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Angel Springs, Colorado, October 1880

Proving he was a man was easy on the Circle F ranch, except when it came to his family. None of them wanted to accept that at the age of twenty-two, the youngest of the four boys had grown up. Not his brothers or his mother, his father had been buried when he was just a boy, but in some ways, Ethan Fraser felt older than his brothers.

Jamie Fraser looked northward. “Snow’s coming down fast and thick for this early. Gonna be a hard winter.”

Gideon threw the corral gate closed. “Pete better hurry back or he’ll be stuck in town with our supplies.”

Ethan was certain that Pete, their ranch hand, wouldn’t waste any time getting back to the ranch to get out of the cold. The trip had seemed unnecessary and he’d wondered what his mother’s urgent need was that she’d send their best ranch hand out into the snow to town.

Caleb turned up his collar. “I’m heading to the house. I don’t aim to stand around waiting on Pete, no matter what Mama says.”

Jamie shot him a stony stare. “She doesn’t ask much of us. Won’t kill you to hold off on your carousing for a couple of hours. Besides, you can’t head into town in this weather.”

Ethan laughed and nudged Caleb. “He doesn’t have to. Has himself a sweet little gal stashed at his house.”

Caleb pushed at Ethan’s chest and sent him tumbling onto the snowy ground. Anger rose up inside Ethan faster than a charging bull. He’d been telling Caleb for days this wasn’t a good idea, but as usual, his brother wouldn’t listen.

“Keep your mouth shut, little brother. Nobody’s business but mine.”

Ethan hopped up, and Jamie stopped him before he tackled Caleb. Not that he wanted to hurt his brother, but he got tired of his bossiness. Of all his brothers, Caleb was the one who he worried about the most. The man was running from a demon by chasing every skirt available in town.

“Settle down. We have more important things to do than wrestle in the snow,” Jamie scolded his brothers.

The jingle of sleigh bells interrupted their quarrel. Finally, they could unload the wagon and go inside where it was warm.

His mother came out onto the porch and watched the wagon with the skids attached coming up the drive.

“Let’s go stand with Mama,” Jamie told his brothers, and they trudged through the knee-high snow to their mother’s side.

Something was up. An uneasy tingly feeling crept along Ethan’s spine. Whatever it was, from Jamie’s frowning expression, his older brother knew what was going on.

Gideon craned his neck. “Looks like Pete’s got passengers. Who’d be coming here in this weather? You expecting anyone, Mama?”

She straightened. “As a matter of fact, I am. I’d appreciate you boys staying right here with me. I have something important to say to you in a few minutes.”

What was she hiding? There was something on that wagon making her act suspicious. If his mother was involved, it probably meant bad news for all of them.

Ethan caught sight of the passengers coming up the drive—four women.

Frowning, Jamie turned to his mother. “Mama, what have you done?”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “What needed doing.”