The Rancher Takes a Family

by

Paula Altenburg

Rugged rancher Jake McGregor wrangles cattle better than kids, but when he’s suddenly saddled with three grieving children, he’s determined to step up. His sister’s kids shouldn’t pay for her error in judgment in naming him guardian. Problem is, he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. And the woman who attempts to help with his every fumble is the one woman he wants to steer clear of…

Lacey Anderson loves a challenge, but Jake’s already broken her heart once. When his tall shadow darkens the doorway of her classroom, she’s ready to shut him out – until she meets her new students, and sees the desperation in Jake’s eyes. Emotional intelligence is so not his forte. But she’s done banging her head against that wall.

Jake, however, is finally ready to learn how to love and Lacey’s the teacher he wants. Is she willing to risk her own heart again to teach him?

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So far, of his sister’s three offspring, Lydia was shaping up to be Jake McGregor’s favorite.

She nestled in the crook of his arm, a soggy thumb in her mouth, staring in wide-eyed awe at her two older brothers. One chubby fist clutched a handful of Jake’s hair. Ten-year-old Mac was swinging his backpack with a careless disregard for the backs of the heads of his fellow passengers as he tried to hurl it into the open bin overhead.

But it was five-year-old Finn who had people begging flight attendants if they could switch flights or relocate to the back of the plane. Jake could literally feel the love. Or maybe all that love was for him, because he was carrying the squalling kid by the back of his jacket like a spare suitcase.

To add icing to the cake, he hadn’t been able to snag four seats together—he’d had to buy Lyddie her own even though she wasn’t yet two—and now he faced a conundrum. He’d thought to put Mac and Finn together while he took an aisle seat and parked the baby by the window, but logistically, it wasn’t going to work. Not with Finn wailing like a banshee and trying his best to escape whenever his sneakers touched down.

So this is hell.

Dull pain circled his eye sockets and banged against the top of his skull. He should have taken preboarding when it was offered, but hindsight was a wonderful thing. He was new to this child-raising gig and he’d thought it best to keep the boys running around the terminal as long as possible before they had to sit still for a few hours, but the joke was on him. They hadn’t burned off any energy. It turned out these two were kinetic.

They were also tired, and scared, and their whole world had been upended two weeks ago when their parents and grandparents—who also happened to be Jake’s sister, brother-in-law, mom, and dad—were all killed in a plane crash in Peru.

Maybe taking them on a plane wasn’t his smartest move, but he hadn’t known how else to get three kids from New York City to Grand, Montana. Hindsight slapped him again. Too soon, Jake. Too soon.

Mac missed the bin for the third time and was winding up for a fourth attempt when an older gentleman got out of his seat to give him a hand. A friendly blonde flight attendant scooted around them, Jake in her sights.

“Why don’t you let me hold the baby while you get the boys buckled in?” she suggested, reaching for Lydia. “Come here, sweetie.”

Lydia’s thumb popped out of her mouth. Her eyes bugged out of her head. She grabbed onto both of Jake’s ears. Then, she proceeded to compete with her brother to see who could deafen the most people. There went her tenuous run as the favorite.

Jake felt like crying himself. He was tired and scared too, yet nobody was cutting him any slack.

“I don’t wanna die!” Finn wailed, upping his game.

“That child could use a good spanking,” some old biddy sniffed.

The flight attendant knew when she was beaten. “Why don’t I go see if I can find some coloring books for the boys?” she said, and then fled.

Jake’s face burned. This mess was on him. What kind of dumbass tried to load three kids who’d just lost their parents in a plane crash onto a sketchy Dash 8 that smelled of exhaust and recycled air and looked as if duct tape might be all that held it together?

Suddenly, he’d had enough, too. He owed these kids better than this.

“Grab the bag, Mac,” he ordered, fighting to keep his grip on Finn while juggling a sobbing, drippy-nosed baby who was wiping her face in his hair. “We’re getting off.”

Five days later, as the sun slid behind the cottonwoods, Jake crossed the Custer County line and entered the outskirts of Grand, Montana. The knot between his shoulders began to let up.

Just a few more miles.

Grand hugged the banks of the Yellowstone River. The first McGregors to settle here had been Irish sutlers evicted from a British fort for selling whiskey to soldiers. The two enterprising brothers took the money they’d earned and invested it in cattle—although, according to family legend, they never quite managed to stay on the right side of the law. Whiskey barrels continued to overflow in the McGregor cellars well into the twentieth century.

Grand got its name from the plans those two brothers had dreamed up for the town. Unfortunately, Grand got upstaged by nearby Billings and its grip on the new railroad. For his part, Jake was happy with the way history played out. Grand’s population topped out at ten thousand—a nice, even number.

The minute he entered town limits and veered onto Yellowstone Drive, his stress leveled off.

Yellowstone Drive crossed the Tongue River, a tributary that fed into the Yellowstone, then circled left on the far side to become Tongue River Road, which cut through the McGregor ranch. Jake’s rental car bumped across the bridge, then a few minutes later, over the slight dip in the pavement where the driveway leading to the Wagging Tongue Ranch met the road.

A sprawling, six-thousand-square-foot ranch house fronted the river. The house yawned, showing its age. Pieces had been added on over the decades to accommodate adult children who’d bought in and grandparents who’d sold out. The result was a behemoth, hard to heat in the winter but airy and fresh in the summer. There was nothing this home hadn’t seen.

