The Cowboy’s Mail Order Bride

Book 1 in the Careys of Cowboy Point Series
HEAT LEVEL:
Satisfyingly Spicy

Cowboy looking for wife to work the land, help with the business, and raise the next generation. Must be practical, reasonable, and honest.

Harlan Carey needs a wife, and fast. Because his father is dying and wants to see his five sons settled before he goes. It makes sense to put out an ad like he’s on the frontier and he’s looking for a bride from somewhere back in civilization. He’s expecting something workable. What he gets is a wildfire.

Kendall Darlington needs to disappear from her messy life. Becoming a mail-order bride sounds close enough to actual time travel to work. What she’s not expecting is to fall, hard, for the beauty of the land and the surprising delight that is Harlan himself.

But when her past comes calling, can Kendall trust the future Harlan promises enough to finally stay—with the only man she’s ever loved, in the only place that’s ever felt like home?

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The Cowboy’s Mail Order Bride

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Chapter One

Harlan Carey knew the woman who rushed in through the doors of Grey’s Saloon and then stopped dead, as if she needed to do a quick reconnaissance of the place before she could commit to it, was his very own mail-order bride.

They got their fair share of tourists here in Marietta, a small town tucked away in Paradise Valley, Montana, where folks liked to stop before heading down to explore the many glories of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. But he knew she wasn’t headed out to explore any national parks in this stretch of May that was called spring but was still too cold to mean it.

He knew she was here for him.

Harlan knew this instantly and without question, the way his late mother used to say she knew things she shouldn’t—down deep in the bones. The way the weather was going to turn up on Copper Mountain. The way the sun settled down into the hills in winter, just a gleam of gold to remind a man hunkering down in the Montana cold that the light always came back eventually. The way he could eyeball a fractious calf before it got itself in too much trouble and more often than not, sort out the situation before it developed. The way he had that sixth sense about when his fences—or his family—needed his attention.

It was her.

Though if he was right about that, and he knew he was, it was going to be a problem.

Harlan knew that just as certainly and just as quick.

She’d come in with the wind when she’d opened the door and Harlan could feel the bite of it on the back of his neck. He’d driven down the side of Copper Mountain this morning, still snowy and icy most of the way to the valley floor. It was that snow and ice you could feel even walking around the streets of Marietta, a reminder that seasons in Montana were more like suggestions. Folks liked to claim there were only three: winter, July, and August.

Sure, there were hints of spring if a man knew where to look, but it was different in the higher elevations, where Harlan had lived all his life. High Mountain Ranch had been in his family since his rugged, determined ancestors had made the trek out from various forms of indentured servitude in the East to try their hand at mining. Copper Mountain hadn’t turned out to have a lot of copper, despite grand promises to the contrary. The Careys, always quick to pivot when necessary, had decided to claim as much land as they could—far away enough from the bustle of town and the copper and railway barons who thought too highly of themselves in their fancy Victorian houses.

That was how High Mountain Ranch had been born. Grit, determination, a kind of steel-plated optimism, and more than a little bullheadedness.

Harlan’s great-grandfather, the wily and much-mustachioed Matthew Carey, had been a terrible miner by all accounts, but had turned out to have a way with the land. Harlan liked to think that way of his had been passed down through the years, eldest son to eldest son and sometimes the rest of the family too.

Today it sat on him hard, the duty that went with a legacy like that. Not the land, because land was a terrible gift and a beautiful struggle, and a man could spend a lifetime navigating a course between the two. But that part was easy, ultimately, because what the land took it also gave back, in its way.

It was things like what he was doing today that hit harder. Things that were about the land, but felt more personal than that, because duty had sharp teeth.

He was sitting in Grey’s Saloon in pretty little Marietta, which was technically the town he lived in. Only technically, though, because the community Matthew Carey and other likeminded ex-miners and prospectors had settled into was ten miles up Copper Mountain, around on the backside where folks liked to say they were caught between the Lord and the lunatics.

