The Founding Fathers 1)
Desire, Oklahoma: The Founding Fathers… and the courageous women who dare to love them.
Here is how it all begins…
When Eb and Jeremiah Tyler left their father’s ranch five years ago, Maggie Simms thought she’d never see them again. But now they’re back. But different.
In the years they’ve been gone, they’ve become strangers–hard, cold men she barely recognizes. Dangerous men. But her heart knows them. And knows she’d never survive watching them walk away again, even though they see her as nothing more than the woman they’d helped raise, one who understands ranch life.
Knowing she could never let them suspect that she loves them both, she dreams of marrying one of them and living happily ever after on their father’s ranch. But she’s stunned to learn they have plans of their own–plans to share her. To take her away from the only home she’d ever known. To a ranch in Oklahoma, called the Circle T. In a town they call Desire.
Margaret Simms used the back of her hand to wipe away yet another tear that leaked from the corner of her eye. She watched in a kind of stupor as several of the men from the Shenandoah helped lower the pine box into the damp earth, having a hard time believing the scene playing out before her was real. She’d expected it for some time, had thought herself prepared for it.
She wasn’t. How did someone ever prepare for something like this?
Her only real family was dead.
To make it even worse, her father’s death made the always lingering ache for Eb and Jeremiah Tyler almost unbearable. She wanted them here. She wanted them to take her in their arms and tell her that everything would be all right.
They’d always made everything all right for her.
Anger crept in, slicing through the numbness. She didn’t need them and never would again.
Swallowing another sob, she stiffened when an arm came around her shoulders, only to slump again when a voice sounded low in her ear.
“Your father was a good foreman-and a good friend. He’ll be missed, Maggie. I know you must be afraid, but you’re not alone, honey.”
Maggie looked up over her shoulder into the eyes of her father’s dearest friend, a man who’d always been like a second father to her, Ace Tyler. She couldn’t help but worry that the lines on his face appeared much more pronounced today, and his own eyes were wet with unshed tears. Forcing a faint smile, she leaned into him. “How do you always know what I’m thinking?”
Ace Tyler had been her father’s friend since before she was born. Her parents had lived in town when her father first started working at the Shenandoah, but her father had come to live at the ranch when her mother died, shortly after her birth. Since then, the housekeeper, Esmeralda, had pretty much taken over raising her.
Mr. Tyler squeezed her shoulder again. “I’ve known you since you were a baby. We all had a hand in raising you. Eb and Jeremiah always knew what you were thinking, too. Remember?”
“They’re gone.” She couldn’t talk about them today. It hurt too much. She needed them there beside her as much as she needed her next breath.
But they were gone, and had been for a long time.
Pushing back the anger that rose again, she forced a smile, not wanting to upset the older man.
“And now Daddy’s gone. Thank God I still have you and Esmeralda.”
“There are other people that love you, and you know it.”
Maggie shrugged, her gaze sliding involuntarily to one of the ranch hands who stood beside the grave, holding a shovel and staring at her hungrily. “Fred doesn’t love me.”
Mr. Tyler’s gaze followed hers. “No, he doesn’t, and I’m glad you’re smart enough to know that. I don’t like that look in his eye. He wants you, and he’s not doing anything to hide it anymore. He tells everyone on the place he loves you, but I don’t think Fred loves anything but himself. Seems the young man has plans to marry you. He’ll soon find out just how wrong he is about that.”
Irritated, she turned away. “He already has. I’ve already told him that we can be nothing more than friends.”
In fact, Fred’s advances had started making her feel uncomfortable, so she’d already told him to stay the hell away from her.
But Mr. Tyler didn’t need to know that. She didn’t want Fred to lose his job because of her, and she was confident she could handle him.
“Your daddy threatened to shoot him if he came near you again. Your daddy’s not even in the ground and Fred’s sniffin’ around you. I won’t have it, Maggie.”
Maggie sighed, knowing that only his boss’s presence kept Fred from approaching her. “He just came over to tell me he was sorry about Daddy.”
Ace nodded. “I’m sure that’s what he said, but he’s lookin’ for more.” Pushing her hair back from her face, he smiled gently. “Honey, your daddy’s been sick quite awhile now, and you’ve been a godsend to him. But now it’s time for you to live your life. Time for you to get married and have babies you can teach to do all the things that, according to the Reverend Perry, you’re not supposed to do.”
Maggie smiled as she knew Mr. Tyler meant her to and looked again toward her father’s grave, the lump in her throat growing.
