Excerpt: Cowboy's Bride

Cowboy's Bride by Barbara McMahon

Book Two: Cowboy Heroes Series

Trace Longford balanced on the narrow platform of the tall windmill and raised his head. He heard the truck before he saw it. Scanning the area, his gaze swept the grass-covered hills to his left. Beyond, in the distance to the west, the snow-covered granite peaks of the Tetons glittered in the afternoon sun. The truck crested the nearby hill, its engine droning as it slowly crept toward him. Sitting back on his haunches, his arms loosely held on his knees, he watched as the gleaming blue-and-white pickup drew closer and stopped.

Eyes narrowed against the sun’s glare, his expression impassive, he watched a small, dark-haired woman climb down from the truck’s cab. She tossed back the long braid confining her hair and calmly placed a white Stetson over the glossy black mane. The brim shaded her from the relentless Wyoming sun. Trace watched her look around, catch sight of him on the high narrow platform of the windmill. Raising her chin in determination, she walked over to the base. His eyes never left her as she approached.

“Are you Trace Longford?” she called.

“Yeah.” A sudden premonition filled him, made him tense. He wasn’t given to premonitions–good or bad– but suddenly he felt a tightening in his gut that presaged trouble. In an instant, he knew her identity. But why the hell she was here, he hadn’t a clue. Hadn’t she gotten Richard’s letter?

“One of the men at the barn told me I might find you here,” she called. “Can you come down to talk to me?”

“When I’m done.” He didn’t like climbing these things in boots and had no intention of leaving before he finished. Ignoring her for a moment, he turned to the last bolt, tightened the nut. That would hold the decrepit blades a few more weeks. The entire windmill needed to be overhauled and new blades installed. But that wasn’t his decision–yet. He hesitated a moment before slapping the wrench and pliers into his back pocket and turning to climb down the wooden crosspieces nailed into the structure. Glancing at the woman, he wondered how long she’d stay. And why she’d come out here in the first place. Standing, he reached for the top rung of the ladder.

Kalli Bonotelli watched impatiently as the man returned to his task, ignoring her. Her lips tightened in momentary annoyance, then she shrugged and walked to her truck, leaning against one hot fender, gazing across the acres of green grass spread before her. He probably hadn’t a clue who she was. He had a job to do and was doing it. She’d wait. Lifting her eyes, she drank in the beauty of the mountains, hardly able to believe she was finally back. The soft, warm air caressed her cheeks, billowing out her shirt slightly. It smelled so good, clean and dry, carrying the hint of the distant pines and the drying grass of the fields. Totally unlike automobile fumes and smoggy Boston air.

Looking around, she was almost overwhelmed with the sense of giddy delight that swept through her. She was back! Actually in Wyoming! Standing on her own land. She owned a cattle ranch! She could hardly believe it, though she had all the paperwork to prove it. She’d stopped by the lawyer’s office on her way to the Triple T Ranch. It was official. The ranch she’d visited as a child was now hers, Uncle Philip had seen to it.

“Okay, what can I do for you?”

She turned and her eyes widened. He’d climbed down from the platform and was striding easily across the broken ground, his gait smooth, arrogant, almost predatory, like a lobo wolf on the prowl. His jeans molded his long legs, faded almost white at the seams and across the blatant masculine bulge. Scuffed boots encased his feet. His shirt lay tossed across the side of his truck bed.

Kalli swallowed hard and let her eyes drift up his narrow hips, across the hard, flat belly to his muscular chest and shoulders. His skin was as smooth as a baby’s, copper in hue, and the musculature clearly defined beneath his taut, tanned skin was perfection. If Michelangelo had sculpted in bronze, this man would have been his masterpiece.

Her eyes clashed with his. Black to black. Locked in an unexpected wave of sensual awareness. Kalli caught her breath, unable to break her gaze. Her breasts tingled, her stomach tightened. Something raw and primitive seemed to stretch between them, and for a split second she forgot why she was here, forgot her delight in the ranch, forgot what she wanted to talk about. She could only feel the shimmering waves of electricity flowing through her, surrounding her. Startled by the strength of the magnetism she could only stand and stare.

“Are you all right? Sun too much for you?” he asked, coming to stand before her, crowding her space. Stealing the air. He tucked his thumbs into the waistband of his jeans, tilted his hips, his stance bold, insolent, cocky. His eyes raked down at her. He stood so close she had to tilt her head to meet his gaze. She wanted to step back. But the side of her truck pressing against her backside prevented that. That, and her pride.

“I’m fine.” She took a deep breath. The scent of grass, dust and man filled her nostrils. She held it a moment, reveling in the unfamiliar, exciting odors. Slowly she released it, drew another. Warning bells clanged in her mind. This man was dangerous to her health.

“I’m Trace Longford and I suspect you’re Kalli Bonotelli,” he said, still watching her warily with his dark brooding eyes. Reaching up to lift his dusty hat, he ran the fingers of one hand through his shaggy black hair, resettled the hat, his gaze never leaving hers. There was no welcome.

She smiled uncertainly. “Yes, that’s right. I’m the new owner of the Triple T,” she said proudly, holding out her hand.

He took it, released it quickly, not liking the shock of awareness that coursed through him at her touch.

“You’re not much bigger than my daughter,” he said meeting her eyes again. But she sure filled out clothes better than Becky.

“I know I’m a little on the small side, but my determination is gigantic. The man at the barn said you were acting as foreman of the ranch. I wanted to get settled in the house today, and he said you had the key.”

Fascinated by the raw essence of masculinity before her, she couldn’t resist skimming her glance across his shoulders to sneak another peek at his chest. Perspiration gleamed in the hot sun, the sheen coating his coppery skin with a warm glistening polish.