They’d dubbed the area Cowboy Point and like many places around here, there was some debate as to how Cowboy Point had come by its name. Some claimed it had been a joke. That the miners, known for a certain level of gallows humor necessary to surviving their profession, had called it that because there weren’t any cowboys. Not at first. These days Harlan supposed the name fit better. There were real cowboys, like him. Then again, some would argue that anyone who lived out here in the Montana backcountry, far away from the ritzy comforts of Bozeman or Jackson Hole, was a cowboy where it counted.

Though Harlan thought he’d never done anything that was quite so much the old-school cowboy way as this: Putting an ad in the paper for a proper wife like it was still the 1850s.

He’d regretted almost the moment he’d done it, but by then it had been too late.

And now, here he was. Sitting at a table watching a woman scan the place, looking for him. Looking for the kind of man he wished he wasn’t—that being the kind of man who needed to put an ad out for a woman in the first place.

It all sat different, now, this game he’d decided to play and then decided to pretend he hadn’t bothered with. And he knew it was because of her.

She wasn’t what he wanted at all.

He watched her pivot, her gaze sweeping over the weathered old saloon that gleamed this early in the day. Behind the bar, the longtime owner Jason Gray stood with his usual military precision, seemingly unaware of anything around him while he looked down at a stack of papers. But anyone local, or observant, knew that very little got past the old Marine.

Harlan knew that Jason was fully aware that this woman was looking around like she was casing the joint. There was something about the way her eyes narrowed. Something about the way she paused a little on each thing she saw before moving onto the next, like she was memorizing it. The long stretch of polished bar itself. The pool table in the back. The jukebox that Jason stubbornly refused to update to reflect modern music no matter how many times he was asked. It seemed to take her a long time to get back around to the set of booths along the far wall, then travel to the one way back in the corner where Harlan sat.

There was one other table in here. A local family Harlan knew enough to nod to on the way in, but not enough to stop and talk much. But that was a good thing, because it meant they might not pay too much attention to him, either.

He kept his eyes trained on the woman. The woman who was here to see if she’d like to become his wife, something that seemed a little more intense and real now than it had while he’d been driving down the mountain earlier, wondering what the hell he was doing.

In his truck, it had seemed like a game. But not any longer.

Her gaze locked with his and he thought, at last.

That settled in him strangely, but he ignored it. He nodded a greeting, reaching up to tip down his Stetson in front. And then whatever was taking its time settling in his gut took even longer, because she reacted to that. To the tip of his hat.

Like it hit her the same way her gaze had hit him.

She seemed to come close to swaying on her feet, which was more intriguing than he wanted to let on, even to himself. Maybe especially to himself. Then she started toward him anyway.

As she walked in his direction, Harlan stood up from the booth because he had been raised to show respect to a woman that way. And also because he wanted to see just how high on his chest the top of her head would hit.

Which, neatly enough, laid out the whole problem with her that he could see from across the room. The problem he’d seen the moment she’d walked in.

She was pretty.

Inarguably pretty, in all the ways he liked.

It was a complication Harlan had not been expecting. Though his body was not exactly processing it as a complication.

She took her time walking across the nearly empty saloon to his booth and he learned a lot about her, watching her move. Her eyes were narrow as she looked back at him with more than a little suspicion. She lifted her chin in a way that either showed she was confident or belligerent. Hard to say which. And she let her gaze travel over him, taking in his usual jeans and boots and the button-down shirt he had worn for the occasion.

He reckoned that meant he could do the same in return, so he did. Her hair looked glossy and silky, caught back in a high ponytail that moved when she did. It was the color of deep, rich earth shot through with sunlight. Her eyes looked greener the closer she came. She had a clever, angular face—a contrast to her full mouth and he had the sense she knew it. That there was a little extra color on her lips to play that up, that contrast.