The ache for Eb and Jeremiah grew, when she’d been sure it couldn’t possibly get any bigger.
Smiling through her tears, she looked up at the older man, desperate to change the subject. “I tried to get Daddy to marry again, but he always said you were two peas in a pod. You both lost your wives young, and yet neither one of you ever remarried.”
Mr. Tyler’s hold tightened briefly on her shoulder as he turned her and started toward the buckboard. He walked stiffly, as he usually did when his old bones protested the cold and the damp. “We both knew that there’d be only one love in our lives. Anyone else woulda just been second best. That’s no way to treat a lady.”
Leading her back to where the others had gathered, he didn’t say anything, just held her arm to steady her over the rough ground of the cemetery. He helped her into the buckboard, placing a blanket over her skirts before starting the ride back to his ranch.
Other than the men who’d taken Esmeralda back already, the ranch hands who’d come to the funeral rode on either side of them, their boots polished and most of the dust beaten from their cowboy hats.
A few had been left behind to bury her father once she was out of sight, and Fred didn’t look happy to be one of them. There was no doubt in her mind that Mr. Tyler had done it on purpose.
She looked around again in vain for her best friend, Savannah Perry. The only thing that would have kept Savannah away today was Reverend Perry’s refusal to let her come.
Stan Perry was the minister in Kansas City and didn’t care for his niece’s friendship with Maggie. He had a hair-trigger temper that went off with very little provocation, something he kept carefully hidden.
But Maggie knew.
He hated Maggie and everyone who worked at the Tyler ranch. A greedy man, his jealousy ate at him until nothing remained but bitterness. He’d hidden his hatred from Eb and Jeremiah, but once they left, he hadn’t bothered to hide it from her, warning Savannah to avoid Maggie right in front of her.
“You stay away from that heathen, Savannah. You hear me? The Tylers own her as much as they own all those cows and horses. She runs wild over there with all those men. She even rides and hunts like a man. It ain’t seemly, I tell you. It just ain’t seemly.”
He turned to Maggie, lifting his chin and looking down at her, not bothering to hide his distaste. “Stay away from her, Margaret. I don’t want her turning out like you or her mother.”
Savannah’s mother had moved in with her brother when the father of her unborn child was killed in a gunfight in Savannah, Georgia, before they’d had the chance to get married. Maggie had long ago lost count of how many men she’d been through since then. Two years ago, while riding in a carriage with one of her beaus, the carriage tipped, killing her.
Savannah had lived alone with her uncle ever since.
Mr. Tyler, in his usual headstrong way, had arranged for another minister from the next town to handle her father’s service. It would give Mr. Perry another reason to hate her, but she no longer cared what he thought.
Her only concern was Savannah.
Mr. Tyler snapped the reins and glanced over at her, his jaw tight. “Your friend would have come if she could. Her uncle’s not right in the head, and he’s getting worse. Now that your daddy’s gone, I’m responsible for you, which’ll make him hate you even more. I don’t want you around the Reverend Perry unless others are around. I don’t trust him.”
Staring straight ahead, she nodded, firming her lips. “Savannah usually meets me in town anyway. I’m worried about her.” The secret she’d unwillingly kept could no longer be contained. Looking around to make sure the others weren’t close enough to hear, she kept her voice low. “I’m afraid he hits her, but she won’t admit it.”
Mr. Tyler’s face hardened. “Suspected as much. He’s been warned already, but I’ll keep a closer watch.”
Maggie breathed a sigh of relief, trusting that Mr. Tyler would indeed watch out for her friend. “Last week I saw bruises on her arm. She moved slow, like she hurt, but I can’t get her to talk about it.”
He nodded once. “I’ll take care of it. You just stay away from him.”
They rode in silence for about a mile, both obviously lost in their own thoughts. The ranch hands didn’t speak much at all, although several looked her way with sympathetic smiles. She’d known most of them her entire life and smiled back, grateful for their presence.
When the wind kicked up, Maggie tugged her shawl more closely around her. She wore the warmest one she owned, but still it didn’t hold off the damp chill in the air, a chill that seemed to go all the way to her bones.
She’d been cold ever since she’d seen her father lying on the stable floor holding his chest. Now, nothing she did seemed to warm her up.
If only Eb and Jeremiah were here, they would make her warm and get rid of this lonely emptiness inside her.
“I sent for Eb and Jeremiah.”