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CORD MCDOWELL FELT SWEAT TRICKLING DOWN HIS BACK as he worked in the pit beneath the semitruck’s engine. He ignored the heat along with all the sounds and smells around him. His hands were black with oil and dirt, but he didn’t dare take a break. Old Man Whitaker had been itching for a reason to fire him since the day he’d come to work three years ago.
Tannon Parker might own the trucking company, but Whitaker ran the shop. The old ex-Marine had told the boss he’d take Cord McDowell on, but he’d also fire the convict the first time he messed up. Like a vulture, he’d been waiting and watching for his chance. Cord made a habit of being early to work and last to leave. He ignored jabs from the other mechanics and never talked to anyone unless he had reason. Cord worked alone, here and on his farm.
As long as he worked here he had a chance of keeping his farm, and as long as he had his farm, he held on to one dream. The last dream.
When Cord had been arrested nine years ago, his folks had a couple hundred thousand in reserve to cover bad years of farming, but when he got out of prison there was no seed money in any account and they’d both been buried long enough for weeds to grow up around their graves.
“McDowell!” Whitaker yelled from above. “You dead down there?” He barked a laugh. “’Cause if you’re dead, we might as well just fill in the hole with dirt and move on. No one will waste time trying to haul that big body of yours out.”
Cord fought down a curse and pulled himself up. “I’m about finished. Another two hours if I work through lunch.” He knew that would make the old man happy. He liked having his men work the noon hour without an extra hour’s pay, and Cord didn’t really mind. The work was easier than sitting in the box of a break room while men talked around him but rarely to him.
“Never mind the truck, McDowell. There’s a lady out front who wants you to work on her Jeep. Says she won’t have another man even open the hood.”
Cord wiped his hands on a rag almost as dirty. “Since when do we work on anything but Parker trucks?”
Whitaker looked like he was irritated to even have to talk to Cord, but for once he didn’t sound angry when he answered, “That’s what I told Mr. Parker when he called saying he was sending her over, but Parker isn’t a man to argue with. If he wants his shop to work on a Jeep, we’ll work on a Jeep, even if the damn thing looks like it should have been scrapped twenty years ago.”
Cord remembered how quiet he’d been when he’d met the owner of Parker Trucking. Cord had just stood in front of the massive desk and waited for Tannon Parker to read his application. The trucking company was the fifth place he’d applied that day. Every other shop had taken one look at where he’d learned his skills, Huntsville Prison, and said they’d call if they had an opening. One guy had glanced up at Cord and simply said their business hadn’t had anything stolen in five years and he planned to keep it that way.
Parker, however, had studied Cord’s application for a few minutes, then walked around the table and offered his hand like the part about Cord being in prison for six years hadn’t mattered.
“We need good mechanics,” Tannon Parker said. “Welcome to the company, McDowell.”
Parker was the first person who’d treated him like an equal in years. Cord had been so shocked he barely remembered how to shake hands. He’d made up his mind that day that when he earned enough money to quit, he’d go back into Parker’s office, shake hands with him again, and thank the owner for giving him a chance.
As he followed Old Man Whitaker through the maze of hallways toward the front office, Cord reminded himself he worked for Tannon Parker and not for Whitaker.
The sun almost blinded Cord as he stepped out the front door and into the cool morning air. There was a March chill, but he could feel spring coming. In another few weeks he’d need to have seed in the ground.
“Over there.” Whitaker pointed with his head.
When Cord raised his gaze toward a beat-up old Jeep parked at the end of the drive, Whitaker swore, mumbling something about wasting time.
Cord pulled his worn baseball cap from his back pocket, combed his sandy blond hair back with one rake of his hand, and crammed the hat on his head. He followed the foreman over to a woman leaning against a piece of junk that looked like it had seen its best days thirty years ago.
As he neared, he recognized Nevada Britain. His farm bordered her huge ranch. He’d watched her from a distance riding her horses full out across her land or driving down the county road past his place at twice the speed limit, but it had been years since he’d seen her up close. If possible she was even more beautiful than she’d been at sixteen.
Only today, she was stone cold sober, a far cry from the wild, drunk teen he’d once watched.
