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A Proposal for the Cowboy Next Door

The last person he was expecting to ask for his help was Lilian. Is he ready to accept the proposal that will change his life forever?

Lilian is a proud woman who thinks she can achieve everything by herself after her father’s death. She is capable of making the ranch thrive, but things are not going as planned. Their most essential partners find it difficult to trust a woman, and she has no choice but to marry. How can she make this happen but protect her heart at the same time?

Will is the neighbor rancher who depends on Lilian’s ranch for the water after an agreement with her father. Now that he is dead, Lilian is a hard shell to crack and always causes him trouble. But when one day she knocks on his door, the last thing he is expecting from her is a marriage proposal. How can he stay true to their agreement when he discovers a different and beautiful Lilian under her emotional shield?

Will and Lilian must fight incessantly to get what they want. But when the most notorious businessman in town is ready to do anything to get her ranch, will they manage to protect their newfound family and stay together?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.4/5

4.4/5 (140 ratings)

Prologue

The Walters Ranch. Calico, California. Winter. 1880

Despite the chill in the air, beads of perspiration formed on the young woman’s slender neck as she scrubbed the leather saddle with the soft sheepskin in her hand. A piece of ivory soap floated atop the pail of milky water like a ship lost at sea. Lillian Walters stopped scrubbing for a moment and squinted at the saddle, her green cat-like eyes narrowing as she scanned the surface for a sign of some hair or dirt that she may have missed.

Lillian’s father had taught her how to care for her saddle when she was just a girl. She could still remember the day he led her into the stables and sat her down on the same wooden stool where she sat now. She was no older than eleven and she’d been gifted a horse and a saddle by her father that very same day. As she sat in the airy room that smelled of woody straw and horse manure, her father lifted the heavy saddle off its hook on the wall and placed it on her lap.

She could remember exactly how heavy it felt and the earthy, slightly sweet scent of the leather. She’d seen her father’s saddle often, but never this close. It had large skirts, a deep seat, and a horn at the front for rope. Unlike European saddles, American saddles were heavier, hardier, and had been designed and built for long hours on horseback.

“You can tell a lot about a person by the way they care for their saddle,” he told her. “So always take your time, never rush.” He had then taken her though each step, slowly explaining the process in great detail, and she savored every word, carefully sketching each detail into her brain so that she would never forget. She could remember running her hands over the supple leather as her father spoke, her fingers tracing the beautiful complexity of the object made of so many tiny parts that fit together perfectly. She knew then that she wanted to honor her father’s words, his ritual, and by doing so, she’d be honoring him.

So, once a week, Lillian would come out to the stables after breakfast and she’d fetch her saddle off its hook on the wall. She’d rest it on a wall of one of the horse stalls and set to work.

As her father had taught her, Lillian would first unfasten the buckles and remove all of the fittings so that no part was forgotten. Then, using a damp towel, she would slowly wipe down the saddle, making sure to remove any dust, mud, dirt, or hair. After this she took the short-handled bristle brush. She lifted up the fenders, saddle strings, and the stirrups to make sure no sand was trapped there, as the friction made when riding often caused the leather to wear.

Sometimes, after a long ride, there would be a lot of hair and dirt where the stirrups hung and so she would use a small knife to scrape off the caked dirt and mud. After all of this was done, she would fill a pail with water and wash the saddle using a soft piece of sheepskin and a bar of ivory soap. All of this was part of her father’s ritual, one he had passed on to her, and even now, after all these years, she was still afraid she would do it wrong and disappoint him in some way.

Lillian sighed softly to herself as she reached for the soap and pressed the slippery bar against the saddle, making circular motions with her hand. As she did, she left white streaks across the dark leather like those glittering trails left by snails every morning when she woke up. She’d soaped it twice already, but a third time wouldn’t hurt and she wanted to make sure her father could not find fault should he decide to come and check up on her.

