Lily’s Cowboys - S.E. Smith - ebook
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Sometimes life begins after you die. At least it has for Lily O’Donnell. Reborn to help others, Lily reappears time after time to help families in need, only to die again once the families no longer need her. In her newest life, Lily is a housekeeper to three men who desperately need love and hope, and her own heart is touched in a way it never has been before. When an enemy uncovers her secret, will the Cunnings brothers be able to save the love of their lives, or is she truly destined to die? Internationally acclaimed S.E. Smith presents a new action-packed story full of romance and adventure. Brimming with her signature humor, vivid scenes, and beloved characters, this book is sure to be another fan favorite! Main Content: 182 (6x9) pages, 60,572 words

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Lily’s Cowboys

Second Chance Book 1

S.E. Smith

Contents

Acknowledgments

Synopsis

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

January

February

March

April

May 23rd

Chapter 18

Epilogue

Sample of Hunter’s Claim

Additional Books and Information

About the Author

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my husband Steve for believing in me and being proud enough of me to give me the courage to follow my dream. I would also like to give a special thank- you to my sister and best friend Linda, who not only encouraged me to write but who also read the manuscript. Also to my other friends who believe in me: Julie, Jackie, Lisa, Sally, Elizabeth (Beth), Laurelle, and Narelle. The girls that keep me going!

And a special thanks to Paul Heitsch, David Brenin, Samantha Cook, Suzanne Elise Freeman, and PJ Ochlan—the awesome voices behind my audiobooks!

—S.E. Smith

Montana Publishing

Paranormal Romance

LILY’S COWBOYS: SECOND CHANCE BOOK 1

Copyright © 2010 by S.E. Smith

First E-Book Published December 2010

Cover Design by Melody Simmons

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the author.

All characters, places, and events in this book are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations are strictly coincidental.

Summary: Lily is reborn time after time to help families in need, only to die again once the families no longer need her, but the Cunnings brothers are determined to keep her for themselves.

ISBN: 978-1-942562-53-5 (paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-942562-16-0 (eBook)

Published in the United States by Montana Publishing.

{1. Paranormal Romance – Fiction. 2. Paranormal – Fiction. 3. Romance – Fiction.}

www.montanapublishinghouse.com

Synopsis

Sometimes life begins after you die.

At least it has for Lily O’Donnell.

Reborn to help others, Lily reappears time after time to help families in need, only to die again once the families no longer need her.

In her newest life, Lily is a housekeeper to three men who desperately need love and hope, and her own heart is touched in a way it never has been before.

When an enemy uncovers her secret, will the Cunnings brothers be able to save the love of their lives, or is she truly destined to die?

Chapter One

Sometimes life begins after you die

Lily O’Donnell pulled her hat further down on her head, trying to protect her face as much as she could from the rain pouring down around her. She was drenched through to her skin and shivered as cold raindrops ran down under the collar of her jacket. She let out a tired sigh as she struggled.

Her long dress wasn’t helping matters as it kept tangling around her legs, making each step on the three-mile journey from town to home even more difficult. Pulling the small basket of dry goods she had picked up at the general store closer to her, she was just thankful she was almost home. At almost eighteen, she had taken over most of the work around the farm she and her mother lived on outside of the small town of Oak Grove, Oklahoma. It was all they had left, and they were determined to keep it.

Her parents had moved out to Oklahoma twenty years before, wanting to make a new start away from the hectic life found in the city. It had been a difficult journey for her mother, but her father, Gerald O’Donnell, had wanted to find a place where he could farm and raise a family. Everything had been fine until two years ago when a man from town named James Butler had started coming around. Lily didn’t like him. Butler had been trying to pressure her father into letting him marry her.

