Almost a Bride

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IshaJohnson,United Kingdom,Professional
Published Date:31-07-2017
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CHAPTER ONE Matty Brennan's plan to save the Flying W Ranch began forming even before she charged out of her lawyer's office. It exploded into full bloom in the instant her nose collided with Dave Currick's collarbone. A lot was jammed into that instant, since a particular corner of her mind also registered that the hands she'd instinctively put up to brace herself had discovered that Dave had an even nicer chest than she'd remembered. "Off to a fire, Matty?" Running into Dave had to be an omen, she thought as she recovered her equilibrium, straightened away from his chest and rubbed her nose. When Taylor Anne Larsen delivered the dire legal news–on top of the financial mess Matty had already discovered–there'd been one throat-closing, stomach-grinding moment when Matty had feared there might not be any way out. Taylor had suggested selling some of the ranch–as if Matty would ever do that. She was the last of the Brennans, and she would not be the one who shredded the Flying W into splinters and flakes. It wasn't the lawyer's fault for not understanding–she'd been raised in some suburb in Ohio. Of course, even some people right here in Knighton, Wyoming didn't share Matty's feeling. There was only one person she knew for a certainty would understand, and that was Dave–as soon as that thought had surfaced, she'd veered away from it like a rattlesnake in the middle of the room. "I truly am sorry about the grant, Matty," Taylor had said. "And I'm afraid there are more papers to sign for the estate now, too." If Great-Uncle Henry had had a grain of sense, the Flying W wouldn't be encumbered with exorbitant inheritance taxes, not to mention the bank note coming due in two years. But the same optimism that had persuaded him no caution was needed in running a cattle ranch had also convinced him he had no need to bother with estate planning. As Matty prepared to leave after her signing duties, Taylor held out a sheaf of papers. "These are the grant regulations. Maybe you'll see something that will help for next year, if..." If Matty Brennan still owned the Flying W. The thought her attorney refrained from voicing dropped a sour lump into Matty's stomach as she flipped through the papers while crossing the empty reception area toward the outside door. She had to find a way out. Any way out. Whatever it took. That's when she saw it–the one loophole that might let her save the Flying W. She needed just one thing... The next moment she'd flung open the door and started across the board sidewalk that lined the string of pseudo-frontier-town offices, only to run nose-to- chest into David Edward Currick. Exactly the person she needed. Definitely an omen. She shrugged off the hands he'd cupped around her shoulders to steady her. "Fire? No, there's no fire. I was–I was going to go look for you," she improvised. "Me?" His deep voice edged toward uncharacteristic astonishment. Usually his western drawl stayed unhurried, unfazed and with a hint of dry amusement. He had the kind of deep, faintly raspy tone that often came from a few decades spent smoking too many cigarettes and drinking too much whiskey. But she'd been around when his voice had shifted from a childish soprano to this sexy register, and she knew it was all nature's doing. Sometimes Mother Nature didn't play fair. "Yes. I have something to talk to you about." "Now, that's nice to hear, Matty. Seems like you've spent these past weeks avoidin' talkin' to me." His voice was back to normal, and that irked her. "I have not." "If I recall, the phrase you used when I called to ask you to dinner a few weeks back was Don't call me again unless it's to tell me you're dead. The logic was a shade hazy, but I got your drift. No dinner dates." She recalled the phone call vividly. Six years after leaving for what she'd vowed would be forever, she'd arrived late the night before Great Uncle Henry's funeral, which entailed an exhausting day-long series of condolences, ceremony and casseroles. The next day, she'd decided that before she did anything else, she needed to know how the ranch stood. So she'd tackled Henry Brennan's business affairs, now hers since she was the only one left to inherit the Flying W. She'd spent the entire morning opening "past due" and "final warning" notices that had filled the bottom two drawers of Great-Uncle Henry's desk. Still reeling from the knowledge that she was totally alone in the world now, with not another living relative, she had been left almost numb by the reality of the mess she'd inherited. That's when the phone rang. She'd answered automatically. And there had been Dave's voice. Assured. Familiar. Once loved. Asking her to dinner as if nothing had changed in all the years since their last date. Not a "sorry," not a "we should talk," not a "life hasn't been the same without you," much less an "I'll crawl across every inch of rock, creek and prickly pear between my place and yours if you'll only smile at me once more." Goaded by despair over the Flying W and the jumble of emotions his voice stirred, she'd lashed out. Acted on impulse, she supposed. Which should have come as no surprise to him, considering the number of times he'd criticized her for doing that very thing when they were growing up. And then he'd never called back. Since then, whenever their paths crossed in the tiny community of Knighton, he'd acted like he was an amused older brother and she was an idiot child. "This is business," she informed him now with every scrap of dignity she could muster. "Sort of a...a business proposition." "Well, I'd be happy to talk to you about business, but I'm heading for an appointment right now. To see Ms. Larsen." "Why?" she demanded, then caught herself. Despite the late April chill, he wore no jacket–Dave rarely got cold as fast as normal people–so she could see every detail of his outfit. He was wearing new jeans and a crisp white shirt with the cuffs rolled back and a black cowboy hat atop his neatly trimmed saddle- brown hair. It was a nice compromise between his more formal lawyer attire and his ranch clothes. Just right