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The Ranch Stud by Cathy Gillen Thacker

Wild West Weddings

THE RANCH STUD

Prologue

Dear Patience,
The older I get, the more I see my options dwindling. So...do you believe an arranged marriage can be as successful as the more traditional counterpart?
Sincerely,
Desperately Seeking a Mate

Dear Desperately Seeking a Mate,
Only if the bride and groom do the arranging. Contrary to popular wisdom, arranged marriages never work! Hang tough and shoot for the whole ball of wax, not just an itty-bitty part.
Looking for True Love, Too,
Patience

“Are you all right?” thirty-eight-year-old Trace McKendrick asked his younger sister as he parked in front of the Silver Spur Ranch horse-breeding complex. It had been just twenty minutes since the reading of their beloved Uncle Max’s will, and both were not only reeling with grief over their loss but stunned speechless by the highly unusual terms of their eccentric uncle’s bequests.

“I could ask the same question of you,” Patience McKendrick replied. She’d thought by now that she’d heard just about everything, but even ten years of writing an advice column to the lovelorn, peppered with stalwart western homilies, had not prepared her for this.

Trace shook his head. ‘I can’t believe Uncle Max did this to us.”

Patience reached over, squeezed his arm and commiserated grimly. “Tied all three of our inheritances to these incredibly foolish, hopelessly romantic—”

“Not to mention ill-advised—” Trace added with a discerning lift of his wheat blond brow.

“Unions!” Patience concluded emotionally.

“And, to top it all off, added a stipulation that we must marry within forty-eight hours or lose everything.”

Patience sighed, ran a hand through her shoulder-length hair, the same shade as her brother’s, and tried her best to look on the bright side. “I suppose it could be worse,” she murmured finally as she smoothed the circle skirt of her long denim dress. Though she wasn’t sure how.

Trace rolled his eyes, his displeasure unabated. “Yeah, we could be in little brother Cody’s shoes and be expected to marry a woman Uncle Max had handpicked from his Western Ranch Wives video matchmaking service, a woman who, as far as we can tell, Uncle Max had never even met!”

In Patience’s view, she wasn’t much better off than her younger brother, Cody, though Max had selected someone he had met for her—the Silver Spur Ranch veterinarian, Josh Colter. Worse, Max expected Josh Colter to help her make the baby she had been wanting for as far back as she could recall. Max hadn’t made that particular demand on her two brothers or their prospective mates, she thought resentfully.

“I don’t even know how long my intended has been working at the ranch.”

“Two months, I think,” Trace replied. “I haven’t met him yet, but my secretary saw him in town and said he was extremely fine in the looks department, in that distincfly rough-hewn, Montana-cowboy way.”

“Well, who cares what he looks like!” Patience fumed.

Trace grinned. “You say that now,” he teased. “But once you lay eyes on him—”

“Once I lay eyes on him nothing!” Patience shot right back, successfully fighting a blush. “At least you know your intended, Trace,” she declared. “Unlike me, who has never even laid eyes on the Silver Spur Ranch employee I’ve been paired with!”

“Just because Susannah and I were married for three short months seventeen years ago does not mean I know her,” Trace shot right back, bristling at the idea he had it any easier than his two siblings. “But you’re right,” he told Patience. “You do have it worse than I do, in that you’ve never met this ranch stud Uncle Max has hooked you up with.”

“Nor am I sure I want to know Josh Colter.” Patience scowled at the stud barn in mounting apprehension and sighed. As much as she hated to go in to face him, she knew she had no choice. Like it or not, it was time to play the cards she had been dealt.

Chapter One

Dear Patience,
Did you ever meet someone once, just for a few minutes, and know he was the one for you, against all reason?
Sincerely,
Head Over Heels

Dear Head Over Heels,
Life is not a romance novel. Put your feet back on the ground. Get your head out of the clouds.
Practical to a Fault and Proud of It,
Patience

48:00 hours and counting...        

Patience entered the stud barn like a gunslinger from the Old West. Her heart was racing and she would have liked nothing heifer than to put this off, but because of the terms of her Uncle Max’s wifi, she had no choice but to proceed at the breakneck pace he had set for her and her two brothers.

The concrete-floored barn smelled of fresh air and pine-scented disinfectant as she stepped past the tack room, ‘where two cowboys in jeans, boots and regulation Silver Spur Ranch shirts were gathering up a handful of reins each.

