THE COWBOY’S BRIDE
Montana attorney Cisco Kidd greeted the three McKendrick heirs as they somberly filtered into the private sitting room at the Fort Benton Gentlemen’s Club. Crumpled tissue in her hand, thirty-six-year-old Patience sank into one of the thick leather armchairs gracing the masculinely decorated room. Wordlessly, she blotted at the tears continually appearing in her eyes. Her older brother, Trace, stood nearby, a comforting hand placed on her shoulder. Cody, the youngest, stalked morosely to the window facing out at the Old Fort Park and the adjacent Lewis and Clark Memorial, his collar turned up and both hands shoved deep in the pockets of his denim jacket.
“I’m glad you all could be here,” Cisco Kidd began as gently as possible, knowing he had his work cut out for him if he wanted to see that his mentor’s fondest wishes became reality. “Max wanted you to be together when you found out what he’d left you.”
“Enough with the flowery speeches. Let’s just get on with it,” Cody interrupted bad-temperedly, pulling the brim of his battered Stetson even lower across his brow.
Cisco Kidd nodded. He knew Max McKendrick’s sudden departure from this world had been hard on all three heirs, but in many ways the reclusive Cody seemed to be taking it the hardest, just as the wily Max had predicted.
“If that’s what you want,” Cisco allowed gravely. One hand pushing back the edge of his western-cut suit coat, he leaned over to switch on the television set, then stepped back to watch.
The videotaped will began with the flourish all three McKendrick heirs seemed to expect. Their Uncle Max, clad in his trademark fringed buckskin jacket, mustard yellow chaps and silver spurs, appeared on the screen. His skin was a deep, leathery tan, in contrast to his white, shoulder-length hair and long, Lone Star mustache. Nearly as old as the hills and as energetic as the day was long, Max had seemed immortal. It was impossible for any of the McKendrick heirs to believe their uncle was dead, his ashes scattered on the rugged Montana earth long before they’d all arrived at his sprawling Silver Spur Ranch to pay their respects.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Uncle Max began in his deep, raspy voice as the three heirs—the two men surreptitiously—wiped their eves and gathered round. “You miss me. You wish we’d all settled our quarrels and got a better handle on things before I bit the bullet. Well, I wish that, too. I promised my only sibling, my beloved brother Wyatt, that I would take care of his family should anything ever happen to him-none of us ever dreaming that we would lose his dear wife, Annie, too, in the same cruel blow. But we did. And you all know I did my best to do right by all three of you since your mammy and pappy died.” Briefly, sadness glimmered in Max’s eyes. “But wanting something to work out right doesn’t always mean it will,” he continued a little thickly. “And sometimes when you fail, you gotta pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back in that saddle again.”
“I’d say that would depend on what you fell off of,” Cody interjected. He looked at his brother, Trace, meaningfully. “Some wild broncs aren’t worth trying to saddle up again, especially after they pitch you.”
Looking every bit the wildly successful CEO he was, with his short haircut and tailored business suit, Trace nodded. “I agree,” he said firmly.
“Shh!” Patience admonished, her lingers nervously pleating the circle skirt of her long denim dress. “I want to hear this!”
“No one knows better than this old coot right here,” Uncle Max pointed a thumb at his chest “that I more than anyone was responsible for the messes you’ve all made of your love lives. And don’t argue with me. They are a mess, ever one of ‘em. And that makes me feel sad as a hound dog whose family moved away and left him behind. But not to worry.” Max shook a lecturing finger at them. “Just ‘cause I’m not around no more doesn’t mean your lives are over, no sirree. Which is why I’ve taken it upon myself to fix things for you now, the best way I know how. Starting with Cody. I know we haven’t been on good terms since you got back from Mexico seven years ago, on account of you blaming me for your fiasco of a marriage with Callie.”
Briefly, Cody looked both guilty and uncomfortable. Seeing this, Patience stood and crossed to his side.
“But I aim to fix all that,” Max continued affably.
“How?” Cody spit out at the screen, as if Max could still hear him.