Lillian loved her father—he was the most important person in her life—but he was a perfectionist, and one of her greatest fears in life was that she would disappoint him and so she worked to be good, the best, at everything she did.

When Lillian was finally finished cleaning the saddle with soap and water, she carried it out into the pale, warm winter sunshine. The saddle was heavy but she barely noticed anymore, years of working the ranch with her father making the muscles in her slender arms strong. Just outside the stables was a large velvet ash tree and beside it sat an even large stump that had once belonged to another velvet ash.

However, when Lillian was just a girl that tree had been struck by lightning one night and had come crashing to the earth and now all that remained of it was that stump. Lillian carried the staddle over to the stump and placed it down. While she waited for the saddle to dry, she turned and went back into the stables to retrieve the bucket of soapy water which she cast out onto the grass, watching it absorb into the earth and disappear, leaving nothing but a few bubbles sparking in the pale sunlight before they too popped and disappeared into nothing.

Lillian returned to the stables and fetched the tin of beeswax and a dry piece of sheepskin. Once she’d checked that her saddle was dry, she kneeled with one knee on the hard ground and began to polish it using coating in a thick layer of beeswax they got from the hives on the eastern side of the ranch. Once Lillian was finished, the saddle shone in the sunlight.

Suddenly, Lillian looked up, squinting into the sun, and she frowned. It was long past midday. Lillian and her father ate meals together every day and when she lost track of time, as she so often did, he would come and find her and yet he had not come to look for her today.

Lillian returned the saddle to its hook in the stables and then headed inside. As she walked, her oversized cotton trousers began to unroll around the ankles and she sighed in annoyance, as this happened multiple times a day. Had someone taught her to sew, she might have been inclined to hem her pants, but instead she just wore them rolled up. She quickly kneeled to roll them up again, her long blonde plait falling over her shoulder as she did.

Lillian had long since given up wearing skirts and dresses; what was the point? They were impractical for farm work and so now they hung in her cupboard gathering dust and fish moths. Instead, she wore her father’s hand-me-downs which were much too big but she did not care. She loved the freedom of the cotton trousers and the breathability of the shirt. How women could breathe wrapped up in corsets, petticoats, and heavy fabrics, she did not know.

After she’d rolled them up again, she headed straight across the small garden with the overgrown vegetable patch and straight into the kitchen through the back door. Lillian expected to find her father sitting at the kitchen table eating his favorite salt pork and mustard sandwich with a side of black coffee, but the kitchen was empty.

“Pa?” Lillian called. “Are you here?”

She waited a moment for a response but there was nothing. The house was silent.

Lillian frowned as she walked across the wooden floor, her boots clacking loudly on the wood. She headed out of the kitchen and into the hallway. She hesitated for a moment but the house was quiet and Lillian suddenly felt unsettled. She walked down the hall to her father’s study and found the door slightly ajar.

“Pa?” Lillian said, as she pushed it open.

Lillian looked around the unfamiliar room but it was empty. Even at twenty-two, her father’s study was this secret space where she had never been invited. As a child she used to lie in bed at night imagining what wonderful things might be hidden in the drawers of his desk—oranges, perhaps, or peppermint candies dressed in red and green stripes. As Lillian grew older, she outgrew these fantasies and learned that the desk was home to nothing more than papers, ledgers, and old fountain pens. Yet, she still always longed to be invited in, though she never was.

Lillian sighed as she pulled the door closed, wondering where on earth her father was, but suddenly she caught sight of her father’s boots behind the desk and she gasped.

“Pa!” Lillian cried as she raced over to him.

Jack Walters was lying face down on the floor of his study. His eyes were closed and the frames of his glasses were bent around his face.

“Pa?” Lillian cried again. “Can you hear me?’

Jack Walter remained silent and Lillian, using all of her strength, managed to roll him over onto his back. She looked at his pale, expressionless face and she felt her stomach sink to her knees. She quickly leaned over him and she could feel his breath on her cheek but it was barely there.