Lily’s father had ordered the man away, but it was unnerving how often he still seemed to show up on or near their farm. When her father had died a year later in an accident while working with Butler, she had become suspicious and begged the sheriff to investigate. The sheriff could find no conclusive proof that Butler had anything to do with her father’s fall off a barn roof they had been working on together at a nearby farm. Now with her father gone, Butler had begun pressuring Lily’s mother, Maureen, to marry him. Lily’s mother did what she could to discourage him, telling him over and over not to come around.

Lily sighed again as she thought of the last few months. It had been very hard for them. She and her mother knew living on a farm would be hard. What they had not expected to discover was that for two women living alone on a farm it was almost impossible, as the work and repairs were never ending.

To compound matters, in recent weeks James Butler had been more insistent about coming out, ignoring Lily and her mother’s protests that neither of them needed nor wanted his help. Yesterday, he had hidden in their barn and grabbed Lily when she had gone out to gather eggs. He had smelled heavily of alcohol and sweat, making her cringe in fear.

She had fought him off, screaming when he grabbed her breast in a brutal grip, leaving dark, painful bruises behind. When she heard Lily’s screams, her mother had rushed out of the house, clutching her husband’s old shotgun to her chest. Butler had threatened them both, telling Maureen he was going to marry her whether she wanted to or not and that Lily was going to be his, too. Maureen, small-boned and delicate, had stood there with the heavy gun pointed at his chest, fearlessly demanding he leave and not come back.

Lily had been hesitant to make the weekly journey to town, but they needed to get supplies and sell some of the items they had. So Lily had left early this morning to make the trip to town, hoping to be back before it began raining again. She took the items she and her mother had canned and fresh vegetables to Mr. Marshall at the local general store to help supplement their income once a week. They desperately needed the money, and Maureen had encouraged Lily to go, though it was against Lily’s better judgment. It also gave her a chance to pick up any supplies they needed.

Her mother normally took turns with her, but she had been ill and was too fragile to make the journey right now, especially with the rainy weather they had been experiencing recently. Lily had also stopped by the local sheriff’s office to tell him what had happened. She was tired of them constantly having to look over their shoulders.

After the incident yesterday, she was determined to end Butler’s advances. She asked the sheriff if it would be possible for him to talk to Butler about staying away from them. The sheriff had explained he would talk to him, but suggested it might be a good idea if Lily and her mother found somewhere else to stay for a while. Lily had shaken her head; they had no other family. The farm was the only place they had.

The sheriff said he would be out the next day to talk with Maureen and see what he could do to help out. Lily had thanked him before making the long journey home. Now, as she struggled to get home before dark, she was suddenly filled with a sense of unease. Had she done the right thing? Would Butler become even more hostile? More determined?

Frowning as she made her way up onto the small porch, she realized there were no lights on in the small house. Opening the door, Lily pushed her wet hat off and laid it next to the door.

“Momma?” Lily called softly. “Are you here?”

Lily set the basket of supplies down on the rough table in the kitchen. Removing her wet jacket, she walked to the door of her mother’s bedroom.

Hesitating, she knocked softly. “Momma?”

The door opened suddenly with a bang as it swung back and hit the wall. A very drunk James Butler stood in front of her wearing nothing but a pair of half-buttoned pants, with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. “Your momma ain’t here no more, little girl. It’s just you and me now.”

Lily stepped back from the stench of bad breath and whiskey coming from the man standing in front of her. She looked around his large body into her mother’s bedroom and saw her mother lying naked on the bed, her face bloodied and bruised, her eyes staring unseeing toward the ceiling. Lily’s eyes grew wide in horror. Sobbing, she stumbled backward as Butler reached for her.

“You’re gonna fill the bitch’s position now, and I know just the position I want to take you in, too.” He grinned as he grabbed his crotch. “I’ve wanted to fuck you ever since I first laid eyes on you. I wanted your momma too, but she couldn’t handle me. Bitch scratched my face up when I told her what I was gonna do to you. She knew I wanted you. I made sure I told her as I fucked her what I was going to do to her baby girl. I even let her know her beloved husband had a little help in meeting an early grave. He didn’t know what hit him until it was too late. You and your momma always thought you were too good for me. Bet she didn’t think that as she was getting fucked. She kept begging me. You know how much that turned me on? You should have listened to her beg me not to hurt you when I told her how I was gonna fuck you too.”