for a casual date. Taylor Anne Larsen was very attractive. Single and unattached. Intelligent. And they had lawyer stuff in common. Why was pretty damned obvious. "Not that it's my business," Matty added hurriedly. "No, it's not." She scowled at his equable agreement. Three years her senior, Dave had been her measuring stick all through childhood–learn to read like Dave, to ride like Dave, to rope like Dave, to get good grades like Dave. Constantly trying to catch up, and never quite making it. He'd been the first to kiss her, of course. The first to hold her in his arms. The first to make her blood feel like it was melting. The first to make love to her. And the only one to break her heart. Now, of course, she could see what children they'd been then, with him still in law school and her still in college. But at the time, his ending their romance had been heart-breaking, soul-wrenching tragedy. She'd left vowing to make him sorry. To make him rue the day he'd let the dazzling Matty Brennan get away. She'd been a little hazy on exactly how she was going to dazzle him. But it didn't matter in what arena–dancer, actress, financial whiz, literary genius or married-into-royalty–she dazzled him, as long as he was dazzled within a hair's- breadth of his Wyoming's-good-enough-for-me life. It didn't help that he'd gone on to get his law degree with ease, passed the bar on the first try, then settled down to a thriving law practice. And since his parents retired to indulge a yen for adventurous travel a few years back, he'd combined that with successfully running his family's ranch. He was living exactly the life he'd always wanted, the life she'd once dreamed of sharing with him. And doing it right next door to the Flying W...which she would lose if she couldn't pull this off. That was what mattered, she reminded herself. "It's just that my business is important," she said stiffly. "Very important." "I could come see you tomorrow–" "No" Twenty-four hours? No way. If she thought about this too much–if she thought about it at all–she'd lose her nerve. Or regain her pride. "It's, well, it's real important to me. It's urgent." "Urgent?" Now he was frowning. "Are you okay, Matty? Is something wrong?" "No. I mean, yes, but not the way you mean." She took a deep breath and looked around. A young couple was coming up the steps at one end of the sidewalk, probably heading toward the real estate office next to Taylor's. Matty grabbed the rolled back cuff of Dave's white shirt and tugged him toward the opposite end, where they'd have more privacy. "What is it, Matty? You're worrying me. Is it that Cal Ruskoff you've got working for you?" She stared up into his narrowed hazel eyes in astonishment. "Cal? No. Why would you think that? He's great. Works like five men and never complains." Dave's frown didn't ease, but some of the tension went out of his broad shoulders. "Then what is it?" "Give me a second here," she said irritably. She tried to think of a way to say this, a way to make it more palatable, and couldn't. It was like going into the swimming hole on a spring day when they were kids. There was no edging into it, inch by inch, or you'd never do it. The only way to go was to take the plunge. She took a breath and leaped. "I want to marry you." For a second, she could almost believe she'd really jumped into the swimming hole. She felt the same shock of cold surround her and the same sensation that all sound in the world was muffled and distant. The only thing she could hear clearly was the beating of her own heart. Then a single word from Dave brought her back. "Pardon?" He hadn't moved an inch and his expression hadn't changed. He sounded as if he was certain–as only Dave could be certain–that he'd heard wrong. Of course he was going to make her repeat it. Dave had never made anything easy on her. Not since he'd told her, then all of five years old, that if she couldn't keep up, she should go back and play with dolls. "I want to marry you. In fact, I have to marry you." He seemed to come out of a trance. He pushed his cowboy hat back off his forehead, and leaned against the pole that held up the roof over the sidewalk, crossing one leg over the other with an air of total nonchalance. "Have to? You sure it's me you're thinking of?" The amusement was back in his voice. At least she thought it was amusement. It had an edge to it and the look he was giving her didn't strike her as a laughing matter, but maybe that's how he showed amusement these days. After all, she hadn't been around him for years. "Darlin', either I missed something in the past few weeks that I'd truly hate to think I'd missed or you're setting to make medical history. Unless there's someone else more, let's say, recent?" "Don't be an idiot, Dave. I'm not pregnant." "That's a relief. I'd hate to have you be the subject of all those tabloid newspapers for bearing a child six years after the fact. As for the more usual time frame, well a gentleman doesn't like to think he's forgotten things like that. And if someone else–" "Oh, shut up, Dave. It's nothing like that." "Nothing to do with oh, say, an affair of the heart?" "Why would it have to do with an affair of the heart?""Well," he drawled, "marriage sometimes does." "Not this time. I told you, it's business." "Business?" he asked politely. "I'm sorry. I'm not following this. Call me stupid, but I associate marriage with romance, not business." "Yeah, right. You've had enough romances to make Don Juan look like Barney Fife, and I've never heard anything about you getting married." "Been paying attention to my social life, have you?" "It's like the wind around here–it's only remarkable when it's not making its presence felt." "Matty, if this is the way you ask all the men to marry you, I can see why you're still single. I thought I taught you better than that." "You taught– Why you..." She swallowed the words with the greatest of effort. He'd gotten under her skin from their earliest days. Even when she'd thought she was in love with him, he'd been able to yank her chain with the flick of his finger. But no more. And certainly not now. She couldn't afford it. The Flying W couldn't afford it. "This is all beside the point." She barely gritted her teeth at all; she was proud