Max grinned triumphantly, announcing, “I not only willed you my cattle operation and the grazing range that goes with it, I’ve ordered you a wife from my Western Ranch Wives video matchmaking service. And if Cisco’s carried out my orders, as I expect he has, she’s ready for pickup in one of the private reading rooms upstairs. Cisco Kidd, my attorney, will let you know which one.”
Cody swore as he yanked off his Stetson and slapped it against one rock-hard thigh. “I don’t believe this!” he muttered, and swept both hands through the wheat-colored hair that fell past his shoulders. “What in blazes gave Uncle Max the idea he could just order me up a wife? Like I’d even want one.”
“Or one would want you,” Trace added, feeling free to tease and making obvious note of the uncivilized way Cody had been living.
“Watch it, big brother.” Cody narrowed his eyes at Trace. “I have a feeling you’re going to get yours, too.”
“I have a feeling we all are,” Patience murmured, joining in the conversation and taking Cody’s hand in an attempt to calm him down.
Max continued with his will, speaking genially from the screen. “Patience, my sweet girl, I know how badly you want a child but I still don’t want to see you go to no clinic. Therefore, I have left you a state-of-the-art writing studio along with the substantial parcel of land the horse-breeding and cutting business is situated on. Naturally, you’ll need a vet to help you run things, and that being the case, you might as well marry him and bring more than baby horses and brand-new stories to life, if you catch my meaning. You’ll find him in the barns. He’s handsome and smart and willing and his name is Josh Colter.”
“Good grief, Uncle Max, the last thing I need is a ranch stud.” Patience blew out an exasperated breath and threw up her hands. “Never mind one you’ve brought in to service me!”
Cisco hadn’t been surprised by Max’s gift to his only niece or her less-than-pleased reaction to it. The truth was, Max had always coddled Patience after she’d been jilted at the tender age of nineteen, even though he knew her being left at the altar was for the best. And though she had been mad at her uncle at first for his attitude, she had kept in touch with Max after she had cooled off and gotten seffled in Denver.
“Furthermore, I don’t care what he looks like or does for a living! If I wanted a man to give me a baby, I could find him on my own!” Patience continued, pacing the floor.
“Amen to that,” Cody remarked, still looking steamed at how he had been set up.
“I expect you could, little sis,” Trace said, edging closer to both Patience and cody. “Not that that would be the right way to go, either. Making babies is serious business. Bringing them up right is even harder. Parenting is a full-time job on its own and should not be entered into solo if there’s another way. As the single father of two, who’s lost many a night’s sleep worrying over the general inadequacies of a one-parent home, I can attest to that.”
Cody turned to his older brother. “I’ll bet ou can,” he drawled, looking glad that was Trace’s problem and not his own. All Cody cared about these days was the Silver Spur Ranch and the cattle he raised....
“And, Trace,” Max continued on-screen, “I’m giving you two things of utmost importance, the lumber business I should have given you years ago, and a second chance with the love of your life. No need for me to mention names because we all know who she is. You’ll find her in the lumber camp kitchen.”
While Cisco watched, Trace, ever the cool one, merely crossed his arms in front of him and quirked a discerning brow. “I have no idea who Uncle Max’s talking about,” Trace said.
“Yeah, right,” Cody drawled, rolling his eyes as he turned to square off with his older brother.
“Like we don’t all know you’ve never gotten over Susannah,” Patience teased with a shake of her head. “At least you’ll be getting hooked up with someone you really want to be hooked up with, unlike Cody and I.” She gave him a sisterly punch in the gut.
Trace stiffened self-righteously and worked at containing a self-conscious flush. As they all watched Trace fight his embarrassment, Cisco was pleased to see that even the ever surly Cody cracked what looked like a quarter grin. Maybe this crazy plan of Max’s, to see that each and every member of his family lived happily ever after, would work after all....
Patience’s facetious remark about Susannah earned her a glare from Trace, even as Uncle Max continued gleefully from the screen.
“Naturally, I put a few strings on these gifts of mine.”