Whitaker took on his official role as shop manager. “What seems to be the problem, little lady?”
Cord hung back, staring at Nevada Britain beneath the shadow of his cap. A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth as he saw that she hadn’t liked being called “little lady.” Whitaker didn’t pick up on it and was therefore destined to make the mistake again.
She was taller than Whitaker’s five feet six inches and looked like she was dressed for a funeral in her expensive charcoal suit and high heels. Only her white blouse was unbuttoned just enough to show a hint of lace when she straightened.
Maybe the wild teen hadn’t completely vanished, Cord thought.
No, she wasn’t quite funeral proper, and she knew it. From all he’d read, Nevada Britain hadn’t been proper in years. If Harmony, Texas, had a tabloid, she’d be the centerfold.
She was beautiful, he’d give her that. Darn near perfect as far as he could tell from looking, but from what he’d heard, she was no lady. Some said she had her mother’s beauty and her father’s ruthlessness. Cord had never figured Nevada Britain out. She looked like she’d always gotten everything she wanted, but it never seemed enough. She’d even called the sheriff on him once for flying too low over her horses. People like her even thought they owned the air.
Harmony was a small town, and he’d heard about her wild parties and parade of loser husbands. Apparently she fought to outdo her three crazy brothers.
Technically, he was her neighbor, but she didn’t even wave when she passed him. She lived five miles down from him, but it might as well have been another planet. The Britains called themselves ranchers, but mostly they were from old oil money. When he was in prison, his mother used to send him clippings of their court battles and wild ways. He’d seen pictures of her in the Founders Day parade and riding one of her fine horses at some big horse show. Like all the other pictures of her, she wasn’t smiling, so it didn’t surprise him that she didn’t smile now.
When he went to prison there had been four Britain children, all sent to private school back east after they aged into double digits. By the time he got out of Huntsville, two were dead. One from an overdose and one from a drunken boating accident.
Nevada was the youngest, and probably the only person in the county disliked more than he was. Folks said, to the Britains’ way of thinking, there was only one way—their way. Like pit bulls, they were bred to be hot-tempered scrappers and all the money in the world couldn’t wash away heredity.
“How can I help you, Miss Britain?” Cord asked as Whitaker moved aside. He’d seen Parker Trucking’s rigs going onto her land and could guess why Tannon Parker had said yes to having his men look at her little Jeep. Business was business. Parker probably shipped all the cattle they raised.
She frowned at him. “Is that you, Cord McDowell, under all that dirt and grease?”
“It’s me.” He was surprised she remembered him. They hadn’t talked since he’d been arrested ten years ago, and they hadn’t been friends then. Cord braced himself for the insult or questions to come. Something about how he had liked prison or how he was wasting his life.
“I heard you were working here.” She leaned her head sideways as if studying him. “Tannon says you’re the best mechanic he’s got.”
Looking surprised that Cord and Nevada were talking, Old Man Whitaker said something about getting back before the whole damn shop fell apart and left the two of them to work things out.
“I don’t work on Jeeps much.” Cord kept his voice low. Nevada wasn’t afraid of him, which was more than he could say about most women in town. They all seemed to think that since he’d been in prison, he might go ballistic any minute and murder the whole town.
“I know,” she pouted, like the spoiled woman she probably was. “I’ve been to every garage in town. Nobody knows how to fix it. Half of them wouldn’t even take a look.”
“You could take it into Amarillo. There’d probably be someone there.” He couldn’t help but wonder if the other shops didn’t want to deal with her, or the Jeep. He’d heard that her father had bankrupted the company who’d sold his son the speedboat years ago.
She pulled off her sunglasses and looked up at him with tears in her beautiful blue eyes. Cord had no trouble seeing why she’d had three husbands and wasn’t out of her twenties. Any man would have trouble saying no to her.
“Please take a look at it, Cord,” she said, as if she knew him well. She patted the old piece of junk as if it were her pet. “She was my grandfather’s, and if she gives out, I’ll lose the last part of him.”
Cord knew how she felt. Sometimes things get attached to the love left behind when someone dies. Maybe that happens to leftover love when there’s no one to pass it along to. He had one of those “things” taking up half of the old barn on his farm. His grandfather had loved the old biplane, and he couldn’t bear to junk it.