of that. "And what is the point, Matty?" His mouth twitched. "The point–" She figured she couldn't be blamed for a little teeth-gritting now. "–is that I want us to get married. Right away. But only temporarily." "Temporarily?" "Of course, temporarily." She was miffed. "You don't think I'd ask you to get married for good, do you?" "I didn't mean any disrespect. But not having been proposed to before, at least not by you–" She glared at him. Because of the mock humble tone; not, definitely not, because of his intimation that he might have been proposed to by other women. "–I want to keep this all straight. Orderly. Since it's business. Isn't that what you said?" "That's what I said. We'd get married, then after a while, we'd get divorced. Uncontested. Nice and clean." He raised one eyebrow. "Not sure I've ever heard of a clean divorce, much less a nice one." "That's because all those other divorces were between people who were married." "You got me there, Matty, That's a fact." "Oh, quit with the Gary Cooper act, Currick. You know what I mean. We would be pretending to be married. I mean, we'd get married, but we wouldn't be married. We wouldn't–" She shot him a glowering look to be sure he got her point. "–do things married couples do. So the divorce would be no big deal." He rubbed his chin. God, he'd gone from Gary Cooper to Gabby Hayes. If he said Well, Goooolllleeee, she'd belt him. "Uh-huh. Okay, so we get married–without really being married–and then we get divorced. I have that right?" "Yes." "How long?""How long what?" "Before we get divorced?" She hadn't thought that out yet. If the Flying W didn't get the grant this year or if one year's grant wasn't enough to get it back on its feet, she'd be back where she'd started. Better give herself some leeway. "Five years." He jerked up from the pole as if it had caught fire. "Five years" She crossed her arms and braced her legs. "Five years isn't a life sentence, you know. It's not like we'd have to be together all the time. We'd only have to make it look like we were married." He rested back against the pole. "So it would be okay if I fooled around on the side?" "No" She would have taken that back if she could, especially when he got smug. "We have to keep up proper appearances. That's part of the deal." "Matty, honey, be reasonable. Unless you're going to rethink your position on conjugal rights–" "No" "–And you don't want me running around on you, five years is definitely out of the question." She gave in with ill grace. "Four years, then." "Six months." "No way. Three years." "One year." "Two years." "Eighteen months." She figured furiously in her head. She'd just have to get the grant this year. Surely she could turn the Flying W around with two years' worth of grants. And paperwork for a divorce would take time, so with some luck... "Twenty-two months before we start the divorce proceedings." "Done." He stuck out his hand. She put hers in it. He wrapped his big hand around hers, the calluses slightly abrading the tender skin across the back of her hand and the strength of his fingers pressing against hers. You'd think a lawyer would have soft skin and strength only in the muscles used for endorsing checks. "So twenty-two months from now we get divorced. When do we get married?" Still holding her hand, he leaned back against the pole, unbalancing her enough that she had to take a step toward him to keep from falling over. She yanked her hand free. "As fast as we can." The application deadline for this year's grant was in three and a half weeks. For a long moment, he stared at her from the shadow cast by his hat–able to see out so much better than she could see in. "Okay," he said at last. Matty let out a breath–and an instant later realized she'd relaxed too soon. "Now, what do I get out of this deal?" "You?" she blurted."Only seems fair, Matty. You're obviously getting something out of it. I should, too. That's what makes the best business deals. Win-win, they call it. So, I'd like to win something, too." She couldn't argue with that. It was only fair. It was also galling as hell. "I can't afford to pay you anything." Her stiff dignity crumpled with her next words. "And you have plenty enough money as it is, so I don't know why you'd want more from me." "It's not money I want from you." "Then what? You've got your law practice and the Slash-C is doing good business and you had the house renovated–so what could you possibly want from me?" The question hung in the air between them for a moment, then turned around and slapped her in the face, stinging her cheeks with heat. What Dave had once wanted from her was her heart and body and soul. Which she had been more than willing to give him. And then he'd given them all back. "Peace of mind and something to look forward to." Still smarting from her own thoughts, she snapped, "What's that supposed to mean?" "Well, peace of mind means I want to know what you're up to. Why would you suddenly want to marry?" She looked away, pulling the inside of her cheek in between her back teeth. "I can't tell you. Not until we're married." He closed his eyes as if in pain. "Is that because I can't testify against you if we're married?" "I hadn't thought of that, but that's true, too." "Matty, for God's sake–I'm a lawyer, an officer of the court, I can't–" "I know That's why I'm not telling you. I don't want to bother your conscience." "Thank you for your consideration, but–" "You don't have to get all sarcastic, Currick. It's not anything terrible. It's getting around a technicality. Honest." She looked up into his face, letting hurt show at his lack of faith. How much of it was real, she didn't want to know herself. "I wouldn't ask you to do something that was really wrong." The taut line of his shoulders eased. He believed her, and knowing that almost led her into saying something more–probably something stupid. But when he opened his mouth and that lightly mocking tone came out, the danger of confiding in him was over in a flash. "So you can assure me that this matter would never be handled by, oh, say, the FBI, the CIA, or the Wyoming Bureau of Investigation?" "Of course not. You know me better than that." He held up his hands in a placating gesture. "All right. All right. I can see that's