“I’m going to get help, Pa,” Lillian said, her voice wavering. “Hold on, please hold on.”

Lillian rushed out of the house, the leg of her trousers unrolling again but this time she did not notice. She knew the other ranch hands had lunch in the shade behind the barn and she raced around the building

“Get the doctor,” she panted. “Quickly, someone fetch the doctor!”

No one moved for a moment as if they were expecting her to say something else or give them an explanation, but when it became clear that Lillian was not going to say anything more, Theo McCoy, one of the ranch hands, got to his feet and ran off in the direction of the stables.

Lillian did not wait and rushed back inside and to her father’s study. She sat down beside him on the floor, blinking back tears. She took his hand in hers and squeezed it tightly.

“The doctor is on his way, Pa,” Lillian whispered.

The seconds and minutes seemed to drag as Lillian stared at her father’s face. She had not realized how old he looked; his light hair had gone gray when he was a young man but it was now thin and wispy. He had heavy wrinkles under his eyes and around his mouth. His skin was also thinner than she remembered, papery almost, and beneath it she could see pale purple veins. Lillian did not know exactly how old her father was; it wasn’t something she’d often thought about because it made her sad and yet looking at him now, she could not run away from the fact that he was an old man.

Suddenly, Lillian heard footsteps in the hallway and she got up and rushed to the door. “He’s in here!”

The doctor came hurrying toward her with a large black leather bag. Dr. Oliver Murray was a young man with dark curly hair and a thin mustache. He came straight into the room and as Lillian stepped aside, she could see Theo hanging back in the hallway but she did not acknowledge him and instead turned to the doctor.

“What happened?” Dr. Murray asked, as he kneeled beside Jack.

“I don’t know,” Lillian confessed. “I came in here and found him like this.”

Dr. Murray pressed his stethoscope to Jack’s heart and there was something about the way he moved it, as if he were searching for a heartbeat, that made Lillian’s breath catch in her chest.

He removed his stethoscope and pressed two fingers to Jack’s throat as Lillian held her breath. A moment later the doctor turned to her and she could see by the look on his face that her father was gone.

“I am sorry,” Dr. Murray said.

They were only three little words and yet they brought Lillian’s world crashing down around her. How could he be gone? Only a few hours earlier they’d sat together at the breakfast table discussing that year’s cattle breeding program, and now she’d never get to see him again, speak to him? He was the only person in the whole world she cared about, who cared about her, and now he was gone, in the blink of an eye.

Dr. Murray got up from the floor but Lillian could not take her eyes off her father. Some small part of her hoped that maybe, just maybe the doctor was wrong, and she did not want to look away in case she missed his eyelids flicker or his lips twinge, any small sign that might indicate this nightmare was something she could wake up from at any moment.

“Miss Walters?” Dr. Murray said, taking a step toward her. “I know this is a big shock, is there anyone I can call?”

Lillian shook her head, her throat was too swollen to talk.

Dr. Murray said nothing for a moment, but he did not take his eyes off Lillian.

“I am going to go and speak with Theo,” he said. “Ask him to fetch the coroner.”

Lillian nodded as Dr. Murray stepped around her and out of the study. She waited until his footsteps died away before she approached her father again. She kneeled beside him and smoothed his hair with her hand. Lillian had never known her mother; she had died in childbirth and so from the very first day, all she had was her father.

He was devoted to her, she knew that; he never resented that she’d survived and her mother had not and he’d never wished she were a son and not a daughter. He’d been tough on her in some ways but she knew that he always meant well and everything she did was for him. But now he was gone and Lillian felt as if her heart had been ripped from her chest. She did not know what life looked like without her father and she did not wish to find out.

Chapter One

The Walters Ranch. Calico, California. Spring. 1881

Lillian sighed and ran her hands over her hair in frustration as she stared at the letter lying open on her father’s desk. Six months had passed since the funeral and over these last few months she’d received dozens of letters from her father’s business partners, all of which said the same thing—they didn’t want to work with a woman.