“All right,” he said. “If you’ll leave it with me for a few hours, I’ll see what I can do.”
She handed him her keys. “You’ll handle her with care?”
Her hand touched his for a moment as he answered, “As if she were my own.”
He stood next to the Jeep watching Nevada walk away. For the first time in longer than he could remember, he wished for more than he had.
MARTHA Q PATTERSON DROVE AWAY FROM PARKER TRUCKING with the image of Cord McDowell and Nevada Britain stuck in her mind. Like she always did on her morning errands, she watched people, and those two were saying more with their body language in a few minutes than most people say aloud in a week.
For a few blocks she let the plot of a steamy novel play out in her thoughts. Tough guy in working clothes talking to society girl who’d been wild since she started wearing a bra. The lines from a song about a man not fitting into her highbrow world drifted through the imagined scene. Martha Q might be older than the two of them put together, but she could remember romantic times she’d once had in a garage with her fourth husband.
Or maybe it was her second. It was hard to keep track, but the smell of motor oil still turned her on even though her engine never got a chance to run these days.
Everyone in town knew Nevada Britain. The girl was on her way to breaking Martha Q’s record for number of husbands. Just seeing her standing beside Cord, good-looking trouble that he was, made Martha Q start writing love scenes in her head as she drove. Ever since she’d signed up for the creative writing class at the library, Martha Q couldn’t stop building backstories in her mind. The habit was getting so dominant that she sometimes confused what was real and what she’d made up.
Occupational habit, she decided. All great writers have the same problem. Or at least she thought they did. Take George Hatcher, owner of the used bookstore; she’d provided him with a far more interesting past than he’d probably ever manage on his own. Martha Q waved at him as she made the square on Main and headed toward her huge old house that she’d turned into a bed-and-breakfast after her last husband died.
Once she’d made up a story about dear old George Hatcher being a time traveler come back a hundred years to collect period pieces for the History Channel. Martha Q couldn’t seem to be completely truthful with the man who smelled like mildewed old paperbacks. She even left out one of the ingredients to her apricot scones just in case he planned to take it back to the future someday.
As she turned into the oldest neighborhood in Harmony, Texas, Martha Q let her mind drift back to the way Cord McDowell had tipped his greasy ball cap like it was a top hat when he’d said good-bye to Nevada in her tailored suit and she’d tried to look him in the eye. He was a gentleman, Martha Q decided, beneath all that dirt. It didn’t matter what folks said about him.
Some claimed he’d gone wild one night and almost killed a deputy, but Martha Q figured there was more to the story. She considered herself an expert on crime because she had a pen pal in prison who grew more handsome in her eyes with every letter.
A moment later she was ripped from her fantasy when she almost slammed into the black hearse parked in her driveway.
Martha Q opened her door and wiggled out of her boat of a car before the engine finished its usual death rattle. As always, she’d parked too far to the left of the thin sliver of concrete and had to fight the budding elm branches to move around her car. “I’m going to cut that thing down before . . .”
She stopped when she noticed someone was listening to her talk to herself. Martha Q never minded the habit, but she hated others eavesdropping.
“Tyler Wright,” she yelled at the man on the porch as she waddled toward him. “I told you not to come before eleven. I get my nails done on Mondays and I need time for them to dry before I can have a proper conversation.” She waved her fingers in the air while her purse, looped to her elbow, battered her ample breast.
The chubby funeral director just smiled as he watched her heading toward him. “It is eleven, but I’ll be happy to come back if you like.” He bowed slightly. In his black suit he looked funeral ready.
She frowned. Agreeable men always bothered her. She’d preferred the yellers and fighters. They made the best lovers, that was a fact. Course, they always turned into ex-husbands who either cried or stalked her. She’d figured out one fact about men years ago: Most couldn’t do two things at once. It didn’t matter if they were having sex or yelling, they didn’t seem to be able to think at the same time.
Tyler Wright smiled as she neared, obviously having no idea what she was thinking, thank goodness.