the best I'm going to get as far as peace of mind where you're concerned. But at least give me something to look forward to." "Like what?" Suspicion weighted her question and narrowed her eyes. To her annoyance, his eyes abruptly lightened–he was enjoying himself. "Let me think... " He stared out toward where snow-tipped peaks met blue sky. "Got it. We breed Brandeis to that mare of Gates's that Henry bought out from under me a while back for the next three years and I get any foals." "What? No way. I'm not having Juno in foal to Brandeis three years running, and I'm sure as hell not giving you three of her foals. We'll breed them once, and if there's a foal, we'll toss for it." "We breed them until there's a foal I want." "We breed them until there's a live foal, and you get it." "Done." He stuck out his hand again. After an instant's hesitation, she grasped it, gave it one firm shake and released it before his long fingers even finished wrapping around hers. "I'll look into what we have to do to get a license and such–" "It's customary for the man to do that. Besides," he went on as she prepared to protest, "I can do it when I'm at the county courthouse on business and save you a trip to Jefferson." She did have better things to do than traipse to the county seat. As it was, she'd have to be back here in Knighton getting her official residence changed as quickly as possible. "Okay, as long as you do it as soon as possible. I don't want any delays." "We'll get married as fast as I can put it together." "That's it then. I'll expect to hear from you soon." "Aren't you forgetting something? How about the rest of the wedding arrangements?" "Wed–uh, arrangements?" Odd how she'd talked of getting married so calmly, but her tongue stuck on "wedding." "I thought...uh, I thought we'd get married before whatever judge we can find." Actually, she hadn't thought of that at all, but it sounded good now. "That might cause questions, what with both of us being from such old Knighton families. And I don't suppose questions being asked about this marriage right from the start is something you want, is it? Now a church–" "No. No church. I, uh, I don't have time to be messing around with a fancy we– uh, with a church and all." "No, I suppose not. Just seems a shame to open ourselves up to questions..." "Then you take care of the arrangements." As soon as she said them, she felt a sinking certainty that those were exactly the words he'd been angling for. "Okay. I will." Oh, hell, she had more important things to worry about than whatever Dave Currick had in mind. "Fine. No church, and nothing fancy, understand?" "Nothing fancy," he agreed. Certifiable. He'd always been that way about one Matilda Jeanette Brennan, and it looked as if he always would be. From the time she'd toddled after him declaring, "Me fish, too", through the years of her being his best rough and tumble buddy, to the stunning recognition that, not only was there something to this boy-girl stuff, but the girl was Matty of all people, and into that all too brief period when making a life with her had seemed inevitable. Sitting on his porch, Dave Currick rocked back on the rear legs of the worn wooden chair that had just the right balance for this maneuver and put one booted foot on the railing as he contemplated the half moon. So what the hell was she up to now? She was in trouble, that was for sure. He just thanked God she'd turned to him. It slid a warmth under his ribcage to know she had come to him. A warmth that had been missing from his life for a long time. Six years. If he'd been asked twenty-four hours ago who he thought Matty would turn to if she was in trouble, he'd have said Cal Ruskoff, that hand Henry Brennan had hired out of nowhere a couple years back. He'd have hated the taste of the words in his mouth and he'd have hated the truth of them even more, but he'd have said them. In the few times he'd seen Matty and Ruskoff together–at Henry's funeral or on some errand in town these past weeks–he'd seen the easy way she treated Ruskoff, like she was comfortable with him, at home with him, trusted him. Like he was a man she would turn to if she was in trouble. It was quite a contrast to the arctic shoulder she'd been giving Dave. Still, she'd come to him. She needed him. God, it felt good to know that. When she'd first said she had to get married, fears had knotted his stomach so tight he didn't think he could talk. But she'd been so clearly incensed that he might think she was pregnant, and even more clearly at sea about his hints that Ruskoff or someone else might have broken her heart, that the knot had quickly eased. There'd been a time he could have asked Matty straight out what the problem was. Hell, he'd have known without her saying. Now, all he could do was guess that it had to be something with the Flying W. Under Matty's grandfather, the spread was as good acre for acre as any around. After Grandpa Jules' death it had slipped, even though Matty's grandmother had done her best to keep after her brother-in-law, Henry Brennan. But Grams had died nearly four years ago now. Left on his own, Henry had never kept the spread in top order, and there'd been rumblings that the elderly man had really run it down in the last year of his life. Dave had tried to check out the situation through his contacts, with no luck. He'd stopped by twice–and both times Henry Brennan had met him with a shotgun and cutting comments about how Dave Currick wasn't welcomed on Brennan land. He'd known Matty's great-uncle must have left a legal tangle–one he'd hoped she would ask him to help her with. Instead, she'd turned immediately to newcomer Taylor Anne Larsen. Another lesson to him not to hope. But this afternoon's amazing encounter with Matty changed everything. Maybe there was hope after all. Not of really getting married. No, she'd back out of this crazy idea soon enough. He'd seen her leap into things too many times not to know that this had been one of her classic spur-of-the-moment decisions. But even if she called in the morning and said to forget the whole thing, it gave him an opening back into her life. And that gave him hope. Hope after all the years, months, days–and especially all the nights–of convincing himself he had no