The lights were on when he coasted up to the garage. A warm yellow glow bathed the front porch and the yard. For a few glorious seconds, Jake felt as if life had returned to normal, and he’d open the door to the kitchen to find his mother standing at the stove. He imagined her making sausage chili with biscuits and homemade lemon custard pie for dessert.

That was never going to happen again so it was best to forget it.

Still, he was starving. He hoped Luke and Zack, his two younger brothers, had learned how to cook in the four or five years since they’d hauled ass out of Grand and left the McGregor homestead behind. The funeral in New York was the first time he’d seen either one of them in close to six months, but now, they were back home to help out. They’d gone on ahead of him so they could set up rooms for themselves and the kids.

In the back seat, Mac sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Lydia snored peacefully in the car seat between him and Finn. All Jake could see of the five-year-old was a tuft of red hair peeking over the jacket he’d wrapped himself in.

“Where are we?” Mac asked.

“Home.”

Mac peeked through the window. The burst of enthusiasm on his freckled face faded. “This is Grandma and Grandpa’s.”

Not anymore.

But Jake didn’t correct him. If he lived to be a thousand, he’d never recover from the gut-wrenching sounds the kid made as he cried in his sleep.

God, he was tired. He wanted food, a beer or three, and then, he wanted to crash in his own bed—alone—and not crawl out for a week. They’d spent the past four nights in hotels, he and Lydia in one bed, Mac and Finn in the other, although by morning, they were all bunking together.

Why me? he silently asked his dead sister for the thousandth time. Why name me as their legal guardian? What about him had made Liz believe he was capable of looking after three children?

Nothing, because she’d never expected he’d have to. She and Blair had needed to name someone not traveling with them and he’d drawn the short straw. At the time, they’d all thought it was funny. Now beautiful, redheaded Liz, with her weird sense of humor and huge love of life, was gone, and so were their parents.

Machu Picchu had been a life’s dream for their father. It was Liz and Blair’s birthday present to him.

Jake’s empty stomach clenched. He unbuckled his seat belt. “Help me get your brother and sister into the house,” he said to Mac. The poor kid was the oldest. He was going to have to man up and be strong.

Same as Jake.

The kitchen door opened.

Jake’s brother Luke, the middle McGregor, staged an appearance. Tall, broad-shouldered, with green eyes and dark hair, he and Jake often passed for twins—except Luke’s black-rimmed glasses gave him a more studious air, and his PhD in computer science meant he was a geek to boot. He wore jeans and a blue T-shirt and his feet were bare. His mussed-up hair hung a little too long in front. He had the whole absent-minded-professor image down pat.

Luke had hated everything about the Wagging Tongue Ranch when he’d left home for college. Jake figured Luke might last the summer here, but if he stuck around long enough to help get the kids settled in, then Jake would be grateful.

But Jake was the one who’d accepted this responsibility and he couldn’t ask his brothers to give up their lives. And he’d never, in a million years, let his sister or her children down.

“Hey, Mac,” Luke said, loping down the front steps and across the short patch of freshly-mown grass toward them. “We figured your uncle Jake had run off with you guys and you were all in Mexico by now.”

Jake hooked an elbow on the roof of the car, keeping one eye on the two sleeping rug rats and another on Mac. “No way. I’d have headed for Canada. It’s closer to New York.”

The kid couldn’t seem to stay still. He jiggled his hands in his pockets and dragged the toe of one sneaker back and forth in the dirt.

“C’mon, Mac. I’ll get Finn. You can carry Lydia. We’ll leave the suitcases for Uncle Luke,” Jake said. He opened the rear door of the car.

“Zack has sandwiches ready,” Luke interrupted. “How about you go grab one while Jake and I get the kids and the luggage?”

Mac looked at Jake, uncertain.

“Lydia first,” Jake said. He was in charge, and when he gave an order, he expected to be obeyed. The faster they all established the new normal, the better. He clapped Mac on the back. “You don’t want her waking up to Uncle Luke’s ugly face, do you?”

Luke looked like he planned to argue, and inside, Jake sighed. He was too tired to take this out behind the barn to settle, as they would have when they were younger, because tonight, there was a good chance Luke could take him.

They were going to have words about this later, though.

“She doesn’t seem to mind your face, and you and Uncle Luke look alike,” Mac said.

Luke laughed. Jake wanted to. Instead, he gave Mac his I-mean-business stare, and Mac clambered into the back seat to unfasten his baby sister. Jake was so, so tempted to help him, but he held back. Better to let the kid figure things out on his own.

Mac headed off for the house with Lydia.

Jake collected Finn. The five-year-old never opened his eyes. His head flopped on Jake’s shoulder and one arm dangled as if it were boneless. He resembled his mother so much it made Jake’s heart hurt.

Luke had opened the trunk and gotten out two of the suitcases. The yard light caught the scowl he directed at Jake. “Mac’s a kid, not a ranch hand. Go easy on him. The past few weeks have been rough.”

You think I don’t know how he feels? Having my whole world upended?

“He’s got five years on Finn and Lyddie’s a baby. He’s going to have to be tough for the both of them.”

“It’s our job to be tough, not his.”

Until you head back to Seattle, fancy-ass Dr. McGregor. Then it’s all up to Mac and me.

“They’re his brother and sister. He’s all they’ve got.” And it was better for Mac to feel useful. Maybe if he had a purpose he’d quit crying at night.

“You’re an asshole with serious control issues,” Luke said.

Jake held Finn a little tighter. He’d never felt less in control in his life. “And don’t you forget it.”

End of Excerpt