“No, don’t leave.” Martha Q grabbed the railing and pulled herself onto the porch. “I need to talk to you, Tyler, and it has to be before noon. The widows will be back as soon as they finish the early-bird lunch at the Mexican Hat.”
She motioned for him to take one of the wicker chairs on the wide porch of the Winter’s Inn Bed-and-Breakfast. “I don’t want you coming back, or staying too long for that matter. The neighbors will get the idea I’ve died and rush over to start picking at my bones.”
“Now, Martha Q.” Tyler sat beside her. “You know they’d do no such thing.”
“I don’t know.” Strike two, she thought. She didn’t like being corrected even when they both knew she was wrong. To argue her case, she added, “I think one of them stole my new rake. It was here, right by the porch, all last fall and then one day it was gone. Thought about turning it in to the sheriff, but she sometimes pats my hand. I decided rake theft was probably a hand-patting crime.”
When Tyler laughed, Martha Q huffed up. “Just you wait about twenty years, Mr. Wright. Once you’re into your sixties, folks start patting on you like they’re testing to see if you bite before they step closer.”
He rocked back in his chair. “I’m feeling older every day. Too old to be a father for the first time. Kate and I will both be forty-six by the time this baby comes in a few months. We’ll be signing up for Medicare about the same time he enrolls in college.”
Tyler grinned. “He. Doc says for sure. I’m going to have a son.”
Martha Q couldn’t resist reaching over and patting his hand. “The next generation to run the Wright Funeral Home. He’ll be the fifth. Think of the history.”
Tyler shook his head. “Kate and I have both promised we won’t push him that direction. She says all her family has been career military. He might pick that road instead.”
They both rocked in silence for a few minutes, Tyler lost in his future and Martha Q lost in fiction. She’d made a rule to never live in the past and did her best to stay out of problems in the present, but one was bothering her and it was time she got down to business.
“Tyler, I asked you here because you’re Joni Rosen’s friend. She and the two other widows you sent over last month seemed to think they can homestead here at my place.”
The funeral director straightened, knowing the visiting was over. “Is something wrong with Mrs. Rosen? Has she been ill? Has she caused problems?”
“No, but she ain’t right. Her husband died four months ago, and everyone understood when she stayed at my place after the funeral, but I’m not a boardinghouse. She needs to go home. Her place is so close she could walk, but instead, she’s now entertaining the other two widows. I swear if they stay much longer I’ll have to rename the place Widows’ Inn. They play cards and watch movies until almost midnight, then wake me before nine tromping up and down the stairs.”
“I wouldn’t have thought she’d tromp,” he whispered to himself. As always, Tyler looked concerned. Martha Q wasn’t sure whether he felt it or had just developed a habit over twenty years in the burying business.
“Does she still pay her bill?” he finally said. “Her husband left her a nice insurance policy and she has her teacher retirement.”
“Yes, but that’s not the point. I’m used to folks coming and going, not coming and staying. I’ve had to get up and put on my makeup every morning for four months and now, with three of them, I’m running to the store more often for food and having to wake up the housekeeper regularly to keep the place clean. I only got two more rooms to rent and honeymooners aren’t likely to book with three women in black sitting on the front porch knitting like happy Halloween decorations.”
“Don’t you dare laugh. Being this beautiful at my age takes a lot of time and money. I’d like to sleep in, put on my oldest jogging suit, and read all day, but no, I have to be the innkeeper.” When he didn’t offer an answer, she prodded. “You got to talk to her about getting on with her life. She’s young, not even fifty-five yet. At that age I still had two or three good tries at marriage in me.”
Tyler stood. “When will she be back?”
“I never know. I have to stay dressed all day just in case. She sometimes goes the ten blocks over to her place to do her laundry on Mondays. I keep thinking she’ll just decide to stay, but she doesn’t.”
“I’ll talk to her,” Tyler frowned. “I have to anyway about her husband’s headstone.”
Martha Q stood. “Good.” She was halfway to the door when she remembered her car still parked behind Tyler’s hearse. “Thanks for coming over. I’ll drive back out so you can leave.”
Tyler walked beside her to his car. “I’ll let you know when the baby comes.”