hope.CHAPTER TWO Two days after proposing to Dave Currick, Matty exited the bank with more speed than finesse. Who would have thought that a little thing like changing her official residence could cause such a hubbub. It had been a snap at the post office–fill out a form and hand it in before anyone could comment. And she would check with Taylor on the other official documents during their meeting later. But when Matty announced her soon-to-be address for the bank's records, Joyce Arbedick had looked up as if a firecracker had gone off under her chair, her eyes bugging out and her mouth formed into a perfect "O" while visions of sin obviously danced in her head. "We're getting married," Matty had said in her own defense. And that's when things really got crazy. All of a sudden she was surrounded, as she sat at the assistant manager's desk, by customers, tellers and probably passersby dragged in from the street by the noise, all wishing her happiness and a long marriage, and saying they'd always known she and Dave would end up together. Matty shuddered now in the quiet of her truck parked alongside the bank, trying to reconstruct what had happened. This morning, Taylor had called while Matty was out watering and feeding the four ailing cows in the barn corral, and had left a message saying she'd like to see her this afternoon. Taylor didn't say what about, but from her rather stilted voice, it wasn't good news. Course, Matty couldn't remember the last time any news had been good. And that realization brought all the reasons for this temporary marriage rushing back to the front of her mind. Each time over these past two days that she'd just about decided to call Dave and tell him the whole thing was a joke–another of her impulses–some reminder of what was at stake, of what would happen if she didn't take this step rushed in. Just like this call from Taylor. Matty had called back and left a message that she'd be in to see Taylor about three, then she'd finished some chores, showered and changed, gathered her paperwork and headed into town to take care of address changes. The sooner she did, the sooner she could apply for the grant. Maybe she could ask Taylor to start– "Matty?" Matty gasped–not sure if the knock on the truck window next to her head or Dave's voice practically in her ear made her jolt so. "Good Lord Don't sneak up on someone that way" Her heart felt as if it could beat right through her ribs. "I didn't sneak up." Dave gestured for her to open the window, and his voice lowered along with the window. "You were so busy chewing on your thumbnail you would have been down to your knuckle before you noticed anyone coming." Matty hid her ragged nail by balling her hand into a fist. Just like Dave to remind her any time she slipped back into that childhood bad habit. "What do you want?" "You." She blinked, while heat bloomed in her chest like a time-elapse movie of a flower on high speed. Then it sizzled through nerve-endings alive with the memory of what it meant to be wanted by Dave. "Why?" It came out a croak. "We have time to get blood tests before your three o'clock with Taylor." Her mind sent an immediate cease-and-desist order to all nerve-endings, but it took the heat a while to evaporate. Was he so tight with Taylor that he knew her entire schedule? But that wasn't the question Matty voiced. "Blood tests?" "You're not still afraid of needles are you?" "Of course not," she lied. "But you didn't tell me we had an appointment." "It's not a real appointment. When I mentioned to Doc you were in town this afternoon, he said he could fit us in if we came by before three." "How'd you know–" "Taylor called me, too." "That wasn't what I was going to ask," she said with a fair assumption of dignity. "I wondered how you knew I'd come into town early." "Elementary, my dear." He opened the truck door and gestured for her to get out. He had on old jeans, worn to a faded blue that she knew would be as soft as their color. The material molded around the muscled length of his thighs, and other lengths she forced her gaze away from. "I tried to call the Flying W, got no answer. I deduced you'd headed into town early." "That's kind of a stretch, Sherlock," she scoffed as they headed up the block toward the small clinic that served the south end of Lewis County and the north end of Clark County. "Ah, but it was confirmed about fifteen minutes ago when all three lines on my office phone lit up simultaneously and two friends stopped by my office." "How does that confirm I'd come to town?" "They'd all heard about your public announcement at the bank that we're getting married. I thought a notice in the paper was how these things are done. Guess the bridegroom's the last to know." She halted before they stepped up to the sidewalk and met his eyes. She'd been avoiding doing too much of that, because Dave's darkly fringed hazel eyes had always packed quite a wallop where she was concerned. But she owed him a direct look while she said this. "I'm sorry, Dave. I didn't mean for it to get out this way, but when I told Joyce my new address and she goggled at me like we'd not only be living in sin but had invented the concept, I blurted it out. But I should have warned you somehow. I'm sorry they blindsided you like that."He looked back at her for a long moment. His expression gradually shifted from surprise to disconcerting assessment. Then one side of his mouth lifted in a wry smile. "No problem. I'm getting used to having things sprung on me this week. Compared to an offer of marriage this was pretty minor. Besides, you did tell me that public appearances were part of this package deal." "Yeah, I did," she said, feeling lightened. She started along the sidewalk, but Dave's hand on her arm stopped her. "There's one thing I wondered about, Matty," "What?" "You're awfully eager to get your address changed aren't you? Not even waiting until we're married." "Just want to keep things straight," she mumbled. "C'mon, let's go get those blood tests. Doc won't wait all day." "You don't have to walk me all the way inside," Matty protested twenty minutes later as Dave ushered her into Taylor Larsen's reception area. "I'm perfectly all right and you can go about your business now." "You still look pale." She