Samuel Carruthers and his second wife, Arnetta, perish in an Arizona flash-flood and Emmaline Carruthers must return to her childhood home for her five-year-old sister, Theresa. Emmaline had no contact with her father after her mother fled the rigors of ranch life, taking her along. She hopes to spare Theresa suffering, but she also hopes to recover the sense of family she lost as a child.
Immediate complications are presented by Matthew Gerrity, Arnetta's attractive grown son who refuses to give up his sister. These are soon overshadowed by Samuel Carruthers' will granting joint ownership of the ranch and joint custody to Matt and Emmaline only if they marry each other. Otherwise, neither will get custody of their little sister nor inherit any of the ranch. However, to Emmaline's dismay, Matt can stay on as ranch foreman even if there's no marriage, while she loses every contact with Theresa.
Emmaline will do anything she must to keep her sister and agrees to the terms of the will. She doesn't give up trying to find an alternate resolution, but works to win Theresa's affection while struggling to resist Matt's increasingly amorous interest and his overbearing plans to protect her.
The harsh beauty of Arizona Territory provides appealing background in Carolyn Davidson's warm debut story of two reluctant strangers gifted by love in the process of forming a new family. SWEET (Dec., 304pp., $4.50)