“You won’t have to. Everyone in town will be talking about it. It wouldn’t surprise me if the hospital sold tickets to the waiting room. Give Kate a hug if you can still get your arms around her.”
He nodded as he climbed in his long black car and waited for her to back out.
“Babies.” Martha Q shook her head, and then an idea of adding a secret baby to her romance plot came to her and she couldn’t wait to get back to her study and write. She might go thirty, maybe even forty minutes before her lunch break. Long writing spells always made her hungry.
FROM THE SHADE OF HIS PORCH, CORD MCDOWELL WATCHED the road with mounting anger. His neighbor, Nevada Britain, was driving up his dirt drive like she was drag racing. The little Jeep he’d spent hours working on left a half-mile trail of dirt behind as it roared toward him.
He knew the second she spotted him. She slowed and he wondered if she was surprised to see him home before dark. There were always a dozen chores on the farm he needed to get to even after he stopped plowing. Only tomorrow morning he wanted to be at the bank when it opened, so he’d come in early. After three years of saving every dime he could, he was still five thousand short on paying off the loan he’d gotten the week he’d walked out of prison. Some said no one would give a convict a loan, but the bank hadn’t hesitated when he put up his farm as collateral. If he couldn’t pay, they’d make twenty to one on their money.
He’d dress in his best jeans and head for town at first light, hoping they’d give him three more months to pay. One more season. Then, if it rained and the bugs didn’t find his spring crop and the tractor held out, he might be able to come up with the money. Swearing under his breath, he watched Nevada come closer, feeling like he was Moses waiting for the next plague to strike.
Cord shoved what money he planned to pay on the loan deeper into his pocket and watched his beautiful, spoiled, selfish neighbor approach. Whitaker had been the one to hand her the keys after the Jeep had been repaired, and she hadn’t even bothered to walk to where Cord worked in the garage to thank him.
There was little hope that she’d driven over after three days to say thanks, so Cord figured he must have done something wrong. Hell, she’d probably come to threaten to sue him for stirring up too much dirt while he plowed too near her fence line.
He watched her stop halfway between his barn and his parents’ old house and look around as she climbed out. He hadn’t had the time or the money to fix up the place, but right now it seemed to look worse than he thought. Imagining his farm through her eyes made him wish for more hours in the day, more days in the week, more time, period. Then he could have painted the barn, fixed up the fence, replaced the steps.
Only it was too late to worry about it now.
She was dressed western from her red boots to her leather vest. If some women are shiny-penny pretty, Nevada was silver-dollar beautiful.
Near as he could remember, he’d watched her every chance he’d gotten since the day she was born. They’d gone to school together, ridden the same bus home a few times when her mom didn’t pick her up, and then in the fifth grade she’d disappeared. She’d gone away to school and he’d only seen her riding her horses now and then during vacations. When her dad let her start driving, even though she was a year away from being legal, everyone on Sunset Road tried to stay out of her way.
Fighting down a grin, Cord remembered the half dozen cars she’d wrecked before she got driving down pat. One she’d rolled in the drainage ditch. Her parents had left it there a month, probably just to make her pass it every time she went to town. He doubted the lesson had taken.
Pulling off her sunglasses, she tossed her long blond hair back like it was a mane and she was ready to run. He liked the way she moved, all fast and headstrong, like she owned the world—and, as near as he could tell, her family did. Talk was that when her parents died her brother, Barrett Britain, cleaned out the family bank accounts and bought a villa in France. He left her with the ranch and the oil business, saying the next time he came to Texas he’d be in a pine box. She’d taken over everything, and as she walked toward Cord, he realized he didn’t even know how to talk to her.
“You’re home,” she said, as she stormed the porch with a large envelope in one hand and her hat in the other.
“Yep,” he said without explaining, knowing it would irritate her. He wasn’t disappointed.
She glared at him, as if considering turning around and leaving.
If he wanted her to stay, even a minute, he’d better think of something. “Why are you here, Nevada? Looks like the Jeep is still running.”
She surprised him by saying, “I was in a hurry the other day or I would have stopped in to say thanks. You got it running better than I ever remember.”