Lily shook her head as she moved around the table, trying to keep away from the monster who had murdered her family. She shook with grief over what her beautiful and gentle mother had gone through.

“How could you?” Tears poured down her face as she realized she was about to meet the same fate as her mother. “How could you?”

Taking another swig of whiskey, James laughed as he threw the bottle at her across the table. “You should have heard her. Your momma begged for protection for you with her dying breath. ‘Please give my baby girl a chance to live. Please, oh God, please, protect my baby girl.’ I don’t think anyone was listening, do you? No one heard her as she begged for her life.” He whined out the words, noting how each one pierced the heart of the girl in front of him.

“Come here and bend over, girl. It’s time I showed you what a man feels like. Maybe if you are a good girl I won’t have to beat you like I did your momma. She shouldn’t have fought me. She got what she deserved,” James said as he began undoing the rest of the buttons on his pants.

Lily backed up until her back was against the edge of the counter. Screaming when James grabbed the table and flipped it out of the way, Lily reached blindly behind her for some type of weapon. Her hands closed around the small lantern they used in the kitchen.

She flung it at him with all her might, not waiting to see if it made contact. Turning, she rushed to the back door of the small house and stumbled down the steps, sobbing. She ignored everything but the need to get away, running as fast as she could in the driving rain.

She headed around the back, running across the muddy yard past the barn and down toward the river that ran along the back of the property. Her only thought was to get away from the evil that had taken her family away from her. If she could get to the next farm she would be safe, she kept telling herself over and over.

She screamed suddenly in fear when her long hair was grabbed painfully from behind, pulling her off her feet. She landed on her back in the thick mud and began tumbling down the slight incline toward the river, fighting against the huge body trying to hold onto her.

Lily gasped as a fist came down along her chin. It hadn’t been a hard blow, but enough to stun her for a moment. Her legs were tangled in the skirts of her long dress, and she couldn’t seem to fight her way free of them long enough to get up.

When the muddy hand tightened its grip in her hair and began to drag her up to her knees, she screamed even louder in pain and fear. She frantically swung her fists as hard as she could in an effort to break free. She almost sobbed in relief when she connected, listening with satisfaction when she heard a grunt of pain over the rain and thunder. Pushing with all her might, she wiggled free from Butler’s muddy grasp and struggled to her feet. She stumbled blindly toward the rain-swollen river.

Lily gasped in dismay as she realized she would never be able to safely cross the river. The rains had swollen it to over twice its normal size. The waters rushed in torrents, tearing away at the bank, twisting and churning in wild rapids of fast-moving water.

Turning in defeat, she wrapped her arms around her waist as she looked into the angry face of the man who had murdered her parents. She watched in despair as he moved toward her with a hateful grin on his muddy face. Straightening her shoulders, Lily spoke quietly.

“You won’t get away with this. You’ll receive justice for the murder of my family. The sheriff knows what you have been doing. He is coming out tomorrow to check on us. I told him about what you did yesterday. You are going to hang for murder.”

“Who do you think he is going to believe when he doesn’t find anything? He’ll think you and your momma just up and left. If you want to talk about justice, girl, I’ll show you justice. Justice is when I bury my dick deep inside your pussy just like I did your momma for thinking she was too good for me.” James wiped the mud dripping down his face. “What are you gonna do now? You don’t have anywhere else to run to. You’re all out of choices.”

“There is always a choice. You made yours, and I hope you rot in hell. If I’m going to die, I’ll do it with the knowledge you will never do to me what you did to my mother,” Lily replied with cold determination.