She was lean all over, bordering on skinny but packed into a pair of jeans that did mouthwatering things to her butt and her long legs, then ended up in a pair of motorcycle boots that look scuffed and worn—but not like they’d ever been near a motorcycle in their lifetime. She wore a formfitting tank top that peeked out from underneath a looser buttoned shirt, yet none of that managed to give her much bulk. She had the kind of hip bones that were obvious to the naked eye, immediately making him a little too interested wrapping his hands around them while he rolled her beneath—

There it was again. The reason why this was a terrible idea. And why he was going to have to say hello to her and then send her on her way. Maybe he’d buy her lunch for her trouble, but she was a walking quagmire and Harlan didn’t have time for quicksand of any description.

He was carrying too much as it was.

She came to a stop before him. Her hands found her hips and for a moment they stood there, each finishing up their little survey of the other.

Turned out that the top of her head came to just above the center of his chest.

The perfect height, by his estimation.

For the record.

“I take it you’re Harlan Carey,” she said, with a hint of the South in her voice. Tennessee, if he had to guess. That mouth of hers twitched a little and it took effort not to watch that twitch too closely. “Or I expect I’ve been stood up.”

“That would make you Kendall Darlington,” he drawled.

He tipped his hat again and then waved a hand toward the booth, inviting her to sit. Then watched her... hesitate.

It was only the faintest hesitation, but Harlan realized he was... not used to that.

Women did not usually hesitate around him. He might not have his brothers’ well-earned reputation for mixing it up and for always being available for one kind of party or another, but that had never stopped the right kind of cowgirl.

And it had been a long while—or maybe it had never happened, because he was Harlan Carey and his stalwart, upstanding reputation always did the talking for him—that he’d watched a woman try to work out if she should trust him.

Here, now, under these admittedly strange circumstances, it felt like a victory and a relief when she did.

She slid across the bench seat so she could put her back to the wall and face him on a diagonal. And there were the makings of a smile on her face, or the promise of one, but her gaze was moving around the saloon again. Like she was looking for something.

Or waiting for something, maybe.

“You on the run?” he asked.

And he was kidding, mostly, until something moved over her face. Almost as if he’d startled her—but then it was gone so fast that he couldn’t be entirely sure he’d seen anything at all.

“I like to see what’s coming,” she replied, and smiled like that was a joke.

Though he didn’t think it was.

Harlan settled in the booth across from her, and he hadn’t really thought about this part. The fact that there would be conversation to make and he was going to have to make it. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it. His brother Wilder liked to claim that Harlan preferred cattle to humans. Wilder’s twin, Ryder, always said Harlan was having a love affair with the mountains and had no room for people. The youngest two Carey brothers, Boone and Knox, usually contented themselves with eye rolls.

Harlan had never been one for small talk, that was true enough. He was a Montanan. He was genetically indisposed to small of any kind. But he reminded himself, then, that this wasn’t a date. She’d answered an ad. She’d been interested enough in his terse few sentences about what he was looking for to reply.

All he had to do was try not to be less appealing than that ad.

That was when he remembered that what he actually needed to do here was send her on her way so he could get back to the business of finding himself a wife who fit his requirements. Who wasn’t this... distracting.

“So,” Kendall said when all he could manage was to frown at her a little. “I expected you to be... older.” When he blinked, not sure how to take that, she laughed. And it was a real laugh, he could tell. It made her nose scrunch up, and something inside him did, too. “You don’t look like the kind of person who has to put an ad out to find himself a wife, that’s all.”

“But you’re the sort of person who answers an ad like that?” he asked, since they were getting it right out in the open. “Thinking it would be some old geezer? Not to draw any conclusions about the kind of woman who would be into that sort of thing.”

She tilted her head to the side, as if deciding against a set of responses, which only made him want to know what she almost said. “I was expecting some sort of visible explanation to help me figure out why a man would actually place an ad like that.” She laughed again, and it was a lighter sound, but there was no scrunching of her nose this time. “It’s so old- fashioned I naturally assumed you must be, too.”

“I have my moments,” Harlan replied, because that laugh might have been fake but she was gazing at him.

He really hadn’t banked on her being pretty. That hadn’t been in the plans at all. He was still trying to get his bearings in the face of it.

“Are you a serial killer?” she asked him, in the same light, airy tone.

Disarming him, he suspected. On purpose.

