Bonus epilogue, A COLD CREEK HOLIDAY

“Are you sure you’re ready to do this?”

Emery gazed out the SUV windshield at the lights of the Dalton’s big log ranch house, gleaming a warm welcome against the wintry New Year’s Eve. Her stomach fluttered with nerves and she clenched her fingers together.

“No. I’m not sure of anything,” she answered in a small voice, very much afraid she was going to be sick.

Nate – her wonderful, strong, amazing Nate – reached out and captured her hand. “We’re simply heading to a New Year’s Eve party. That’s all. Just look at it that way. No need to get worked up about anything, is there? We’ll just walk inside the Cold Creek, have some good food and good times with friends and neighbors, toast to the new year and then head back to Hope’s Springs.”

She nibbled her lip. “And not say anything?”

“That’s completely up to do you, honey.”

“Say anything about what?” Claire asked from the backseat. She and Tallie wore some of their new Christmas clothes along with adorable hats they had helped Emery sew that week out of some of her surplus fabric. She had to admit, they looked cute as could be.

“Nothing you need to fret about,” Nate said with that calm, we’ve-got-this smile she had come to love over the last week.

That smile was only one of a hundred things she was coming to love about him. Each day, it seemed she discovered something new. She loved his willingness to listen to new ideas for the guest ranch, the way he talked to the horses like they could actually understand him and answer back, his endless patience with his nieces, even when they were having a rough day.

They had enjoyed a wonderful week together. One day they gone sledding for hours down the hill behind the house, with Nate hauling the girls up the hill time after time. Another day, they drove into Jackson Hole and took a sleigh ride out to watch the elk being fed at the National Elk Refuge. The day before, she had spent the day teaching each of the girls to use their mother’s sewing machine set up on a table in the great room, while Nate went over ranch accounts nearby.

She already loved all of them, more than she ever imagined possible.

Leaving them in only a few days would be so very difficult but she and Nate had decided she should go back to Virginia to wrap up loose ends there, close down her townhouse and prepare to put it on the market so she could return to Pine Gulch permanently.

She sighed now and looked at the Dalton’s beautiful home. Every morning since Christmas, she had planned to come to the Cold Creek Land & Cattle Company to speak with her half-brothers … and each day she had come up with an excuse not to make the trip.

Then, two days ago, she and the girls had been shopping in town for groceries when she bumped into Caroline Dalton in the produce aisle.

Caroline had asked how long she was staying. Emery smiled a little now, remembering the conversation. When she answered that she would be going home by the end of the week but returning as soon as she could, Caroline had taken one look at the blush she couldn’t control and the happiness on the girls’ face and immediately correctly assessed the situation.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re coming back,” she had said with a knowing smile. “I take it a certain ex-army Ranger neighbor of ours might have something to do with that.”

Emery had been quite sure her face was red enough to guide Santa Claus through the foggiest of nights. She hadn’t known what to say but both girls had giggled and Caroline had laughed with them.

“Tell me you’ll still be here on New Year’s Eve.”

When Emery had nodded, Caroline had smiled. “Yay! We’re having a very small, very impromptu party for New Year’s Eve. Probably no more than fifteen or twenty people. We would love if you and Nate and the girls would come. We’re going to set the kids up in the media room with popcorn and way too much junk food. Natalie and Seth are already fighting over which movie to watch.”

A party. With the family who didn’t yet know about their connection to her. She wasn’t sure whether to be thrilled or horrified at the idea. She had finally managed to smile back at Caroline, thank her for the invitation, and tell her she would discuss it with Nate and call her later that day.

When she had mentioned the party to Nate, he had given her the same calm look he wore now, that equanimity she thought she would find a wonderfully appealing trait in a husband – not that they were anywhere close to talking about forever kinds of things, but if things continued as they were, she saw marriage as the natural outcome.

Despite his own issues with the Daltons – the late patriarch, anyway – the wonderful man she was falling more in love with by the minute had simply pulled her close, kissed the top of her head and told her it was her choice and he would support whatever she decided.

That had been his approach to the situation all week long. The choice of how or when – or even whether – to reveal her connection to Wade, Jake and Seth Dalton was entirely in her hands. Knowing he was behind her gave her amazing strength and comfort.

“You’re right,” she said now, with a determined smile. “It’s a party. If the moment seems right, I’ll say something, but only if it won’t ruin the celebration. I can always wait and tell them after I return to town in a few weeks, right?”

“Absolutely.” He gave her fingers a little squeeze and then slid out of the SUV and walked around to open the doors for her and for Claire and Tallie.

All of them helped carry the salad, cupcakes and party mix they had brought along.

After Tallie rang the doorbell – about three times in quick succession, before they could stop her – Wade Dalton answered the door, looking tall and commanding.