She raised her eyes briefly to the sky and let out a small prayer, seeking forgiveness for what she was about to do. Twirling around, she jumped off the eroding bank into the swiftly moving water. The dark, swirling waters closed over her head, the weight of her dress dragging her down deeper into her watery grave. Lily couldn’t help but think how she hadn’t even had a chance to live before she died and felt regret she would never know love the way her parents had.

“Caleb, you do something with him! I’ve had it,” Ethan called out as he slammed his hat on his head and headed out the door. “I’ll be back in two weeks.”

Caleb just gritted his teeth as he slammed his own hat on his head and headed for the back door. He had enough to do without babysitting his goddamn brother. Allen had made his own bed, and nothing he or Ethan did seemed to help.

“Maggie, can you see if you can get Allen to open the door long enough to bring him some decent food and maybe talk him into getting a bath? I’ve got to head to the western pasture to take care of a fencing issue. I won’t be home for a couple of days, maybe more. I’ll be staying at the old line shack in case you need me,” Caleb asked before turning and walking away.

Maggie stood staring at the retreating figure of Caleb. Shaking her head, she went into the kitchen and made a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich for Allen. The boys were going to be the death of her. She was seventy-two years old and couldn’t keep up with them anymore, especially since Allen came back home to live on the ranch.

Moving slowly through the living room to the downstairs guest bedroom Allen had taken over on his return, she carefully balanced the tray on her hip. Knocking softly, she opened the door to a darkened room when she received no reply. Frowning, she sniffed and shook her head.

The room stank of male body odor and stale whiskey. She moved carefully over to the small table in front of the window and set the tray down. Pulling back the curtains to let some light into the room, she jumped when a loud voice yelled out.

“Goddammit. Shut the fucking curtains. If I had wanted them open, I would have opened the damn things. Get the fuck out of my room,” a harsh voice demanded.

Putting her hands on her aged hips, Maggie glared at the disheveled figure in the bed. Bare from the waist up, with a six-month growth of uncut beard covering his chin and dark curly hair covering his chest, Allen Cunnings was a scary figure.

At over six foot two he could be intimidating anyway. It was hard to tell this was the same handsome young man all the girls in town drooled over for years. His normally neatly trimmed light brown hair hung down past his shoulders and was matted from not having been washed or combed in God knew how long.

He still had the muscled chest from years of hard work, but he had lost a lot of weight and was too thin. Allen ignored Maggie’s glare, rolling over to feel along the floor next to the bed. He grunted when his fingers wrapped around the top of a partial bottle of whiskey. He dragged it up and pulled the cork.

“Boy, it’s eight o’clock in the morning. Don’t you think that is a little early to be hitting the bottle? And you need a bath. You stink and so does this room. How do you stand it?”

“Just close the damn curtains and get out, Maggie. I’m a grown man and can do what I want,” Allen growled. “Tell Ethan I need some more whiskey.”

“Ethan is gone for the next two weeks at an auction in Texas,” Maggie said as she moved to pick up some dirty clothes off the floor.

“Well, tell Caleb I need more, then,” Allen demanded with a snarl.

“Caleb is gone to the western pasture and won’t be back for several days.”

“Will you just drop my damn clothes? I don’t need a nursemaid. You go get me some more whiskey,” Allen said, turning to take a deep swig out of the almost empty bottle.

Maggie dropped the clothes in frustration and glared at Allen; shaking her finger at him, she had finally had enough. “You don’t need a nursemaid, remember? Get your own damn whiskey. I am through putting up with you and your brothers’ bad tempers. You don’t need a housekeeper; you need an angel who could put up with all the crap you boys have been giving everyone. I came to help out, but this is beyond me. I’m going to town and not coming back without a new housekeeper who can put up with all you boys’ shit.”

Maggie Cunnings had a spitfire of a temper when roused, and she was tired of putting up with all the clusterfucks her nephews had dished out. She had been coming back and forth to the ranch for the past two years, helping out between housekeepers. So far, the boys had driven off six housekeepers in the last six months, two of them men!

