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Chapter Thirteen

Getting on with life wasn't easy. Douglas kept busy every waking hour so that he wouldn't have time to think about Isabel. Business was booming, and folks from as far away as New York City came to Blue Belle to look over the magnificent horses the Clayborne brothers raised.

Douglas broadened his operation by purchasing additional land adjacent to the main ranch. The wild horses Cole and Adam captured were taken to the green pastures and trained there before they were also put up for sale.

The stable in Blue Belle was also expanded, as was a second stable Douglas had purchased on the outskirts of Hammond.

He worked from sunup to sundown, but time, distance, and backbreaking labor didn't ease the ache he felt whenever thoughts of Isabel intruded.

He told himself over and over again that he had done the right thing. Why then did it hurt so much?

His brothers stayed out of his way as much as possible. Adam dubbed him "The Bear," which, it was unanimously agreed, fit Douglas 's gruff personality these days. He snapped at everyone but his Mama Rose and his sister, rarely smiled, and stubbornly refused to tell anyone what was bothering him.

His brothers had already figured it out, for they had met Isabel Grant, and after spending five minutes in the same room with her and Douglas, it had become apparent to them that their brother had fallen in love with the beautiful woman. She was soft-spoken, sweet-natured, and obviously much more intelligent than Douglas was. She didn't make any attempt to hide how she felt about their brother, which made them like her all the more. Douglas, on the other hand, was determined to act like a mule's backside. If they knew he loved Isabel, they figured he had to know it too, and just when was he going to come to his senses and do something about it?

Cole predicted it would take three months for Douglas to act and wagered five dollars that he was right. Travis bet it would only take two months, met Cole's five-dollar wager, and upped the ante to ten dollars. Adam thought it was disgusting that his brothers were wagering on Douglas 's misery. He also thought it would take his brother four months to go after Isabel and matched Travis's twenty-dollar bet.

Douglas didn't know about the wagers. Six weeks had passed since he'd left Sweet Creek, and not a single day had gone by that he hadn't thought about Isabel and Parker. He didn't know how long he'd last before he gave in and went back.

He was just leaving Hammond to go up to an auction in River's Bend when he received a telegram from Adam telling him to come home.

Douglas assumed his sister had gone into labor early. Mary Rose had made all of her brothers promise to be there for the delivery of her firstborn. She didn't need them to comfort her but was, in fact, far more concerned about her husband. It was up to her brothers to keep Harrison calm.

He arrived at Rosehill around three in the afternoon. The sun was beating down on his shoulders; he hadn't shaved in two days, and all he could think about was getting a cold drink and a hot bath.

He spotted Pegasus as he was riding down the last hill. The Arabian stallion was prancing about inside the corral. Douglas squinted into the sunlight and saw Adam and Cole sitting in the shade of the porch with their feet propped up on the railing.

He slowed his sorrel to a walk as he passed the corral. The barn door opened as he was dismounting, and Travis led Minerva outside.

"Isn't she a fine-looking horse?" Travis called out.

Douglas was numb with disbelief. His voice was hoarse when he called out, "How did they get here?"

Travis shrugged. "You'll have to ask Adam," he suggested. "He probably knows."

Douglas headed for the house. Before he could ask any questions, Adam offered him a cold beer.

"You look parched," he remarked.

"I think he looks kind of sickly," Cole said.

"How did they get here?" Douglas demanded.

"How did who get here?" Adam asked.

"The Arabians," he muttered.

"They probably walked some," Cole said.

"Probably galloped some too," Adam told his brother.

They shared a smile before turning back to torment their brother a little longer.

Douglas was leaning against the post, staring into the hall through the screen door. The agony Adam saw in his eyes made him feel guilty.

"Maybe we ought to tell him, Cole."

"I think he ought to suffer a little longer. He's been hell to live with for the last month and a half. Besides, I lost the bet, or will, just as soon as he sees her."

"She's here, then?"

"She was," Adam said.

"Where is she now?"

"You don't need to yell at us. We can hear you just fine," Adam said.

"Isabel Grant is a contrary woman," Cole remarked. "She looks so sweet and innocent, but she's got a dark side to her, Douglas, which is why I'm so partial to her. You need to understand what you're getting into before you go looking for her."

"What are you talking about. Isabel doesn't have a dark side. She's perfect, damn it. She's good and kind and…"

"Generous?" Adam asked.

"Yes, generous."

"I agree with you," Adam said. "But I also agree with Cole. The woman does have a dark side all right. She wants you to have the two Arabians because you were so helpful to her, and that makes her a downright generous woman. Don't you think so, Cole?"

"Sure I do," his brother said. "But she also came here to kill him," he reminded his brother. "She seems real determined too. Maybe I shouldn't have loaded the shotgun for her, Adam."

"Nope. I don't suppose you should have."

"Is she still here?"

Douglas was moving toward the door when Adam answered. "Yes, she's here."

"If she kills you, we still get the Arabians," Cole called out. "Isabel promised us."

