Almost A Bride

Patrica McLinn

almost a bride ebook patricia mclinnWyoming Wildflowers, Book #1
Price: $3.00

Dave Currick was everything Matty Brennan wanted for as along as she could remember. Right up until he broke her heart six years ago. Now that she’s returned to Wyoming for good, what she wants more than anything is to save her family’s ranch. Even if that means swallowing her pride and asking Dave to marry her.

Matty’s up to something – Dave knows that much. Just as he knows that Matty needs help, so of course he’ll provide it, just as he has all her life. Doing what’s best for Matty is second nature. Even when it comes to marrying her in name only. Although he can’t resist one hot-blooded kiss after the I-dos. Maybe – just maybe – his Matty will become more to him than Almost a Bride.

Patricia Says: This is the first book in the Wyoming Wildflowers series, with each heroine connected to a wildflower. The series gave me a true Sally Fields “you like me, you really like me” moment when a reviewer wrote on the Writers Club Romance Group on AOL: “If you’ve been feeling burned out and let down by category romance, the Wyoming Wildflowers series will remind you how much there is to love in the genre.” Better than an Oscar!

Reviews…

“… These powerful characters and their emotional intensity keep the pages turning.” Cindy Penn, Wordweaving

“This is a ‘don’t-miss’ treat.” Rendezvous

Originally published by Silhouette Special Edition
2001

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 a “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.