No one could put up with all the stuff the boys dished out. They weren’t mean. No, they were just angry, confused, and ornery. None of them knew how to overcome what life had dished out to them.

Ethan was the oldest at thirty-three. He was trying to take on the responsibility of everyone. He had taken over the reins of the ranch when their parents had been killed in an airplane crash almost ten years before. He did all the bookkeeping, buying, and investments that made the ranch so profitable, as well as trying to be a ranch hand when needed. He was burning the candle at both ends and now felt responsible for what had happened to Allen.

Caleb bottled everything up, never letting anyone get too close to him. He spent as much time out on the range as he could. He made sure everything outside the house ran smoothly because he didn’t know how to deal with what was happening inside it. He felt just as responsible for Allen being in the shape he was, believing he could have prevented what happened somehow. At thirty, he had always been the one to hold things in and not show much emotion. The problem was, it ate at the inside of him.

Allen, on the other hand, was angry at the world. He had taken off at twenty and joined the military against his older brothers’ wishes, wanting to get away from the ranch. At twenty-eight, he had spent the last eight years traveling and fighting all over the world.

Eight months ago the boys’ world crashed down around them when it was reported Allen was missing in action in South America. When he was finally rescued, he had been beaten and tortured. At first, it was unclear if he would even make it. Both his legs had been broken, and he was covered in cuts and bruises. The jungle climate had been perfect for infection to set in, and when he had been transported to the closest military hospital, it had been touch and go for the next week.

The military doctors had reset his legs, and he was healing slowly. He no longer needed the wheelchair. Ethan and Caleb had brought him home six months ago, and he hadn’t left the room they had set up for him since, preferring to hide in the dark with his whiskey.

Ethan and Caleb had tried at first to get him to go to physical therapy, only to have every therapist in a four-state region refuse to come back to the ranch, no matter how much they offered to pay them. As the pressure of everything going on increased, one housekeeper after another began leaving as the boys’ tempers escalated to a breaking point.

They could hardly stand being together in the same room. Maggie had stepped in again two months ago, but even she was at her wit’s end. The boys needed a miracle, and she needed to find it. Standing in the kitchen, she put on her coat and picked up her purse.

“Please, Lord, if you are listening, my boys need an angel, one with a lot of patience. If you can find one you can share, I’d be mighty appreciative. I know I don’t talk to you as often as I should, but the boys need someone to love and who can love them. Please, if you can find the time, please send my boys an angel to love.”

Sighing, she closed the door just as she heard a bottle crashing against a wall and a loud curse. Pulling her gloves on to ward off the cold Wyoming winter, she walked out to the truck and drove to town on a mission.

Chapter Two

Maggie pulled into the parking space in front of The Flats Grill. The old diner was a favorite among the locals. If you needed news or wanted to find someone to help you out, this was the place to go. Any news in Boulder Flats, Wyoming would pass through the diner at some point.

Getting out of the truck, Maggie felt every minute of her seventy-two years. She pushed open the door and moved to a booth near the back of the diner. She would ask Gladys if she knew of anyone looking for a housekeeping job. She would have to let whoever interviewed know it would be in a combat zone.

Dropping her scarf and purse on the seat next to her, she removed her heavy coat and hung it on the coat rack next to the corridor leading to the bathrooms. Sitting down heavily, she smiled when she saw Gladys coming with two cups of steaming coffee. Gladys’ slim body and head of silver hair barely showed her seventy years as she moved with a spry step in her walk toward the booth. She carried the two cups with the experience of years of serving.

“Hey, Maggie,” a pair of voices called out behind Gladys.

Carl and Earl Ganders were Gladys’ husbands. Tall and thin, they were still handsome as sin. In a time when it was considered unusual, Gladys had fallen in love with the twin brothers, and they had fallen in love with her.

The men had advertised for brides, but only Gladys had arrived on the bus. They had taken one look at her, and knew she was it for both of them. They had recently celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

“The boys giving you fits again?” Gladys asked with a knowing smile, sliding into the seat across from Maggie.