Long accustomed to their uncle’s eccentric behavior, Cody, Patience and Trace lifted their glances heavenward and groaned in unison, expecting the worst.
As Max’s attorney, Cisco had been instrumental in writing the contracts that would govern the McKendrick heirs’ behavior over the next several days. Knowing the reactions were bound to be potent, he braced himself for the outcry sure to come.
On-screen, Max continued to spell out his stipulations sternly. “One, you all must seek and find your intended bride or groom, such as the case may be, within the next thirty minutes. Two, you must all attach yourself like glue to your affianced’s side for the next forty-eight hours. And three, you all must marry in a joint wedding ceremony at the end of the forty-eight hours. I’ve already taken care of the details there, too,” Uncle Max assured. “So not to worry. None of you have to plan a wedding. I’ve already done that, down to sending out invitations before you all were even assembled at the club.”
“Which means a hundred to one the whole damn state has been invited,” Cody muttered cantankerously.
“Including, no doubt, every damn one of my business associates. I’ll never live this down,” Trace agreed.
“None of us will,” Patience moaned. “Which was, no doubt, part of Uncle Max’s plan. He wanted to force us to live up to our responsibilities, romantic and otherwise.”
“Not that any of this will be easy for y’all,” Max continued. “But it is do-able, if you all are committed to making a fresh start for yourselves. All you gotta do is listen to your hearts. If you do, you’ll know what to do.” Max tipped his hat at them. “Adios,” he said softly. “And remember, I love you.”
The screen went blank.
The room vibrated with a poignant silence. Patience wiped her eyes. Cody scowled, but there was a lonesome look in his blue eyes, a sad set to Trace’s shoulders.
Only Cisco, Max’s thirty-year-old protégé and attorney, had control of his emotions, and that was because he’d known beforehand that this was coming and had had time to prepare himself for the inevitable.
“Well,” Cisco said finally, working hard to inject a little lightness into the somber room, just as Max would’ve wanted. “You three bronco busters have your orders from Max. What do you think? Are you going to be able to carry ‘em out?” If so, it would make his job a lot easier, Cisco thought.
Patience was the first to pull herself together. She faced her brothers, her pretty chin set determinedly, and gave the kind of advice one would expect from a western-based advice columnist to the lovelorn. “Under the circumstances, I guess we should at least try to grant Uncle Max’s wishes.”
“Or at least follow through with meeting our intendeds,” Trace suggested grudgingly, though it was clear he wasn’t promising anything more. Not right off the bat.
Cody merely scowled, his every instinct obviously telling him to resist.
“I know this is a little crazy, but we all owe Max a helluva lot,” Cisco reminded. And that included himself. If Max hadn’t rescued him from the streets years ago and seen to it he had a place to live and an education, who knew what would’ve happened to him? And the same could be said, he thought passionately, for the true McKendrick heirs, who would have ended up in an orphanage if not for the eccentric but bighearted Max.
Max had earned his final request.
Granting his last wish was not too much to ask.
“Cody?” Patience looked at her baby brother expectantly. “You intend to go along with this, too, don’t you?”
Cody merely shrugged. And they all waited with bated breath for his reply.
48:00 hours and counting...
Cody stomped upstairs to the private reading room where his mail-order bride was waiting. Uncle Max had always been unconventional to the extreme. But this time he had outdone himself, linking cody to a woman he’d never even met, never mind wanted to marry. Well, he’d get things straightened out quick enough, Cody thought with a determined scowl as he strode hell-bent for leather toward the Louis L’Amour room. He’d explain the situation to the desperate woman, pay her if he had to and send her on her way, and that would be that. Then he’d go out and get a loan, buy the land he should have inherited and continue on as he had been. Alone. Temper still simmering, mind made up, he pulled his Stetson low over his brow and knocked on the door.
The door opened a crack. Cody stared into a pair of familiar emerald green eyes and felt as if every bit of wind had been blown right out of him.