glared at him. "I am not pale and I wasn't going to faint. I was fine until you shoved my head down between my knees. Then I was dizzy." Dizziness that had nothing at all to do with the sensation of his hand against the back of her neck, slowly stroking into her hair, then down inside the collar of her sweater. "Uh-huh," he murmured, falsely soothing. "Hey, Lisa." "Dave, Matty." The tone of voice used by Lisa Currick–Dave's younger sister and Taylor's office manager–immediately announced she was miffed. "I hear congratulations are in order." Matty's heart sank under a load of guilt. She hadn't given a thought to how this might affect Lisa. Some still clucked about Lisa having moved into her own small house on the edge of town when she'd returned from New York City a few years back instead of living on the ranch. But Matty had figured that had to do with Lisa's need for independence, not any bad blood between the siblings. The gap of six years between brother and sister had meant they weren't buddies as kids, not the way she and Dave had been buddies. But the Currick family was close and loyal. "Or maybe," Lisa was going on. "I should make that I-told-you-so's. Half the town's been telling me they always knew you two would get together if you'd stop squabbling long enough to listen to your pheromones. They all seemed to think that as your sister, I'd already know about this." Of course Lisa was hurt that she hadn't been told first. Especially since she didn't know this wasn't going to be a real marriage. "Oh, Lisa, I'm so sorry–but, honestly, it's not what you think–" "Sorry, Lees," Dave interrupted firmly at the same time he squeezed so tightly around Matty's waist that she almost yelped. "We'd intended to tell you first. Word kind of leaked out about a half hour ago, and you know how this town is. I'll explain it all to you over dinner in Jefferson, how's that? You have time before class tonight?" "Not tonight. Tomorrow." She waved toward an interior door, clearly well on her way to being mollified. "Taylor's waiting for you both, so go in." "Both of us? Wait a minute, why would Taylor–" Dave interrupted again. "Tell Lisa thanks for the congratulations, Matty, and let's go in." He gave Taylor's office door a quick knock before opening it. "Thanks, Lisa," she said hurriedly as he guided her into the inner office, "but I don't see why you–" "Hello, Matty, David." With an air of formality, Taylor stood behind her desk. "I'm glad you both could come this afternoon to discuss this." Her gesture indicated documents on her desk. They bore Dave's letterhead. "Discuss what?" Taylor sat, looking at the pages as she flipped through them, and they took the twin chairs across the desk from her. "You're right, Matty, there isn't much to discuss. Dave did an excellent job drafting it." "Drafting what?" Matty asked. "I took the liberty of sending this to Taylor yesterday, so she could look it over on your behalf beforehand. Thought that would be better than springing it on you, Taylor," he added, looking across the desk. "I appreciate that. It–" Matty had had enough of the lawyerly courtesies. Spacing each word, she demanded, "What is it?" Dave gave a fair portrayal of surprise that she would have to ask, but when he turned to her she recognized the glint in his eyes. "Our prenuptial agreement, dear." "Our prenup–?" Matty glared at him. "You worried I'm going to try to rob you, Currick?" Taylor looked up quickly. "No, of course not, dear." Dave reached across the narrow chasm between their chairs and took her hand. She tried to snatch it back. His hold tightened enough to make her wince. "You must have jumped right on this. You had it drafted by yesterday afternoon? And it was only two days ago that we–" "I know it was only two days ago that we set the date for sure," he interrupted with a warning in his eyes. And he was right–another half sentence and she would have given it away. "But since we'd been talking about marriage for so long, I'd had it on my mind. With land holdings like ours it's best to set everything out beforehand." "That's true, Matty," Taylor added earnestly. "And this agreement safeguards the Flying W as thoroughly as the Slash-C. The boundaries would revert to what they are now, and the income generated, plus equipment or stock bought during the period of the marriage would be divided fifty-fifty." "Oh." Dave gave her an ironic little nod at her deflated tone, which Taylor didn't see because she was looking at the papers. It was beyond equal, since the Slash-C would no doubt generate more income and buy more equipment than the Flying W would. "In fact, it's an extremely fair document. The only thing is..." "What?" Matty demanded, suspicions aroused again. "There's a rather odd clause about if you should divorce, you both agree to breed Brandeis and Juno, with Dave getting first live foal." "Oh, that. That's okay." Taylor's frown deepened. "Then it says that if you initiate divorce proceedings any time after two years of marriage, Dave gets Juno outright." "What" "Now, Matty," Dave said in a mockingly soothing rumble. "It's only fair. I was thinking and thinking about it, and it seems to me that getting a divorce the first two years shows the marriage was just a pure mistake–the kind anybody can make. But after that, it starts to look like carelessness to pull apart a marriage." Matty opened her mouth, but Dave kept on talking. "Course, if I initiate divorce proceedings any time after two years, then I don't get a thing. And it's not like it's a life sentence. After all, nobody can expect Juno to live more than another, oh, fifteen years, twenty at the most. After that you could divorce me and walk away free." Oh, he was clever, Mr. Attorney Currick. She saw clear as day that the clause was to make sure she didn't hold him to the marriage longer than the twenty-two months they'd agreed on, with two months thrown in like a sale on donuts. "It's all right, Taylor. I'll accept that clause. After all, we won't be using it, will we, dear?" She gazed into his face, a small smile pulling at her lips, and had the pleasure of seeing wariness skim across his eyes. "Of course, we're all optimistic that none of these clauses will ever be used," said Taylor, though her reasons for that