There had been a lot of disgruntled ex-housekeepers flowing through the diner in recent months. She had heard all about some of the more colorful fights at the ranch, including Ethan and Caleb’s attempt to hire a hooker for Allen. Seemed Caleb figured if Allen had sex, he would be in a better mood, as it had helped in the past. He had talked Ethan into talking to a friend of a friend who knew a woman from Nevada who was willing to come in.

In the end, Allen had not been appreciative, and the woman had left in a huff—but not before threatening to tell the sheriff about what the brothers had tried to do if they didn’t pay her a six-figure sum to keep quiet. Of course, the sheriff, Matt Holden—who was a childhood friend of the boys—had threatened to arrest the woman for blackmail and prostitution. According to the housekeeper at the time, the woman left with her promised two hundred and fifty dollars and a bus ticket out of town.

“I just don’t know what to do. Ethan took off for two weeks on the excuse he needed to go to an auction. Caleb would rather spend a week out on the range in freezing weather than be in the house. And Allen—” Shaking her head, Maggie took a drink of the hot coffee before continuing. “The boy is going to drink himself to death if something isn’t done. I can’t do any more. I need a miracle, Gladys.”

Gladys sat quietly, wishing she could help her friend out. She was at her wits’ end too. She didn’t know a single person who was willing to take on the Cunnings men, no matter how rich or good-looking they were.

Sighing, she reached over and placed a supportive hand over Maggie’s as she shook her head in sympathy. “I wish I could help you out.”

Maggie spent the next hour talking with Gladys and her husbands. She enjoyed their company and missed them since she had moved to Florida. If the weather in Wyoming wasn’t so damn cold in the winter, she would have stayed just to be near them. Her old bones just couldn’t seem to handle it anymore, plus she had met a really nice widower with whom she enjoyed spending time.

Just as she was resigning herself to returning to the ranch empty-handed, the bell over the door chimed. Maggie looked up and inhaled a deep breath. Standing just inside the door was a young girl. She had on a thin patchwork jacket and was wearing a pair of faded jeans and scuffed-up boots. What caught Maggie’s eye was the light streaming in behind her. She didn’t know if it was the play of light through the ice-coated window or what, but the girl looked like she had a halo around her head.

“Gladys, Earl, Carl—look behind you,” Maggie whispered excitedly. “I believe my angel just walked into your diner.”

All three of them turned as one to look at the new arrival. Their eyes widened as they noticed the play of light surrounding her.

Lily stood in the door of the diner, biting her lower lip with uncertainty. She pushed a strand of dark hair behind her ear as she looked around. She didn’t have much money, but she needed to get warm and find something to eat.

The diner was the first place she had seen when she had arrived in town. Walking over to one of the barstools at the counter, she lowered her canvas bag and sat on the stool. Earl walked around the counter to take her order, smiling a welcome as he handed Lily a worn menu.

Lily looked at the menu for a minute, trying to decide. Her mouth watered at all the delicious selections. She had a hard time choosing what to order. It would have to be something very inexpensive. She finally settled for ordering a glass of water, no ice, and a cup of soup.

It was all she could afford until she found a job. She would ask the man behind the counter before she left if he knew of anyone who might be hiring locally. She would also have to find a place to stay tonight. She really didn’t have enough money for a room.

She sighed. She’d better get as warm as she could now, because she had a feeling she was going to be very cold tonight if she couldn’t find a really, really cheap place to sleep. Pulling out a small battered change purse, she pulled a couple of crumpled dollar bills out of it. She sighed again; she was going to have to find a job soon or she would be going hungry as well as cold.

Sipping the hot soup, she let the warmth slide through her frozen body. She hadn’t realized it was so cold out until she came in out of it. Smiling at the man behind the counter, Lily asked softly. “You wouldn’t know if anyone around could use a good housekeeper or cook, do you? I’m a hard worker and dependable.”