“Hi, there.” The woman Max had designated as his bride-to-be smiled up at him officiously, even as she stepped back and away. “I knew you were going to be here this afternoon,” she said as she set her book aside. “But I wasn’t sure exactly when you’d arrive, or even what your name was, so I...” She glanced at the way he was gripping the doorjamb on either side of him, paused and wet her lips. “Is something the matter?”
I’ll say, Cody thought, still feeling shaken to the core.
Cautiously, she edged toward him. Looking a tad nervous at the way he was bracing his weight against the door, she said, “Look. I know this is awkward—”
“Awkward?” Cody gasped. Try insane!
Continuing with her innocent act, she wet her lips and tried again. “I don’t know what you were expecting, but—”
“Not this,” Cody growled, inclining his head toward her smaller, trimmer form, with the soft, delectable curves. A man would have to be a saint not to desire her, and he was no saint. Damn it all to hell anyway, Cody thought. If this was what Max had had up his sleeve, why hadn’t he forewarned him, like he had Trace?
“Well, if you want to be blunt, you are not exactly what I had in mind, either,” she retorted hotly, self-conscious color sweeping into her pretty cheeks. “I definitely asked for someone clean-shaven. But here we are anyway. So...” she clasped her hands in front of her. “Would you like to come in?”
Unable to believe she didn’t recognize him—surely he hadn’t changed that much, had he?—Cody continued gripping the doorjamb and staring at her.
Evidently realizing something was very wrong, she cautiously moved closer, not stopping until she was right under him. And it was then, as she tipped her head back to look directly up into his face, that the significance of the moment hit her, too. Just that quickly the color left her face. She began to tremble from head to toe.
“Cody?” she choked out in her deep, throaty voice, looking as if she couldn’t believe it, either.
The loathing, shock and fear she was doing little to hide had a galvanizing impact on him.
“Callie Sheridan.” Cody finally recovered enough to spit out the words. There was no welcome in his low voice. “I should have known.” She always had been full of unpleasant surprises.
“Well, I didn’t!” The color came back into her cheeks with a vengeance, and Callie started to slam the door in his face. Cody caught it in midslam and held it firmly open. “I wanted to be set up with a prospective husband!” she cried, upset.
“Not,” Cody said as he let go of the door and shouldered his way into the room, “a husband you’d already dumped!”
Callie tossed the sexily cut layers of her shoulder-length sunflower blond hair and squared off with him, looking prettier and more enraged than he had ever seen her. “Let’s get something straight here, cowboy. I did not dump you.”
“What do you call running away on our wedding night, then?” Cody demanded as he let his gaze drift over her sensual curves in a manner meant to incense her.
Callie might be something of a tomboy at heart—as was indicated by the dark blue blazer, plain white T-shirt, snug-fitting jeans and red cowgirl boots she wore—but there was nothing the least bit unfeminine about her. She was slender in all the right places, curved just so in all the others. Looking at her made his mouth water and his heart race. He remembered all too well what it had been like to kiss her and hold her in his arms, as well as the crushing guilt that had followed. Seven years his junior, Callie was too young for him and always had been. It was just too bad he hadn’t known that when he was twenty-four and she was seventeen. Instead, he’d let the fact she was somehow older than her years fool him into thinking they could make their relationship work. What a damn fool he had been!
For a long moment, Callie looked as if she wanted to confess something to him. Then she shook her head. “I call my leaving you coming to my senses,” she retorted. Looking more agitated than ever, she roamed the small, wood-paneled room and came to a halt beside the high-backed leather reading chair and matching footstool.
“Or bringing me to mine,” Cody muttered, stepping even closer and dwarfing her by a good ten inches. “That was one expensive expedition for a honeymoon that never happened.”
Cody noted he’d struck gold again with his insult.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Callie planted her hands on her slender hips and tilted her head back to better see “What’s that supposed to mean?” Callie planted her hands on her slender hips and tilted her head back to better see into his face. Her green eyes sparkled indignantly. “You didn’t spend any money on me.”
“Just the entire trust fund my parents had left me upon their death,” Cody corrected. Which had amounted to a cool twenty-five thousand dollars.
Callie’s thick-lashed eyes widened. “What are you talking about?” she demanded warily.