Lillian took one last disgusted look at the letter and then got up from her chair. She’d spent too much time behind that desk of late and she knew she needed to get out and clear her head.

Lillian headed out of the house, taking her father’s hat off the hook near the door and putting it on. However, as she stepped out of the door, she suddenly saw someone coming up the road. She recognized him almost instantly and had he not spotted her standing on the edge of the porch, she would certainly have retreated back inside and pretended not to be home.

“Mr. Musgrove,” Lillian said, when he came into earshot. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

Short and portly, Oscar Musgrove was about forty years old. Set in his doughy face were two dark eyes and he always wore a top hat, no matter the occasion. To Lillian, Mr. Musgrove came across as quite a vain man, and she was certain he wore the hat to hide the fact that his stringy straw-colored hair was quickly retreating to the back of his head. He smiled at Lillian as he got down from his horse but it was a smile that had no warmth in it.

“I was just passing by,” he said, waving a hand in the air.

Lillian said nothing for a moment. Oscar Musgrove was not a likable man. He was successful but not likable. He and her father had never seen eye to eye; Jack had once told Lillian that Oscar was one of those people who feigned pleasantness in an effort to disguise their rotten core. It was not just her father who felt this way; many folk in town thought that Oscar Musgrove had too much mustard for anyone’s liking.

“Well, that is kind of you, Mr. Musgrove,” Lillian said. “But I have a lot to be getting on with—”

Lillian took a step forward but as she did he stepped in front of her, blocking her path.

“Have you thought about my offer?” he asked.

Lillian was at least a head taller than Mr. Musgrove, even with his top hat, and as she looked down on him now, his piggy eyes glimmered greedily. Not a week after her father passed away, Mr. Musgrove visited Lillian to make an offer on the property, which she had refused. Since then, he had returned every month with a new offer and Lillian always gave him the same answer, but it was as if he was deaf to anything other than what he wanted to hear.

“I do not wish to sell, Mr. Musgrove,” Lillian said.

The portly man looked thoughtful for a moment and Lillian saw a shadow flit across his face for the briefest moment.

“I understand,” he said. “But I just worry that you might come to find yourself with a hair in the butter.”

“Is that a threat?” Lillian asked.

Mr. Musgrove raised his non-existent eyebrows and then let out a booming laugh that caused the birds in a nearby tree to take flight.

“Of course not, my girl,” he chuckled. “I just want what is best for you and managing a ranch such as this one must be so taxing on a young woman such as yourself. I am sure there are other things you’d like to be doing, needlework perhaps?”

Lillian gritted her teeth at his tone, which dripped with condescension. Yet after years of being looked at and spoken to this way, she was used to it, and so she smiled politely at him.

“I appreciate your concern, Mr. Musgrove,” she said. “But I am quite capable of managing the ranch. Now, if you will excuse me, I must get on.”

Without giving him the chance to say another word, Lillian stepped around him and headed straight for the stables, not daring to look back in case Mr. Musgrove had chosen to follow her.

As soon as Lillian stepped inside the large stables, she walked down to the last stall where her horse was kept.

“Hi girl,” Lillian said fondly. “Sorry I haven’t seen you in a while.”

The cream mare, who Lillian had named Poppy Corn, nuzzled her cold nose into Lillian’s shoulder. Poppy Corn had been a gift from her father, the same birthday she received her first saddle. She had named her Poppy Corn because on the day they first met, the horse had smelled the popcorn in Lillian’s pocket that she had sneaked out of the pantry and forgot was there, and the horse had eaten the whole lot in one greedy gulp.

“Should we go for a ride?” Lillian asked her, pressing her lips to the bridge of the horse’s nose.

Poppy Corn whinnied softly and Lillian smiled. She’d never had many friends growing up but Poppy Corn had always been there whenever she needed to talk.