Gladys had risen when Lily had ordered, moving toward the kitchen. She smiled at Maggie as she walked by her. “This one is a keeper. I say hire her if she needs a job. She is just what the boys need,” she whispered.

Maggie had been sitting in the booth watching the young girl as she looked over the menu. She could tell the girl was cold and hungry, but probably didn’t have much money, if her jacket was any indication. It was hardly appropriate for early October in Wyoming.

When Maggie heard her ask Earl about a job, she thought she had hit pay dirt. She stood up and walked over to the girl. Maggie studied her closely for a minute before speaking.

“I might know someone who’s looking for a housekeeper. My name’s Maggie Cunnings. Why don’t you sit down with me at the booth over there, and we’ll talk for a bit?”

Lily studied the older woman for a moment before nodding. The woman looked to be in her late sixties or early seventies. It was hard to tell really, as she had one of those ageless faces.

Lily couldn’t believe her luck. She watched wide-eyed as the woman turned and went back to the booth she had been sitting at when Lily had first come into the diner. Lily quickly collected her canvas bag and picked up her water. When she turned to grab her cup of soup, Carl had already picked it up and placed it on the table across from Maggie, along with a cup of hot tea.

She started to say she hadn’t ordered hot tea, but her protest died when she saw Carl wink at her. Smiling her thanks, Lily turned to study the woman sitting across from her as she slid into the booth. Maggie continued to stare at her for a moment longer. Feeling a little self-conscious, Lily tucked a stray strand of her dark brown hair behind her ear.

“So, you want to be a housekeeper?” Maggie began.

“Yes, ma’am. My name is Lily. I have plenty of experience with maintaining a house, and I’m an excellent cook. I am also very good with children,” Lily said earnestly. “I’m honest and dependable, too.”

“Call me Maggie. I’m sure you are, dear. I can tell a lot from the way a person holds themselves if they are telling me the truth. The house you would be working at has three males in it. They are brothers. Ethan is the oldest, followed by Caleb and Allen. They aren’t easy to work for, but they are good men. They’ve been through six housekeepers in the last eight months.”

Lily leaned back and stared into Maggie’s eyes thoughtfully. “If you ask me, it sounds like they haven’t found the right person for the job yet. I’m not afraid of hard work, and it isn’t easy to drive me off, ma’am. I stay until the job is done. Do you mind me asking if they are married? Do they have any children who need tending?”

Maggie smiled at the old-fashioned term. “None of them are married and none of them have children—at least none that we know of,” Maggie said humorously. “It hasn’t been easy. All three of those boys need a strong hand to get them into shape. I’ve done the best I can over the past two months, but I’m getting too old for this.”

“Are you their housekeeper? Will they have a problem with you hiring me?” Lily asked curiously.

“I’m their aunt. I’ve been helping out. Each one of those boys needs something different. They all have very distinctive personalities. Ethan works too hard and never takes time for himself. Caleb bottles everything up, and it eats away at him. But the one needing the most help is Allen. He has a lot of anger he needs to work through. They have grown apart over the years and now can’t seem to be around each other for very long without losing their tempers and fighting,” Maggie said, watching carefully for Lily’s reaction. She wondered if she was giving Lily too much information, information that would scare her off. Maggie let out a small prayer, hoping Lily would be strong enough to accept the challenge. She felt it was only right Lily knew all the facts going into the position.

Lily smiled gently. “It really sounds like they need more than a housekeeper. They need someone who can help them become a family again.”

Maggie grinned with relief at Lily’s insight. “You might be right. Those boys need someone who won’t leave the first time they growl at them. They need to learn there is more to life than work or heartache. And, they need to learn how to be brothers again. They were very close growing up, always hanging out with each other and supporting one another through all the scrapes they used to get into. It seems like they have forgotten that.”

Lily nodded. “Ma’am – Maggie – I need a job, and it sounds like your boys need an experienced housekeeper who won’t take their growling personal. If you are willing to hire me, I won’t disappoint you. I’ll stay as long as they need me.”