Finding the floral-and-spice scent of her perfume a bit too distracting, Cody swung away from her. Shoving his hands in the pockets of his denim jacket, he focused on a Remington painting of a cowboy and his cuffing horse, hard at work herding cattle across a dusty plain. “Never mind. I am not getting into all that again,” he replied. The fiasco had already turned his heart to stone.
Balling his hands into fists, Cody paced back and forth. Before anything worse happened, they needed to get to the bottom of this to discover if they had any more surprises waiting for them. Cody was betting they did, unfortunately. “How did Uncle Max find you?” he demanded irritably.
Callie regarded Cody with a surly impatience of her own. She did not look of a mind to cooperate with him in his quest for answers.
“What does your Uncle Max have to do with anything?” When he didn’t answer right away, she jammed an interrogating finger at his chest. “And what are you doing here anyway?”
Cody caught her wrist before she could jab that finger at him again and held it tight, wishing all the while he was not so aware of the warmth and softness of her skin, or the sweet innocence of her kisses. “You might as well know. I didn’t come to see you of my own accord.”
She arched a brow. Outside in the corridor voices rose and fell, and footsteps neared and receded. “I’m supposed to believe that?” she challenged, looking as if there weren’t a chance in the West she would. “When I knew you, you were such an independent hellion no one got you to do anything you didn’t want to do.”
“Well, this time it’s different,” Cody said gruffly. “Max sent me here. The circumstances being what they were — are, I couldn’t refuse.”
“What are you talking about?” Wrenching her wrist from his staying grip, Callie stepped back a pace. “Max sent you here, to see me?”
“Yes.” With effort, Cody quelled the urge to grab her again and, this time, pull her close.
“Why?” Callie demanded suspiciously.
“Because he was a hopeless romantic and a fool that didn’t know any better, that’s why!” Cody retorted, completely exasperated with the situation he found himself in and his own unexpectedly emotional reaction to it. First he had to deal with his grief at losing Max. And now this on top of it? Uncle Max had really laid one on him this time.
Feeling he was going to explode if he didn’t do something physical to abate the powerful emotions erupting within him, Cody wheeled away from Callie. It was either grab her and kiss that disbelieving smirk off her face or—What was he thinking?
More irritated with himself than ever, Cody yanked off his hat, threw it against the wall, picked it up and threw it again. Unhappily, the violence did little to curb the storm of emotions rolling around inside him. It did, however, bend the brim of his hat at an untoward angle.
“Well, that’ll fix that,” Callie said dryly as Cody picked up his hat, bent it back and swung around to face her.
Realizing she had recovered from the shock of seeing each other again, much more swiftly than he had, Cody glared at her.
She mimicked his look facetiously.
Much more, Cody thought, and he really would kiss her.
But for now...
Steadfastly ignoring her reaction to what he already knew had been a childish display of temper, he watched her breeze past him toward the built-in bookcases filled with western novels, classic literature and how-to ranch books. For a moment, she stared down at the portable TV and VCR that had been wheeled into the room and set in a corner. Whirling back to him, she asked with provoking foolishness, “So, if we’re all through with the hat bashing, how did Max know I was here?”
Cody continued working on the brim of his hat. Giving up, he slapped it on his head and sat on the arm of the chair. He was curious to see her reaction to this. “Apparently, one of the agents at the company recognized your name and alerted Max to the fact you had filled out an application and were looking for a husband.”
Callie looked as if she wanted to find an escape hatch and fall through it. “Then you knew he had ties to the WRW videomatchmaking service?” She bit the words out, dragging a distracting hand through the soft, Silky layers of her hair.
“No,” Cody replied shortly, exasperated by that turn of events, too. “Finding out he owned it was news to me, too. Apparently, Max has been up to a lot my siblings and I knew nothing about.”
But she had no pity for him, then or now, Cody noticed unhappily. “How sad for you,” Callie remarked.