“No ma’am,” he replied, and that easily, he felt significantly more comfortable. He found himself drawling. And he was awfully close to enjoying himself, suddenly—though on him that turned into stern. “What I am is boring. I wake up before the sun. I eat, sleep, and dream about the land. I’m a rancher, bones and blood and everything in between. It’s not what I do, it’s who I am.”

She seemed to consider that carefully. “Why do you want a wife?”

He threaded his fingers together there on the table, between them. “My father is a stubborn man.” That was an understatement when it came to the legendary Zeke Carey, but there was no point poisoning the well straight out of the gate. If she stuck around and wanted to drink from that well, the good news was that it was always going to be there. In one form or another. “A force of nature all his life. Until last month at Easter dinner with all of my brothers home and sitting around the table, he made an announcement.”

“I don’t know what question to ask first.” She looked as if she was testing those questions internally and, once again, he wanted to know the ones she didn’t feel she could ask. “How many brothers do you have? And do you really all gather for Easter dinner?”

She said Easter dinner like he’d confessed that he was from a family of mimes who performed instead of eating, but he just filed that away until there was time to analyze it all. Until he had some distance from the prettiness, those clever eyes, that mouth.

Until he could think straight himself. Not an issue he’d ever grappled with before.

“I have four brothers,” he said. “And yes, we do Easter dinner. We also do a Sunday dinner every week. My brother Ryder isn’t always home so when he is, it’s extra special. This one was even more special because our dad told us that that he’s taken poorly.”

Harlan didn’t like to think about it. It had been a whole month already and it still felt... impossible. But that was something else he didn’t intend to get into with a stranger who didn’t even know that Zeke Carey was like the whole, big Montana sky. That it was impossible to imagine life without him.

He didn’t want to imagine it, so he kept talking, getting the toughest part out as quick as he could. “He told us there was no cure. We have about a year.” Harlan blew out a breath. “And in that time, he’d like to see all five of us married because he has a hankering for some grandchildren. Might not get to meet them, but he’d sure like to know they’re on the way before he’s gone.”

She sat with that for a moment, like she could see how hard that was for him to say at all, much less so matter-of-factly.

“I’m sorry,” she said after a breath or two. And she didn’t do what some folks did, getting intense and flowery because they didn’t know what to say. Not Kendall. She let it sit there, as stark as the reality that no one in Harlan’s family wanted to face.

Hell, as far as Harlan knew, not a one of his brothers had even accepted it. Much less acted upon Zeke’s instructions.

“I appreciate that,” he said, and he did. But Harlan didn’t want to dwell on it. “My brothers all have better social lives than I do, likely because they work less than I do.” He knew that wasn’t fair, but none of his brothers were here to protest. So, too bad. “I knew that if I wanted to honor the old man’s wishes I was going to have to take action.”

“A very Old West sort of action.”

“Here’s the thing, Kendall.” And he really focused on her, then. On the wary way she was sitting. At that suspicious look in her eyes. At the line of her throat and how it found her collarbone in a way that a man was likely to find entirely too distracting, if he gave it any thought. “I spend all my time on the land. When I’m not out handling the stock and the chores, there’s paperwork. My dad has slowed down a lot in recent years, so I picked up the slack. That’s not a complaint, it’s just a fact.”

“Noted.”

“I don’t have time to date.” He had said that a lot, over the years. But it felt different saying it to her, the woman he wasn’t dating who had come here to talk marriage all the same. “I need a woman who’s practical, down-to-earth, and prepared to be a partner in the work we do. A woman who’s willing to get her hands dirty on day one. I’m not sure dinner and a drink is going to lead to any of that. Not in a timely fashion. And time is one thing I don’t have.”

“Your ad was very direct and to the point.”

And he couldn’t tell if that gleam in her green gaze was laughter, possibly even a bit of mockery. But if it was the latter, it was the kind that felt more like fingernails dancing down the length of his back than scraping down a chalkboard.

He wasn’t sure it did him any good to note the difference.