Douglas had already gone inside. He searched the upstairs, looked in the parlor, the library, the dining room, and then went into the kitchen. Mama Rose was standing at the stove. She turned as he entered the room, and that was when he saw Parker in the crook of her arm.

He came to a dead stop and simply stared at the baby.

"Isn't he about the sweetest little thing you've ever seen, Douglas? Why, he smiles all the time. Just look at him. He's smiling now."

Douglas reached out to touch the baby. The tips of his fingers brushed over the top of his head.

Parker looked up at him and smiled.

"Where's his mother?" he asked, his voice rough with emotion.

"She was headed for the barn," Mama Rose said. "I'd be careful if I were you. She's upset with you."

Douglas was suddenly smiling. "So I heard."

He went out the back door, turned the corner of the house, and ran toward the barn. Cole called him back with a shrill whistle.

He turned around, and there was Isabel. She was standing on the top step watching him.

He suddenly forgot how to walk. He couldn't believe she was here. She looked as mad as a hornet and was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen… or loved.

Honor be damned. Right or wrong, he was never going to let her go. He took a step toward her. She lifted the hem of her skirt and started down the stairs, but Cole stopped her.

"Don't forget your shotgun, Isabel."

"Oh, yes, thank you, Cole, for reminding me."

She picked up the weapon, turned around, and continued on. She stopped when she was about fifteen feet away from Douglas and put her hand up.

"Stop where you are, Douglas Clayborne. I have something to say to you, and you're going to listen."

"I've missed you, Isabel." She shook her head. "I don't think you missed me at all. I waited and waited, but you didn't come for me, and I was so sure that you would. You hurt me, Douglas. I needed to come here and tell you how cruel you were to leave me. Everything you said to me before you left… Do you remember? I remember every word. You told me I had to rejoin the outside world and that I would eventually forget all about you. Well, you were wrong about that. I'll never forget you. Will you forget me?"

"No, I could never forget you. Isabel, I was going to-"

She wouldn't let him finish. "You never told me you loved me, but I know that you do. I told you how I felt. Remember? I loved you then, I love you now, and I will go on loving you until the day I die. There, I needed to say that top. I hope you're as miserable as I am, you stubborn, pigheaded mule."

He took a step toward her. She backed up and put her hand up again. "Stand still, and let me have my say. I've only just gotten started. I've saved all this up for a long time, and you're going to listen. How dare you tell me I took you into my arms and my heart because I felt obligated to you. I was furious that you would believe such a thing, but then, the longer I thought about it, the more I realized how right you were."

He was taken aback by her admission. "No, I wasn't right," he said.

"Yes, you were," she replied. "I did feel obligated to you, and that was surely why I slept with you. Love didn't have anything to do with it."

"Isabel, you can't really believe-"

"Will you stop interrupting me? I need to finish this. After you left, I had plenty of time to think things over, and I realized I also felt obligated to dear Dr. Simpson. Yes, I did, and so I slept with him. Trudy didn't mind. Then I realized I also felt obligated to Wendell Border. The man tried to get help for me, after all. This isn't funny, Douglas, so you can stop smiling."

"Did you sleep with Wendell?"

"Yes, I did," she said. "His wife was very understanding. The Arabians belong to you. They can't be separated, and Parker did sell Pegasus to you. Besides, I don't have any place to keep them."

"You own half of Montana," he reminded her.

"No, the orphanage owns half of Montana. The sisters should be moving into Paddy's grand house any day now with the children. They'll be selfsufficient and have a nice income from the rents they collect on their grazing land. I made the sisters promise to call their new home Paddy's Place. They wanted St. Patrick's Place, but I got my way."

"You gave it all away? What about your son? How are you-"

"My baby and I will be just fine. I'm going to teach at the school and will make enough money to support the two of us."

"Isabel, I really need to kiss you."

"No," she said. "I haven't finished with my obligations. I realized I was beholden to your brothers. They were very helpful, if you'll recall, and I am going to sleep with each one of them too. It's only fair. When I'm finished, I'm going to come out here and shoot you for being so stubborn." She put the shotgun down and tried to walk away. "Cole? May I have a few minutes of your time?" she called out.

Douglas was laughing when he grabbed her hand and pulled her toward him.

"I love you, Isabel. I loved you then, I love you now, and I'll love you until the day I die. We're like your Arabians, sweetheart. We can't be separated. I've been so damned miserable without you and Parker. I don't want to get over loving you, and the only man you're ever going to be obligated to is me. Ah, sugar, don't cry. I was coming to get you. I couldn't fight it any longer. Being away from you and Parker was making me crazy."

"I'm leaving you this time."

He wrapped his arms around her, leaned down, and kissed her. "No, you're not leaving. We belong together, now and forever."

She put her arms around him and let him kiss her again. "Are you through being stupid, then?"

He laughed again. "Yes," he promised.

"I'm still going back to Sweet Creek, and you'd better follow me. God help you if you don't. You're going to court me and take me to tea parties and dances. I don't care if you want to or not."

"I've got a much better idea. Marry me, sugar."

Chapter Twelve | One Pink Rose, One White Rose, One Red Rose | Chapter 0ne