“Well, then, consider yourself hired! I need you to start as soon as possible. Are you staying in town? Can you start tonight?” Maggie couldn’t contain her joy at the prospect of Lily being at the ranch. Somehow, she knew Lily was the right one. If Maggie didn’t know any better, she would have thought Lily had been heaven-sent as she fit her earlier prayer for an angel to help get those boys back in shape.

“Actually, I just got off the bus, and I haven’t found a place to stay or anything yet. All I have is what’s in my bag.” Lily nodded to the large canvas bag at her feet. Lily didn’t want to admit she didn’t have any money to stay anywhere, and the thought of a nice warm bed was a welcome relief.

Maggie frowned, looking at Lily’s jacket. “We need to get you a few things. Your jacket isn’t going to help keep you warm. We’ll head over to Pete’s Trade Stop before heading out to the ranch. They’ll have everything you’ll need.”

Lily shook her head. Determination made her lips form a straight line. She never took anything without being able to pay for it. Her parents had raised her to believe it just wasn’t right.

“I’ll get it when I get my first paycheck. I have enough to keep me warm until then. I don’t want to take anything until I’ve earned it.”

Maggie studied the girl sitting across from her. She seemed so young, but her eyes told a different story. “Child, how old are you? Do your parents know where you are?”

Lily smiled sadly. “I’m older than I look. My parents passed away a few years ago, and I don’t have any other family. I’ve been on my own for a while now,” she explained in a quiet voice.

Maggie’s eyes shone with compassion, “Well, let’s get you out to the ranch. I can show you the house tonight, and if you don’t mind, I’ll head out back to town tonight so I can get an early start in the morning. I miss my Albert something fierce, not to mention the warm, sunny weather of south Florida. Albert and I met there ten years ago when I moved to get away from the cold Wyoming winters. I have to admit, I don’t miss them at all.”

Lily suddenly had a terrible thought. “Maggie, what if the men don’t like me? What if they fire me before I even have a chance to prove myself?”

“Now, don’t you mind those boys. I’m the one hiring you, so they can’t fire you unless I tell them they can. In fact, I will guarantee you the first three months’ salary plus living accommodations just for taking the job. How does that sound?”

Lily couldn’t help the relieved smile that curved her lips. “Like a plan. You won’t regret it, Maggie, I promise.”

“Gladys, Carl, Earl, I’ve found a new housekeeper for the boys. I’m going to take her out to the ranch and get her settled in. If you don’t mind, can I stay at your place tonight so I can head out early tomorrow morning for the airport? It will save me at least an hour’s drive,” Maggie asked as she gathered her things together.

Gladys smiled warmly at Lily before replying. “Anytime, Maggie. You know that. The guest room has your name on it.” Maggie gave Gladys a quick kiss on the cheek and flushed when both Earl and Carl came up and gave her a kiss on the lips. Shaking her head at the two men, she turned and grinned at Lily, a nice pink glow on her cheeks.

Lily gathered her bag and waited as Maggie put on her coat and gloves. Following the older woman out the door, Lily turned at the last minute to look at Gladys, Carl, and Earl. “Thank you. The soup and hot tea were very good.”

Gladys leaned back into Earl’s arms and smiled up at both men. “I think those Cunnings men aren’t going to know what hit them.”

Carl leaned down and gave Gladys a kiss. “I think you’re right, dear. I think you’re right.”

Earl tightened his hold on Gladys and smiled. “I think they have finally met their match. I just hope they are smart enough not to throw her away.”

Chapter Three

It took almost an hour to get to the ranch house. Lily looked out the window of the truck, studying the white landscape dotted with evergreens. She loved the winter as much as she loved the other seasons. Each one had something special about it. In the spring, the earth just seemed to come alive with new growth and new life. The summer was a time of sunshine and warmth, while the fall had all the colors of the earth mixed together. The winter, though, it was special in its own right.