expectation were probably quite different from Matty's. Matty intended to end the mock marriage right on schedule, while Taylor was probably romantically thinking the marriage would never end–Hah "But just in case... " Matty put a finger to her chin as if suddenly struck by a thought. "It only seems right that we have a clause that if you initiate divorce proceedings after two years, I get Brandeis free and clear. To keep things even." Dave gave a strangled cough, which Matty was fairly certain had started as a laugh. "Well done," he murmured just loud enough for her to hear. Then he added at regular volume. "Matty's got a point, Taylor. If you insert the clause, I'll initial it and we can sign right now." "Well, that's done," Matty said, pulling the short tail of straight hair at the end of her braid free from her collar. Dave knew that it used to drive her nuts in high school that she had straight hair. After he and Matty had shifted from buddies to dating, he'd probably spent a thousand hours in the Flying W's kitchen talking with Grams, waiting for Matty to do something or other to her hair that would make it curl...until the first lick of Wyoming wind got to it. She didn't even seem to notice now.He'd always liked it straight. Straight and silky, and with a thousand colors streaked into the natural light brown by days in the sun. He could spend the rest of his life cataloguing the different colors there. "Yup, it's done." "What next?" "Want some ice cream?" She frowned at him fiercely. "I meant what other stuff do we have to get out of the way before we get married?" "Oh. Not much." He fought a grin. Wait until she found out that they could have gone and gotten married that first day–no blood test, no waiting period, fill out the form at the county courthouse, find a judge, then back to the courthouse to register the marriage certificate. Except he'd hadn't been willing to take that risk. If he'd gone along with Matty's rush to marry, she'd have either gone running or she'd have clamped down hard on her stubbornness to see this through–whatever the hell this was– and he'd never know what was really behind this move. This way, with time to think things over, she'd eventually back out. But with some luck, they would have mended enough bridges by then to at least keep talking to each other. That was a lot after more than six years of pretending that their lifetime of friendship, infatuation and love hadn't existed. An awful lot. Though he had a feeling it might not be enough. "Let's see, this is Friday. Doc said he'd hurry the blood tests for us, and the prenup's all signed, so... I'd say we could get married Tuesday." "Tuesday?" She sounded as if someone had his hands around her throat, cutting off her air. "Wednesday better for you?" She'd caught the glint of laughter in his eyes. He knew that when she snapped, "Tuesday will do fine." "Tuesday it is then. I'll come by Monday morning and pick up your things." "My things?" "Clothes and such. If you want to bring some furniture to the Slash-C, we can arrange that later on." He could read her face so easily–she hadn't thought about moving in with him being one of the results of saying she wanted to marry him. But she recovered quickly, his Matty did. Quickly enough to rap out a terse, "Fine." "'Bout nine o'clock, say?" "Fine." "Fine," he echoed. "How 'bout getting ice cream before you head back to the ranch?" "Uh, no. No thanks. I–there's something else I need to talk to Taylor about." She was gone in a second, and he was left contemplating the closed door, wondering if that had been the truth or if the reality of what she'd signed on to do was finally starting to penetrate her stubborn head. When you'd had as bad a weekend as Matty had had, Monday ought to be different. No such luck. First, the ranch pickup's transmission seized up Saturday morning as Cal was heading out to check stock in the west range. Cal did what he could, but it was going to need to go to the shop. And they were funny about wanting money for the parts and labor the old heap kept sucking up. Then, a pair of late-calving heifers started having trouble. The first finally gave birth to a sickly calf. They'd done what they could for mother and calf, and were heading in for coffee when the second heifer started calving. As thanks for their troubles, the animal had kicked Matty in the hip. At least her calf survived. The first one died as the moon rose. Even allowing themselves only a few hours of sleep, they got a late start Sunday when they both finally rode out to the west range in a chilling rain. They found a section of fence down and Flying W head thoroughly intermingled with Bert Watson's Diamond D brand. Straightening that out and getting up a temporary fix on the fence ate the rest of daylight. Some day of rest. But of the whole miserable weekend, last night, when she'd told Cal Ruskoff about what the week ahead held, was the worst. He'd come into the main house after supper to talk about what he would work on the next day over a cup of coffee, a custom he'd started with Great-Uncle Henry and continued with her. She'd debated not telling him at all. But that didn't seem fair–after all, it would affect his job. Besides, even a recluse like Cal would hear the talk from town eventually, and it might not make things look too good if her top hand didn't know she was married. She hadn't told him before that moment because... well, she didn't know precisely why. Maybe she'd needed to sleep on it. Or maybe she'd needed to give Dave a couple days to back out. But by last night, she'd known Dave wasn't going to change his mind. He was not the sort to leave a woman at the altar. No, he was the sort to take her out for a ride and tell her breaking up was for her own good. But this time, she hadn't heard from him since leaving him outside Taylor's office. So he wasn't backing out. And that meant she had to tell Cal. She'd taken a deep breath and said, as casually as she could, "Cal, I have something to tell you... I'm getting married. Tuesday. To Dave Currick." First he'd gone silent. Then he'd commented that Henry had told him not to let Dave Currick set foot on the Flying W. "Oh, that. Great-Uncle Henry got it into his head that he hated Dave because Dave broke up