He smiled broadly when he saw them. “Hey there! Carrie told me she invited you. I’m so glad.” He shook Nate’s hand and then, to her shock, he leaned in and kissed her cheek.

It was only one of those polite, meaningless greetings people performed on social occasions but her heart seemed to clutch anyway. This was her oldest half-brother. As a lonely single child, she had always wanted a half-dozen brothers and sisters. She had three brothers now and she only needed to say the word to let them know.

Of course, they could always react with anger and disgust at her for being living proof of Hank Dalton’s infidelity and deception. That was the fear that held her tongue.

Until the news was out in the open, her mind could have keep its little fantasies about how rosy and warm things might be between them if the Daltons really belonged to her. Once she came clean, the hard reality might not even come close to her imagination.

She wasn’t sure if she was willing to take that risk yet.

“If you girls will give me your coats and those goodies you’re carrying, you can head upstairs to the media room,” Wade said. “Tanner and the others have been waiting anxiously for you to arrive.”

The girls hurriedly shed their coats, hats and gloves and handed them over along with the food, then raced up the stairs.

“Might as well take your coats too,” Wade said.

Nate helped her shrug out of her wool coat and then handed his own to Wade, who hung them in a nearby closet.

“Everybody else is back in the kitchen,” he told them and led the way past that wall of family photographs to the warm, open kitchen of the ranchhouse.

She shouldn’t have come. This was a mistake, she thought when they walked in and found only relatives, everywhere she looked. The party was much smaller than she expected. It was more like a family party, with the Dalton brothers and their wives, their mother Marjorie and her husband Quinn and Maggie Dalton’s mother and her husband, all of whom she had met at the Christmas party.

“We’re so glad you came,” Caroline exclaimed. “I invited a few other families that live here in the canyon but just about everybody bailed on us. Carson ended up having to fly out to California for a last-minute meeting and Jenna and the children decided to go with him and spend some time on the coast before school starts up again. The Hartfords’ baby is running a fever and Ashley didn’t want to leave him with a babysitter. Ridge Bowman and his daughter and sister Caidy are still coming but they had unexpected company so they’re going to be late.”

“Oh,” Emery said. “I see.”

Without saying anything, Nate reached for her hand. Emery knew exactly what he was thinking. The small party had turned into only them and the Daltons, for now. It was almost as if fate were playing a hand in the situation, creating the perfect conditions for her to tell them the truth.

How could she do it? Just blurt it out? She bit her lip, feeling stupid and awkward. Why would they even want someone so socially inept for a sister?

“Here, let me take that from you.” Jake Dalton stood and took the bowl she carried.

“I made a salad and cupcakes. Red velvet.”

Seth, holding a baby on his lap she was almost positive belonged to Jake and Maggie, gave her his killer grin. “Wow, my favorite. How did you know?”

“I didn’t until right now, but I’ll remember for next time.” Seth was the closest in age to her, she suddenly realized, only a few years older than she was, if that.

“You can set those on the bar and then come sit down.” Maggie gestured to a couple of empty chairs at the table. “We’re just chatting for awhile until dinner is ready, which should be soon.”

She couldn’t seem to move until Nate squeezed her arm and pushed her forward.

“Caroline said you might be staying longer than just through the holidays.” Jenny – Seth’s wife, she remembered – gave her a warm smile.

She managed, somehow, to find her voice. “Actually, I’m going home the day after tomorrow but only for a few weeks. I’m actually looking for an apartment or a small house to rent in Pine Gulch, if you know of anything.”
Marjorie’s husband, Quinn, leaned forward. “Is that right? What are you looking for? I might be able to hook you up with a couple of possibilities.”

Oh, right. She had heard at the McRaven’s Christmas party that he was in real estate. She should have remembered. She decided to put away her nerves and focus only on the party and normal conversation. She could do that much, just as if it were any other party.

“I would really appreciate any help finding a place. I would stay at Hope Springs but I really need two bedrooms. I work from home and need space to spread out in one of the rooms, somewhere I can close the door so it doesn’t take over the whole house.”

Nate had wanted her to stay at the ranch and use two of the guest houses, one to live in and one for her work, but they had both decided it was too awkward for her to be in a relationship with her landlord – especially when he hadn’t wanted to charge her rent and she hadn’t been willing to stay there without paying him.

“I would like to be as close as possible to Hope Springs, since I’ll be helping out with the guest ranch and the girls,” she added. “Other than that, I’m not picky.”

“Definitely a short-term lease,” Nate added and Emery could feel herself flush.

“We’ve got just the place,” Caroline exclaimed. “Wade, don’t you think it would be ideal?”

Wade, in the middle of snatching a potato chip from a bowl at his end of the table, looked up.