That said, she marched past him toward the door. Hand on the doorknob, she yanked it open. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I think you should get out of here, pronto, Cody. Max’s plan to reconcile us has failed,” she continued loftily. “And seeing as how I’m still expecting m prospective husband to appear at an moment, I—”
Effectively cuffing her off in midsentence, Cody reached over and slammed the door shut with the flat of his hand. This was nobody’s business but their own. “You don’t get it, do you?” Cody towered over her. “There is no other man. There’s only a will with some mighty peculiar instructions that Max left upon his death a few days ago. I’m your prospective husband, Callie.”
A heartrending silence fell between them. Had Cody not already known what a little con artist Callie was at heart, he would’ve been convinced she hadn’t known anything about Max’s demise. The will, either.
Finally Callie put a hand to her throat. Her green eyes gleaming moistly, she gasped, “Max is—”
“Yes,” Cody answered harshly.
Callie drew in another breath. Her eyes glimmered even more. “So you’re not—”
“And the rest —“
“Is true, too,” Cody admitted, fighting the debilitating sadness that threatened to overtake him any second.
Callie regarded him like the straight man in a comedy act. Not tearing her eyes from his, she blew out a long, exasperated breath and appeared not to believe a single word he said. “I don’t know what kind of game you are playing with me, Cody, but this is not funny.”
His own gaze grew colder. “Notice I’m not laughing, either,” he replied hoarsely.
His blunt statement, coupled with the simmering intensity in his gaze, captured her attention. They stared at each other in a silence that seemed to go on forever and made Cody all the more aware of her.
“I’m sorry, about Max,” Callie said finally. Cody nodded.
“But that doesn’t... When was the last time you had a shave and a haircut?” Callie demanded, as if seeing him for the first time.
Cody touched his beard self-consciously, wondering if he really looked as bad as she, and Max, had seemed to think. Not that it mattered to him one darn bit, anyway. “Don’t know and don’t care,” he spit out laconically. What in blue blazes did that have to do with anything?
Callie turned up her pert little nose at him and made a provoking face. “No wonder your uncle had to advertise for a wife for you, then.”
Cody lifted a dissenting brow. His pulse racing, he leaned treacherously close. “Let’s get something straight, Callie. I didn’t ask for this. Max arranged this little tête-a-tête of ours all on his own. I had nothing to do with it!”
“Ha! Like I’m supposed to believe that,” Callie countered as a knock sounded on the other side of the door. Her temper still flaring, she shouldered past him and yanked it open once again.
Cody was not surprised to see Max’s attorney, Cisco Kidd, standing on the other side. He gave them both a long look, as if he were wondering how they were doing, then handed over a duffel bag to Callie. “This is for you. It’s got a change of clothes or two, and a toothbrush, your basic toiletries.” Cisco gave Cody a videotape marked Last Will and Testament of Max McKendrick, Part Two. “You’ll want to listen to this right away,” Cisco said. Not waiting for a reply, Cisco tipped his hat at them and quietly took his leave.
“I wondered why there was a VCR and television in here,” Callie murmured. Looking more ready for the next surprising turn of events than he was, she sank down on the edge of the leather chair.
Cody shut the door, closeting them in together once again. “Knowing Max, it’s only the first of many surprises,” Cody grumbled recalcitrantly, as he started the tape and then puffing the footstool as far away from Callie as possible, sat down beside her to view it.
As they stared at the TV with trepidation, Uncle Max appeared on the screen. “Hello, Callie and Cody. Guess you had your reunion, bittersweet as it may have been. And you’re probably anxious for me to quit jawin’ and cut to the chase, so here’s the deal. Cody, I am leaving you the entire Silver Spur cattle ranching operation—all quarter million acres and ten thousand head of cattle. Except for one bull’s-eye parcel of land, twenty head of cattle and the original homestead—all of which are to go to Callie.”
“I don’t believe this,” Cody muttered.
“Yeah, well, if your ego can stand the news, you are not currently on my dance card, either, Cody McKendrick,” Callie muttered beneath her breath.
“I suppose you’re both wondering why I am willing the land to Callie,” Max said.
Cody glared at Callie. “No doubt another scheme.