
Feeling chastised, Kade sank to his normal spot, which happened to be next to Maya and the baby. Little Addie was blinking at him like a china doll, her warm brown skin the same hue as her mother’s, but her eyes were starting to turn dark blue like all the Daltons. All except Momma’s, that was. Hers were green.
He folded his hands and avoided his mother’s stare as Pa said a prayer over the food. “We thank you for this meal and the wonderful women who prepared it. We ask for blessings on the grandbabies at this table and any we may not know about yet—”
Beck bowed his head at the referral to his son, and his wife bit a smile off her lower lip.
Pa went on, “We ask for forgiveness against sins committed against brothers this day.”
“And we ask for solutions to our troubles to present themselves to us. Amen.”
“Amen,” they echoed.
Kade smiled at Addie and skimmed a finger down her perfectly round cheek. He didn’t know how it was possible, but the little girl gave him more of a feeling of guilt than the blood he’d drawn from his brothers. They should be protecting this ranch and everything on it—including family values.
Platters were passed and sausage gravy dumped generously on plates. Toddlers flung food from their highchairs and husbands and wives spoke in quiet tones to each other.
Nobody talked to Kade, and he preferred it that way. A man as hungry as he was needed to get through a meal without being interrupted with conversation.
Who the hell am I kidding? I want a pretty wife beside me too, trying to put ice on my hand.
He chomped a large portion of biscuit and found Pa’s gaze on him. “Boys, we all know what went wrong today,” Pa said.
The room went silent. One of the babies farted, a low
muffled by a diaper.
“I shouldn’t have left the line. Those cows broke through and—” Kade started.
Pa cut him off with a wave of his hand. “We can take the blame and point fingers all day, but it comes down to one thing.” He looked at Manny. “Manny and I discussed it while watching you dummies pounding each other into the dust. The herd’s gotten beyond us. We need another ranch hand.”
Kade let that sink in. Adding another to their midst was a good idea, but it also presented problems. Ranching was hard work for little pay. Splitting the earnings between five households was hard enough. They gave Manny room and board and a little pocket pay. And now they were talking about scooping more wages from the pot and lessening everyone’s pay.
“Take the new guy’s wages out of my cut.” Kade’s statement drew everyone’s attention. He looked down the table at beautiful wives and children. “I don’t have a house and family to support. I can live on less.”
“Kade…” Maya’s soft tone gave him a hollow feeling in his chest for all he was missing in his life.
He swallowed hard. “I’m serious. I don’t need more than a bed and food, and I’ve got that here. If I have enough cash for a beer and some shaving cream now and then, I’m in good shape.”