“What would be …” Comprehension spread over his handsome features. “Ah. Now that you mention it, our foreman’s cottage would be perfect for you, just what you need. Two bedrooms, lots of natural light, and you won’t find anything closer to Hope Springs unless you’re on the ranch itself. Only this morning, I was thinking what a shame the place is just sitting there empty. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”

“That’s a great idea,” Seth said.

“Definitely,” Jake piped in.

Oh. Oh my. That these people, who barely knew her, would open their ranch and their lives to her with such easy friendliness suddenly overwhelmed her. She didn’t know how handle their generosity, especially while she was harboring a deep secret that could rattle their entire family.

“That is … so kind.” Her voice caught on the last word, emotions choking her throat, burning behind her eyes. She was going to cry. She tried to fight down the tears but they welled up anyway and she could feel one hot drop slide down the side of her nose.

Beside her, Nate grabbed her hand and handed her a handkerchief, offering that steady support and comfort she had come to rely on the last week. Instead of steadying her, as it should have, his solid strength only made more tears leak out.

She looked around at these people she hadn’t even known two weeks ago, who had all become so very dear to her. She had to tell them. They had opened their home to her and welcomed her into their midst while she had, in effect, been lying to them since the day they met.

“What is it?” Maggie asked. “What’s wrong, Emery?”

“You don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to,” Caroline said quickly. “It was just an idea. You won’t offend us if you find somewhere else. I’m sure my dad can find you a great place somewhere else in town.”

It took her a long moment to compose herself enough to answer. “It’s not that. I’m so touched at the offer and I’m sure the house would be perfect for my needs. It’s just … I’m afraid I haven’t been completely honest with you.”

“Oh?” Wade looked stern and forbidding, suddenly, and she realized he embraced his role as oldest brother with great seriousness.

“Yes.” She released a breath. “I told you all I came to Pine Gulch looking for somewhere to relax over Christmas. That’s not … precisely the full truth.”

The Daltons exchanged puzzled looks.

“It’s not?” Caroline asked with a frown.

She shook her head. “The truth is, I came here hoping I would have the chance to meet you all.”

Wade cast a look around the table and then looked back at her, eyes narrowed. “Us? Why?”

Oh, she should not have come. But if she hadn’t – if curiosity and a compulsion to know this side of her DNA hadn’t brought her to the Cold Creek area – she never would have met Nate or the girls. Her life would have been cold and hollow.

She had taken a chance letting Nate and Tallie and Claire into her heart. She had to hope the Daltons would be willing to do the same with her. From all indications, they were a warm and loving family and she had a difficult time imagining them turning their back on her.

She took a deep breath. “I believe I told you my mother died this fall from cancer.”

“You did.” Caroline’s eyes softened with concern. “I’m so sorry. That must have been so difficult for you.”

“She was all I had left,” Emery said. “Or at least I thought so.”

Nate rubbed his thumb over her hand and she was suddenly so very grateful for him, she had to dab at her eyes again.

She swallowed. “As she was dying, she told me something she had been concealing from me my entire life. The identity of my father.”

She reached into her purse and pulled out the photograph her mother had unearthed from deep in a drawer. “This is my mother,” she said, turning the photograph out for them to see. “And I believe you know the man she’s with. The man she said is my father.”

As she expected, the news appeared to hit them all like a landslide coursing down the mountainside and into the kitchen as they stared at the photograph.

Wade, the one who looked most like the man in the picture, was the first to speak. “Son of a …” he fell silent and shook his head.

“Hank?” Jake exclaimed. “Hank was your father?”

She wished she could tell what they were all thinking. She could tell they were all shocked but beyond that, the Daltons were difficult to read. Were they disgusted? Angry? Did they want to throw her out of the house?

“I’m sorry to spring it on you like this during a party. I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just … you were all here together and the time seemed right.”

“You don’t need to apologize. Forget about that.” The support, unexpectedly, came from Marjorie Montgomery, the person she was most uneasy about facing. The woman Hank Dalton had betrayed, with her mother and with Nate’s. “I would ask if you’re sure, but I can see it, there through the eyes. You’re Hank’s daughter, all right.”

“I … my mother didn’t know he was married or she never would have … dated him. Please believe me. I’m sorry if this is hurtful to you. I never wanted to hurt anyone, just … be honest about my reasons for coming here.”

“Anything that man did lost the power to hurt me a long time ago, believe me,” Marjorie said firmly. “How did they meet? Do you know? You’re from Virginia. I don’t recall him ever going back east.”

“My mother apparently met him in Jackson on a tour of Grand Teton and Yellowstone with some girlfriends. It was a … whirlwind courtship, from what I understand. And, like I said, she had no idea he was married until just before she left town. Later, back in Virginia, she found out she was pregnant and ended up marrying a man she had dated in college.”

“Did Hank know? About you, I mean?”

She gripped the handkerchief in one hand and Nate’s hand in the other. “My mother said she tracked his number down and called him after she found out. He … told her it wasn’t his problem.”