with me back when we were kids. You know how Henry was." "He broke up with you. You've been gone years. Been working too hard to see anybody these weeks you've been back. And now you're getting married. What's going on, Matty?" She'd started explaining. Mostly explaining why she couldn't explain. At least not the whole thing. Not right now. But that when she did explain the whole thing, he'd see that it was really the best thing for the ranch. And how it wasn't hurting anyone.It was a little disjointed as explanations went, but it made sense, she knew it did. The more she'd talked, however, the more he'd gotten all stiff-jawed. And when she'd finished, he'd slammed his fist against her kitchen table, told her she was a fool and walked out. She'd been too stunned to do any more than sit there. She'd spent a restless night, arguing with that word "fool"–without even knowing how he meant it. Jealousy didn't enter into it, because there wasn't that kind of feeling between her and Cal. This morning, she hadn't seen so much as Cal's shadow...not until Dave pulled up by the back door in his midnight blue pickup that hummed like a barbershop quartet. Of course, a Slash-C pickup's transmission wouldn't even think of seizing up. Dave stepped out of the truck, wearing the snug, worn jeans and faded shirt that proclaimed that this day he was working as ranch owner and not lawyer. Matty was suddenly deeply grateful for her rotten weekend and for Cal's strange reaction. They'd kept her too busy to think of Dave as anything other than a means to her end. Because with him right in front of her, the movement of his thighs as he got out of the truck, the flex of his shoulders as he gave the door a push to close it, the turn of his head as his gaze zeroed in on her, the end she found her thoughts drifting to was the taut one encased in his jeans. To her relief, Cal came sauntering out of the garage/shed behind the house, as if she hadn't just been in there calling his name, after a futile stretch looking for him at his cabin and the main outbuildings further up the rough ranch road. She glared at him–that way she couldn't stare at Dave. "Morning, Matty. You got your things ready?" When she didn't answer right away, Dave turned, looking over his shoulder, probably to see what she was looking at. "Morning, Cal," he added in a neutral voice. "I suppose you've heard that congratulations are in order?" By this time Cal had come up even with Dave, and she'd advanced so the three of them stood in a loose triangle. "Yeah? Do you love her?" "Cal–" she started. Dave cut her off. His easy smile was gone, but his voice was nearly as unhurried as ever. "You don't know me well enough to be asking me that, Ruskoff." He settled his hat lower, shadowing his eyes. "Why don't you ask her?" "All right, I will." Cal stepped toward her. "Do you, Matty? Do you love him?" Her eyes flicked to Dave, then away. Love him? The phrase seemed to reverberate in her head and her heart, picking up an echo of Grams' voice. Do you love him, girl? Truly love him? Or are you set on him because that's what you've always expected of yourself. Think about it hard, Matty. Do you love him? "Well, Matty?" Cal insisted. "Are you marrying Currick because you love him?" Almost grateful, she looked fully at him. "Cal, I told you last night, there're other things involved. Besides–" she added strongly as he opened his mouth. "It's between Dave and me. Whatever we do shouldn't matter to anyone else." "She's got you there, Ruskoff," Dave murmured. And even without looking at him, Matty was certain his lips were twitching. Cal paid him no heed, continuing to stare at her. "You can't do this, Matty." "Cal, don't go making a tragedy out of something that's no big deal. Dave and I worked it out. It'll all be fine. You'll see. I'll go get my stuff." She turned on her heel and didn't look back. It was really kind of sweet of Cal, she thought as she opened the screen door to the back hall. She never would have expected the silent ranch hand to worry about such things as love. As the door swung closed behind her, she heard Dave's voice from outside, and stopped. "You obviously don't know your employer well, Ruskoff." She looked back in time to see Cal spin around and face Dave. "Are you saying you think she should do this–marry you, in some damned fool scheme to help the ranch?" "She told you that's why she's marrying me?" "Not in so many words," he snapped. "But still, you think she's after my money?" Dave sounded only mildly interested. "No. Matty wouldn't–besides, she told me about that prenup." "I'd give her money, if that's what she wanted. And she knows it." "That's not the question. The question is if you're saying you think she should really go through with this hare-brained scheme." "I'm not putting forward an opinion one way or the other on whether she can or she should. But I am saying that the surest way of making damned sure that Matilda Brennan–soon to be Matilda Brennan Currick–" he inserted with emphasis, "will try something is to tell her she can't do it. The second surest way is to tell her she shouldn't do it." When Matty swung open the screen door, she had a moment's view of the two men looking at each other hard, nearly nose to nose, before they turned their heads toward her. This concern stuff was sweet, but it could get out of hand. "If you two are done acting like a couple of bull moose and talking about me like I'm not here, you could help me bring my things out instead of leaving me to do all the lugging." She had the satisfaction of seeing both men meekly turn and head into the house. Dave let Cal precede him. Cal shot her a look from the corner of his eye as she stood in the hallway with her arms crossed under her breasts, then kept moving. "Currick Just for the record," she said as he reached her and stopped, "I don't want your money, and I wouldn't take it if you offered." Dave leaned one hand on the wall above her shoulder, crowding her in the narrow space. She could feel the warmth of his body, smell the breeze and sun on him. He had dropped his chin to look at her; she stared back with her chin raised. If he simply bent his elbow, his mouth would meet hers and his body

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