Seeing her, Rusty and Slim dropped what they were doing and came over to greet her, their faces sad but respectful as they swept off their hats and held them to their chests. “We’re all real sorry to hear about Max... we all loved the old coot,” Rusty said thickly, then shook his head in mute commiseration. “It happened so suddenly.”

Slim nodded, his gaze as mournful as his co-worker’s as he choked out awkwardly, “This morning at dawn, instead of holding a moment of silence for him, we all gave him a big yahoo and threw our hats in the air. You know what a zest for life he had. We figured he woulda wanted it that way.”

Patience wiped her eyes. The grief of the men who had worked for Max for many years had jump-started her own. “Thanks, fellas. I know Max appreciated that—” Swallowing hard around the lump in her throat, she sent a wistful glance overhead, adding, “Wherever he is.”

Again, Rusty and Slim nodded, their expressions sober but subdued. It was hard to tell which of the grizzled cowpokes, who had worked the Silver Spur Ranch for more than fifty years between them, was suddenly more tongue-tied. “Gosh, it’s good to have you back,” Slim spit out finally.

Rusty nodded and regarded her like a long-lost but favorite niece. “It sure is.” He paused, then plunged on awkwardly, his gnarled, arthritic fingers still worrying the brim of his hat. “If there’s anything at all we can do for you, you just let us know,” he said firmly.

Though still reeling inwardly with grief, Patience felt heifer just knowing Max’s men were still there to protect and watch over her. “Actually, there is,” she retorted seriously, still wishing she could delay the inevitable indefinitely. “I’m looking for Doc Colter, the new ranch veterinarian.”

The two men exchanged glances. “Last I saw him he was outside with Soaring Eagle, at the other end of the barn,” Rusty said finally.

Patience nodded her thanks, bid Rusty and Slim a subdued adieu and continued on her way. She found Soaring Eagle—but not Doc Colter—supervising the unloading of a visiting mare from a horse trailer. In a long-sleeved, collarless sienna shirt and blue jeans, his long black hair braided in a single plait down his back, a necklace of the Blackfoot tribe around his neck, the forty-five-year-old Native American was just as calm and unflappable as she remembered him. He paused long enough to hand the mare over to one of his assistants, then gave her a hug. They commiserated briefly about their loss and how much they would miss Uncle Max, then drew apart, tears in their eyes.

“Welcome back,” Soaring Eagle said, regarding her stoically.

“Thanks. It’s good to be here,” Patience replied. And she meant it. It felt good coming home. “But I’ve got to find Doc Colter.”

“He’s in the birthing barn, checking on one of the mares.”

Patience smiled. “Thanks.” Promising to come back and catch up on all the ranch news later, when they weren’t so busy, she hurried over to the adjacent stable, one often on the horse compound, and stepped inside. Late afternoon, most of the stalls were empty, the mares—pregnant and otherwise—still out to pasture for the day. Sunshine and fresh air swept the impeccably clean facility.

Patience rounded the corner. Her steps slowed as she caught her first glimpse of the man her Uncle Max was insisting she marry. Her first thought was that Josh Colter was more cowboy than veterinarian. His straight dark hair was parted on the side and in need of a barber’s trim. The soft, silky strands just brushed the tops of his ears and covered the nape of his neck. His skin bore what looked to be a year-round suntan, his nose had apparently been broken, but not set, and thick, arched brows bore the scars of seemingly more than one barroom brawl, but the rugged contours of his face were scrupulously clean and closely shaven. His worn Levi’s jeans snugly hugged his long, muscular legs. A snowy white western shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, made the most of his broad shoulders and powerful—make that very powerful—six-foot-two physique. Add to that his silver-gray eyes...Patience had always had a weakness for men with silver-gray eyes.

“Josh Colter?” She ignored the little hitch in her breath.

“Yeah.” Steadfastly ignoring the way she was scrutinizing him, he continued preparing a vitamin injection for a beautiful, mahogany, quarter horse mare. “You must be Patience McKendrick, Max’s niece. Right?”

Something about his low, sensual voice, which was distinctly western in accent and rough in timbre, swiftly had her tingling with reaction. “How did you know?”

She had never met him before, and yet there was something vaguely familiar about him. Something she felt she ought to be able to identify, but to her deep frustration couldn’t.

To her irritation, the rugged-looking animal doctor barely spared her a glance as he opened the chest-high wooden door and stepped into the stall, syringe in hand. “Light hair, blue eyes. You walk in like you own the place. You have to be one of the McKendrick heirs.” He shrugged as if it were of little consequence to him who she was, or even why she was there.