Kendall reached into her back pocket and pulled out a mobile phone, swiping until she opened her pictures. She tilted the phone to show him the screen, and he recognized it at once. It was a picture of the ad he’d put out, in the personal section of a whole slew of regional newspapers, online and off.

Cowboy looking for wife to work the land, help with the business, and raise the next generation. Must be practical, reasonable, and honest.

“I can’t decide,” she said, in a musing sort of tone, “if I think you got a thousand replies or none.”

“You replied,” he pointed out.

“How many of these interviews have you had?”

He didn’t like the word interview, or the way she’d said it. He figured that was on purpose, because it turned out that Kendall Darlington was a little spiky. But a Montanan had to have a little spice to go along with the grit or none of them would survive the dark months, and summer was a beautiful thing but life here was the dark months. There were a whole lot more of them.

“You’re the one and only,” he told her. “Everyone else who asked for one... wasn’t right.”

He could have told her about the people who’d offered to send him nudes. About the ones who went ahead and did just that. About the people who’d sent abuse, religious tracts concerning the state of his soul, and lectures about how he should meet a nice girl at home. He could have told her about those who had written him long, involved sob stories about their disastrous lives like marrying him—or anyone— could change that.

There was the widow from Winnemucca who’d assured him that God had put it on her heart that he was, in fact, her husband. He hadn’t responded, figuring God could take care of the miscommunication if He wanted. There had been the unhinged woman who’d told him she was moving to Montana anyway and wouldn’t it be a coincidence she ended up near him, so maybe they should marry right off the bat? He hadn’t responded to her either, though he did keep an eye out when he drove down into town.

He had only responded to this one.

I’m not afraid of work or cowboys, she’d replied. And I’m prepared to be as practical, reasonable, and honest as you are, if that works.

In his head, the woman he’d imagined would write that kind of response had been... different. He’d figured she’d be older too, though he wasn’t going to say that. He’d imagined a plain, hardy woman. A woman who might not get a second look from most, but who would distinguish herself in other ways. Her steadfastness, true and real, over time.

Like his own mother, Alice, who they’d lost when Harlan was eight. She hadn’t been a raving beauty by any objective standard. The photographs made that clear and he’d never seen any evidence that she’d tried to change that in the way some women did. But there’d always been a glow about her. Anyone who looked at her looked back, then looked longer. Everyone who’d ever met her loved her. She’d been sturdy and even-tempered and she’d made everything better with her brand of quiet, stubborn competence.

He’d envisioned a woman like that.

Not Kendall, whose angles looked sharp and made him think about all the sorts of edges he could play with—

“Meeting you,” Kendall was saying with a shrug, “I have to say that you’re not what I was expecting at all.”

“Not old enough. Or weird enough. Those sound like good things.”

She didn’t deny that. “I understand all your reasons, but you still don’t strike me as the kind of man who would resort to an ad no matter what your reasons are. It doesn’t seem to go hand in hand with a full-on Stetson and the Cowboy Code outfit you have down to the shiny belt buckle.” Before he could respond to that, she tilted her head to the side again. “I bet that that red truck outside is yours, too. That vintage pickup that I bet you don’t use for photo shoots.”

“It was my grandfather’s. I use it for the same things he did. Ranch work.” He resisted the urge to reach across the table. He didn’t even know where it came from. “It wasn’t my idea to run an ad. I was pretty sure it was a spectacularly bad idea the minute I did it, but here you are. And that begs a question all its own, doesn’t it?”

Kendall leaned in closer to the table, and propped her chin up on her hand. “Does it?”

It did. And suddenly there wasn’t a thing Harlan wanted more in the world than her answer. “You’re very pretty, Kendall.”

Some women would blush at that. Or get flustered and try to pretend otherwise.

Kendall only gazed back at him, her gaze green and unreadable. “That wasn’t a question.”

“Try this.” Harlan leaned in a little himself and took pleasure in the way her breath caught. “Why would a pretty girl like you answer an ad like mine at all, much less come all this way to meet me—sight unseen—when there was such a high probability I’d be that weird old guy you expected?”

End of excerpt