“I have the key. I didn’t know you were coming. Philip died last February. It’s May, and I thought by now you’d sell out.” He knew there’d been a fair offer on the ranch–he’d made it.

“Oh, no. I just had things to finish up in Boston before I could come. But I’m here for good now.” She swept her gaze around the rolling hills, taking in the deep blue sky and the majestic Tetons in the distance.

“For good?” He raised an eyebrow and cast a quick glance over her truck. Obviously new, and packed to the limit with boxes and pieces of furniture. He frowned. He didn’t want her staying.

“Yes. For good.” She met his gaze, tilting her chin firmly. She could feel his disapproval. But she ignored it. She’d already fought the battle with her parents. The attitude of a stranger fell low on the list of influence. She was here, and here she would stay! At twenty-eight she was old enough to know her own mind. Actually living on the ranch had been her fantasy since she’d been a preteen and first spent the summer with her uncle. She’d spent every minute of five summers following her mother’s older brother around, riding the range with him, attending livestock sales, fantasizing about living forever on the ranch.

“What do you know about ranching? I thought you were from Boston,” he said, frowning at her.

“I am, but I know enough to get started. I used to live here in the summers. Picked up a few things from my uncle. And I figure you can teach me, can’t you?”

“I don’t work here.” Hell, just what he needed, some city-slicker woman wanting him to do all her work while she reaped all the benefits.

“But the man at the barn said you were acting as foreman.”

“Right. Philip was sick for several months before he died so I helped out. When there was no one to run the

place after he was gone, I stepped in as acting foreman. But if you’re here now, there’s no need, right? You’re the owner, you run it,” he challenged, watching her intensely. He didn’t want anything to do with some city woman who thought she could waltz in and take over the ranch after living on it for a few summers as a kid. Hell, it had to have been years ago. He’d have seen her during the past ten years if she’d been here. Let her fall on her pretty face. Then maybe she’d listen to reason about selling. She couldn’t have the first idea about running a cattle ranch.

“I’m willing to make the job permanent,” she offered, a spark of uncertainty touching ha. She’d counted on having a foreman to help run the spread, at least until she knew enough to be totally in charge. If he didn’t stay, she wasn’t even sure how she’d go about hiring a new foreman.

“Don’t need a job,” he said, lifting his hat again, tilting it over his eyes when he resettled it. Slowly he moved away, toward his truck. He pulled on his shirt, but left it unbuttoned. If she didn’t stop looking at him as if she was about to eat him up, he was going to embarrass them both. He could fed the tightening in his belly. He felt like a randy teenager wanting to show off to a pretty woman, flex his muscles–

Whoa! Dammit, he’d just met her. A starry-eyed woman who wanted the glamor of a ranch without knowing anything about the work and hardships involved would prove a definite liability in more ways than one. Hadn’t his experience with Alyssa been enough?

“I’ll pay top dollar.” Kalli grinned. She had always longed to say that. “Please, consider it, at least. Just until I make sure I know enough to run the ranch on my own. I came all the way from Boston and don’t know anyone around here who is qualified to run it. The man at the barn-“

“Probably Joshua,” Trace said as he leaned against his truck bed and looked at her again. “Tall, thin with gray hair?”

She nodded. “He said-“

“He said I was acting as foreman, you’re repeating yourself. That’s the way it was, but now that you’re here, you can act as your own foreman. I’ve got a place of my own.”

“Please,” she said, feeling a touch of panic. “Help me out until I can learn something about this place. If you like, I’ll start looking for another foreman right away. You can help me interview. It’ll only be for a few weeks.”

Kalli swallowed, afraid to be alone in this. She knew almost nothing about the ranching business. She had thought to find the place operating along the lines her uncle had run it. She’d wanted to ride, see how cowboys worked and learn as she went along.

“I can’t even pretend to know enough to run this place right now,” she confessed.

“Sell out. It takes a lot of work and knowledge to run a successful cattle ranch. You don’t sit on the porch and watch the money roll in.” As if it rolled in when a man worked killer hours.

She stiffened, a little guilty because that was close to what she’d thought to find. “I know that.”

“Wyoming’s a hard land. Hot as hell in summer, snow up to your eyeballs or higher in winter,” he said to force the point home.

“Boston has snow,” she said stiffly.

“Sure, but have you worked out in it for all hours trying to save your herd? Have you broken ice on the water troughs or river edges so the cattle can drink, only to have it freeze again before a dozen can get a drop? Have you fought for the lives of the calves born early in unexpected spring blizzards? Worried about predators, rustlers and other hazards to a herd that can wipe you out financially in an instant?”

Damn, it was a hard life, one a person was born to, not sashayed in to as if it was a walk in the park.

“No, I haven’t done any of that. But don’t think discouraging me will change my mind. I’ve always wanted to live here on the ranch and now that I’m here, nothing is going to make me leave. If you want the job, temporarily, it’s yours. If not, then I’ll thank you for your assistance thus far and bid you goodbye.” She tilted her chin as anger flared in her eyes. She knew she had little experience, but she could learn, dammit, and she would!

He hesitated a moment, then shook his head at his own folly.

“I’ll do it for a couple of weeks,” he heard himself say. Hell! He didn’t want her getting another foreman. He wanted her gone. He should be in his truck heading for his own place. He had no business tangling up with the new owner of the Triple T. He wanted the ranch for himself, not to run it for some little city slicker from Boston. He looked away, scowling at his reaction to her. The way she filled out those jeans was positively indecent. She shouldn’t be allowed outside. He rubbed his hand across his eyes, blinked in the bright sun. She was Becky’s size, and as dark as he. He liked tall, leggy blondes.