Lillian saddled her horse and headed out of the stables, leading Poppy Corn by her reins. As she came around the stable, Lillian bumped right into Theo, who was carrying an armful of fresh hay which he now dropped in a pile at her feet.

“S-sorry,” Theo apologized immediately. “I didn’t see you there.”

Theo had been working on the ranch for the last four years. He was a plain-looking young man with thick chestnut hair and large brown eyes, shorter than Lillian and quite stocky, with thick wrists and fingers. Lillian knew Theo had a crush on her; he’d never said anything but she’d seen him watching her on occasion and whenever they spoke he stuttered and his cheeks grew pink.

“It’s fine,” Lillian assured him. “No harm done.”

Theo smiled at her as he kneeled and began to collect the hay in his arms.

“So you are going on a ride?” he asked lamely, looking up at her.

“It looks that way,” Lillian said dryly.

Theo’s complexion pinkened and Lillian felt bad.

“I’d better be going, Theo,” she said. “But it was nice to see you.”

“Y-you too,” he stuttered.

Theo beamed at her as Lillian led Poppy Corn past the barn and out into the vast, rolling paddocks. Lillian put her leather boot into the stirrup and pulled herself onto the horse, one leg on either side. She took the reins and they set off together toward the east.

Lillian and Poppy Corn approached the ridge and then descended along the narrow pathway that led toward the river bed. They had not been able to ride along the river since January, when the heavy rains had caused the river to break its banks. The Walters ranch had always been admired for the miles of river that ran through. The ranch had belonged to her family since 1770 and before that, American Indians used to use the river for fishing.

She used to imagine what the ranch had been like then, when it belonged to the Native people; she used to imagine how wild and free it must have been and how one could ride for hours and not come across another soul.

It was a different time then; now the Native Americans tribes barely existed at all. Between diseases like malaria, which ravaged their populations during the 1830s, and the during the gold rush, which robbed them of their land and homes, they struggled to survive.

Then, in more recent years, the tribes came into conflict with the United States, and for nearly six years a series of battles, massacres, and genocides occurred. Lillian’s father always believed the American government had failed in their duty to protect the country’s native people. They had so much history and knew so much about the land. If only they could have worked together to build something great.

Lillian did not need to guide Poppy Corn as they ambled slowly alongside the river, having walked this path so many times before. Lillian looked out across the sparkling waters and as she did, she spotted a cormorant with its wings stretched out toward the sun. In the distant red maple trees, she could hear the delicate calls of a cedar waxwing. A cool breeze blew across the water and Lillian closed her eyes for a moment. In the last six months she’d rarely found even the slightest moment of happiness.

Lillian realized soon after her father passed that the only way she could continue without him was to put everything into the ranch. It had been her father’s life work and now it would be hers. So, every morning she got up in the morning and got dressed. She hated eating alone and so the kitchen table had gone untouched since the day her father died.

Instead, she would grab something on her way out of the door, a biscuit or a slice of bread. She would spend all day working, not bothering to stop for lunch. She’d work until it was too dark to see and then return to an empty house. She would make herself something simple to eat and take it to her room. More often than not she fell asleep, leaving the food untouched for the mice to carry away in the night.

Lillian had lost so much of herself when her father died that she barely recognized herself anymore; the only thing keeping her going was the success of the ranch. Yet, despite her best attempts to continue her father’s legacy, she knew she was failing. No one wanted to do business with her because she was a woman and nothing she said could convince them otherwise. She knew that she’d have to do something soon; breeding season was upon them and she was already behind schedule.

Lillian opened her eyes suddenly, aware that someone was watching her from the west. She put her hand up to shield her eyes but the sun had turned the rider into a silhouette so she could not make out his features. Yet Lillian knew that posture, the way the rider carried himself, the length of his torso and the broadness of his shoulder, and she was sure she knew who it was—her neighbor and nemesis, Will Adams.

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