Marjorie snorted. “Now that sounds like Hank. You sure you want to claim that bastard for a father?”

She didn’t. Everything she had learned about Hank Dalton made him seem a very unappealing man, one she wasn’t sure she would have wanted to even meet in person. The family he had left behind, on the other hand, was something else entirely.

“Mom, you might be sure, but I’m not.” Jake Dalton turned to Emery. “How can we know you’re telling the truth?”

“I … don’t blame you for being suspicious. I can only tell you what my mother told me. She was dying and had no reason to lie, especially when she knew the information would completely rock the foundation of my world. She told me she, um, hadn’t been with anyone else before Hank Dalton and then not again until after she had me, when she was already married to the man I thought was my father.”

Her heart ached all over again for her mother’s foolhardy naiveté and the heartbreak she must have suffered when she found out the man she had given her heart and her virginity to was already married and had only ever wanted one more quick conquest.

“We can check the DNA. That’s easy enough to prove or disprove,” Wade said.

“Yes. I would like a DNA test, actually, to be sure,” she said.

Marjorie shook her head. “You can waste your money if you want, but I know all I need to know. She has Hank’s eyes. Your eyes.”

She slid her chair out and headed for her. Emery rose warily and felt Nate do the same, as if he worried this sixty-something woman was going to smack her or something. Instead, Marjorie shocked her again by wrapping her arms around her.

“You know, I always wanted a daughter. I guess a stepdaughter of sorts will do just fine.”

Emery sniffled as more tears trailed down her cheek. She never expected Hank’s widow would be the first to accept and embrace her, both literally and figuratively. It was both touching and overwhelming.

“Wow!” Seth was the next to rise. “You know what this means? I’m not the youngest Dalton anymore. That is definitely cause for celebration.”

He hugged her too and she felt another burden of worry on her shoulders shear away.

“The doctor in me would still like the DNA test to be sure,” Jake said. “But I guess I can see the resemblance. The picture seems to back you up. Hey, little sis.”

He hugged her and his wife Maggie was next, followed by Jenny and finally a tearful Caroline.

“The first time I met you, I felt an instant connection,” she said. “I should have realized. You’re a Dalton. Of course I would love you.”

Even Quinn Montgomery and Maggie’s mother and uncle hugged her. Finally, the only person left who hadn’t said anything was Wade. He stood slightly apart from the others, watching her with an unreadable expression on his handsomely rugged features.

She held her breath. As the oldest son, he was the leader of the family. If he didn’t fully accept her, she wasn’t sure the others would ever be able to either.

After a long, drawn-out moment, he finally gave her a half-smile and opened his arms. She moved into his embrace and he wrapped his arms around her tightly. More tears trickled down and she was aware of a deep, effervescent sense of rightness. Of belonging. This was what she had been seeking, right here.

“Welcome to the family, Emery,” he murmured. “I hope you know what you’re getting into.”

She backed away, wiping at her eyes again with Nate’s handkerchief. For months, she had worried about this moment. She couldn’t believe all the angst ahead of time had been for nothing. Of course the Daltons would embrace her. That’s the kind of family they were.

Her family.

This was the reason her mother had told her the truth, after all these years, she suddenly realized. Her mother had known Emery would have no one after she died. Perhaps she was leading her here, to this moment. These people.

“There’s no question now about you staying at the foreman’s cottage,” Wade said. “It’s yours as long as you want it.”

He suddenly glowered and turned to Nate, still standing behind her. “Which reminds me. Emery has three older brothers now. You’ll treat her right – or you better watch your back, soldier.”

She caught her breath, knowing Nate’s conflicted feelings for the Daltons – especially for Wade, who looked so very much like his father.

The man she loved with all her heart returned her half-brother’s glare with a steady look and then offered up that rare grin she adored, the one that softened the rugged lines of his features. “Duly noted. I would have expected nothing less.”

The two men shook hands in that mysterious way males of the species had of carrying out an entire conversation without words and she wanted to cry all over again.

Soon everyone was talking and laughing, pulling food out of the oven, taking out bowls, passing around plates.

Her happiness seemed as bright and warm as the moon she could see out the window, shining out over the cold, bleak winter landscape that had been her life before.

She had a family now. Brothers. Sisters-in-law. Nieces and nephews she couldn’t wait to spoil.

She wanted to cry all over again at the thought and then her gaze caught Nate’s.

“You doing okay?” he asked, his voice low and his dark eyes concerned.

She gave a tearful smile, her heart overflowing. This man and his nieces – his girls, now – were the most cherished of the many gifts she had received this magical season and she loved him more in that moment than she ever believed possible.

“I’m great. Absolutely, completely, perfectly wonderful.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” He gave a small, private smile reserved only for her, filled with love and warmth and the promise of many more joyful holidays to come.