Nor, unlike the other hired hands she had run into, did he commiserate with her over Max’s passing. And that not only hurt her on an emotional level, it infuriated Patience, too. Josh hadn’t worked here long, but surely he could have said something. “Step in here and give me a hand with Mandy, would you?” he ordered gruffly.

Knowing he did not really need her help—the sleek and beautiful Mandy might be very pregnant, but she was as docile as could be under the soothing stroke of Josh’s callused hand on her shoulders—Patience dug in her heels. Regardless of Max’s stipulations, she was not going to let Josh Colter or anyone else boss her around. And her husband-to-be might as well know that now. She folded her arms in front of her defiantly. “Sorry. Can’t. I’m in my good clothes.” She wasn’t messing up her designer denim dress and silver concho belt for anything.

His lips curved into a goading smile that had her noticing another scar, a half-moon on the center of his lower lip.

“Trust me,” Josh Colter drawled as he spared her a glance that made her heart race all the more. “Mandy here won’t mind what you’re wearing.”

“That aside, I did not come down here to lend a hand,” Patience said archly. In fact, she decided firmly, the farther she stayed away from a heartbreaker—with drop-dead gorgeous looks like his, he couldn’t be anything but—like Josh Colter, the better, if she wanted to get out of the next forty-eight hours with her heart intact.

Josh sighed as he expertly gave the injection, then recapped and pocketed the empty syringe. “That, I probably should have guessed.” Stepping behind the horse, he wordlessly checked the pregnant mare’s drooping belly, then seemed to frown at what he either found or didn’t see.

“What’s the mailer?” Patience asked anxiously, abruptly realizing she might have misjudged Josh after all.

Josh straightened and yanked off his surgical gloves. Gesturing at the feed bucket of warm bran mash laced with carrots outside Mandv’s stall, he said, “That’s what I’m trying to find out. According to Soaring Eagle, Mandy’s been off her feed for several days now, and at this stage of her gestation, that’s not good.”

Patience handed over the bucket and watched as Josh softly coaxed Mandy to eat her feed. It was clear the horse was not the least bit hungry. Nevertheless, after another minute of determined coaxing on Josh’s part, Mandy finally ducked her head and nibbled reluctantly at her specially prepared food. “You weren’t kidding,” Patience murmured after a moment, shocked at how little the mare was eating of the specially prepared meal. “You really are concerned about her, aren’t you?” And now, so was Patience.

Josh shot Patience a brief glance, but it was long enough for her to get a full dose of his penetrating silver-gray gaze.

His sensual lips curved into the kind of half grin that indicated there wasn’t much in this life that he took at all seriously. “Max was right. You are suspicious.”

Patience felt her spine stiffen at the censure in Josh’s low tone. She folded her arms in front of her defiantly. “Yes, well, I have good reason to be.”

He blew out a dissenting breath. “I imagine that’s debatable,” he observed dryly, “but we’ll get into that later.” Reassured that Mandy was at least eating something, he gave the shiny-coated mare a final pat and stepped out of the stall.

“What do you mean, ‘we’ll get into that later’?” Patience parroted as she watched him close and latch the stall door. She made no effort to hide her annoyance.

“Apparently, Cisco Kidd left a message for me a little while ago. He said you would be wanting to talk to me, and soon, about the business of running this place.” He was beginning to sound a little irritated himself as he strode toward the surgically clean washroom located in the center of the barn. “But since your Uncle Max, and not you, owns this operation, I can’t imagine what you and I have to discuss on that front.”

Patience paused, aware Josh’s information on that fact was grievously wrong. Her breath caught in her chest as she inhaled the tantalizing scent of his cologne, recognizing it as English Leather. “Then you don’t know...”

Josh blinked. “About what?”

“The will.”

Josh’s glance covered her from head to toe. He looked, if possible, even more irritated as he turned on the water and reached for the soap. Swiftly, he lathered his hands and scrubbed his muscular forearms until they were covered with silky white bubbles. “Whose will?”

“My Uncle Max’s. It was read today.”

Abruptly, Josh Colter stopped washing up and gazed at her uncomprehendingly. “You’re telling me Max is dead?” he repeated in a low, strangled voice, looking both incredibly grief-stricken and astonished.

Patience nodded slowly, sharing Josh’s disbelief over her late uncle’s demise. She knew exactly how Josh felt. She had felt the same way when she received the news. It seemed impossible Max was gone. He had always been so vital and full of energy, always making plans to carry out some new business venture or other, and he had always been so damned healthy. “He died a couple days ago, in town,” she told Josh quietly. She and her brothers had only had enough time to show up for the private family memorial service and will reading.

She edged closer, curious now. “You’re telling me you didn’t know?”

Josh shrugged, as if he were still trying to make sense of what she’d told him. “I was away for a few days, checking out the soundness of some stallions and a few brood mares Max and I were thinking of acquiring for the ranch. I just got back from Wyoming half an hour ago. I showered, shaved, picked up a stack of messages I haven’t had time to go through and came straight here to see how Mandy was doing.” Genuine grief crossed Josh’s face as he slowly turned to the sink and finished rinsing the soap from his arms. “No one told me about Max. But then I didn’t talk to anyone, even Soaring Eagle, at length.”

Patience couldn’t say why exactly but it helped somehow, knowing Josh grieved as deeply for Max as she did. “Perhaps everyone assumed you already knew,” she theorized quietly.

Josh nodded, accepting that explanation, as he tossed the soiled towel in the laundry bin. His expression grim, he swung around to face her. “How did it happen?”

Ignoring the mesmerizing depths of his gray eyes, Patience focused on the uncompromising way he had braced his shoulders against the wall. “Cisco said it was his heart, that it simply gave out on him.”

“Where did it happen?”

“In Cisco Kidd’s law office.” Patience swallowed around the knot of emotion in her throat, and because Josh seemed as hungry for details as she had been, she tersely related what she knew. “Max had gone there to work on his will. He videotaped everything, so there’d be no question that these wishes were his later, and apparently the strain of doing it all at once was too much for him. For no sooner than he had completed it, he—” Tears filling her eyes, Patience flailed around looking for the right words and finally settled on a gentle western phrase she knew would have satisfied and amused Max. “He left us with his boots on, so to speak.”

Josh was silent a long moment, reflecting, Patience guessed, on the unfairness of fate. “Couldn’t the paramedics do anything?” he asked finally, his frustration evident.

Patience shook her head sadly. “It was over in a flash, before they even arrived, Cisco said. Which was as Max would’ve wanted it to be.” He had always lived life on the edge. He would have wanted his death to be the same way, swift and sure, with no lingering, half-strength finales, Patience knew. Max could never have survived for long in an invalid’s bed. He was an all-or-nothing type of person, just like Patience. And Cody. And Trace. And all the rest of the McKendrick clan.

His strides long and purposeful, Josh made his way back to Mandy’s stall. Glancing over the door, he looked at the feed bucket and saw the quietly ailing mare had finished about a quarter of her evening feed but no more. “You took Cisco’s word on that, I suppose?”

Sharing Josh’s restlessness, Patience shoved her hands in the deep pockets of her dress. She paced back and forth, too, the soles of her soft suede boots making muted thuds on the concrete, the long skirt of her denim dress swirling femininely around her. “I’ve got no reason not to trust Cisco.”

Josh smirked in response and made a rude, dissenting sound.

“Why do you not like Cisco?” Patience persisted, withdrawing both hands from her pockets. She was disturbed he would try to shake her faith in Max’s attorney, who was also her old friend.

“Let’s just say I can tell when someone is hiding something,” Josh murmured enigmatically, his silver eyes narrowing. “And that guy has plenty of secrets. Speaking of which...” Josh let his voice trail off as he jerked his head toward the other end of the barn.

Patience turned and saw Cisco Kidd coming toward them. Though she hated to admit it, she knew exactly what Josh meant. She and her brothers had often wondered about Cisco’s rather murky past, too.

Despite his tailored western business suits, fancy boots and trademark Stetson, Max’s protégé had always been a little rough around the edges. Of course, that in itself was not necessarily a problem, Patience reminded herself sternly. In fact, Max had always admired Cisco Kidd’s rough-and-tumble, from-the-streets quality and the way he had become sort of an adopted brother to Patience after her failed engagement, protecting her as fiercely as her real brothers, Cody and Trace. But there was no reason Josh Colter had to know the true nature of her relationship with Cisco, she thought, particularly if it would serve to keep them apart for the next forty-eight hours or so.

Patience smiled at her uncle’s attorney and glanced at the package in Cisco’s hand. “What have you got there?” she asked curiously.