“Guess I should be glad you didn’t bring the sheriff.” She’d called in a complaint two years ago and he’d almost been fined. If the sheriff had sent deputies, he’d have been cuffed and hauled in before they even bothered to ask questions. Every lawman in the county except Sheriff Alexandra Matheson had dropped by to warn Cord that they’d be watching him. Alexandra wasn’t friendly, but he guessed she was fair. She’d asked questions first.
“I can’t believe you’re still upset about that. If I hadn’t sent the sheriff, you know you wouldn’t have listened to me, Cord. I left three messages on your phone before I called Sheriff Matheson. You can’t just go flying that old plane around over my land. It stampeded my horses.”
“I don’t answer my phone.” He shrugged, accepting an ounce of the blame.
Before he could step back into their two-year-old feud, she stopped him with an open palm like she was a crossing guard for his front porch.
“I didn’t drive out here to talk about that. I came to ask a favor.”
Every drop of anger and frustration went out of him even though he didn’t move an inch. “A favor?” The Britains had never asked the McDowells for anything in three generations. His grandfather said once that they started out with bad blood over the boundary between the two ranches, and the wound it left would take a hundred years to heal.
“I’m not selling,” he said, the first thought that came to his mind. She could probably already smell blood in the water, but he’d lose to the bank before he’d sell to her.
“I’m not asking,” she snapped, none too friendly for a woman asking for a favor.
He remembered a time when she’d been home for Christmas break when they were in high school. He asked her for a date and she’d turned him down so fast it took him several heartbeats for his mind to catch up with his ears. They’d both changed a great deal in ten years. She’d grown from a skinny girl to a beautiful woman, and he’d turned into stone. Even now, if he’d been brave or wild enough to pull her against him, she’d feel no heart. Any kindness, any caring, had been beat out of him in Huntsville.
She straightened, all proper. “What I’m offering is a business deal that could benefit us both.”
“I’m not interested in doing business with a Britain, and I’m fresh out of favors.” He looked down at her and was surprised to find that she wasn’t looking at him. He’d always pictured her as straightforward and demanding, a queen in her realm. Now he wasn’t so sure. He didn’t know her well enough to be able to tell if she was being shy or simply taking a moment to plan her strategy.
He’d watched her drive past his land. He’d seen her in town a few times, but they’d never been close enough to speak. Two years ago she’d called the sheriff on him. She hadn’t even given him time to tell her he’d been having engine trouble and was flying low, praying he’d make it to his land before he crashed the plane.
Her hands tightened into fists, and she slowly raised her head. “I knew I’d be wasting my time coming over here. Since you went to prison, everyone says you’ve been nothing but mean. You don’t have a friend in this world, Cord McDowell, and as near as I can see, you never will. You live out on this dry, worthless land and work all day seven days a week and for what? So you can die alone? I’ll probably be the one who finds the body and has to see about the funeral, and I don’t like you, either. If you weren’t my last choice, I wouldn’t be here, so you’re going to have to listen to me for a minute before I leave and never step on your land again.”
Cord felt a lecture coming on, so he sat down in one of the metal chairs that had been spray-painted a dozen times. While she paced, planning her next attack, he studied her. Watching Nevada storm was better than watching anything on TV.
Finally, she stopped and placed the envelope she’d carried onto the porch railing. “I came all this way and I’d like you to at least consider my offer. What I have to say is too important to give up on.”
“All right,” he said, knowing he wasn’t buying or selling, but listening he could afford.
She stared out at the open land as she lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “I can’t explain any of the why, so don’t ask. Just hear me out and then say yes or no.”
“Fair enough.” He propped his long legs on the railing beside the manila envelope. “Tell me, Miss Britain, why’d you come out here?”
“I’m prepared to offer you the three hundred acres of my land that borders your land.”
“In exchange for what?” Cord knew, as well as she did probably, that she was offering him the same plot of land their great-grandfathers had fought over. “I fear the price may be more than I can afford.” The rich land was worth more than his farm, and he doubted the five hundred in his pocket would buy more than a few rocks.
For the first time she didn’t look sure of herself, but she plowed forward. “I can’t tell you why, but I promise you there will be no disadvantage to you. I’ll sign the deed over to you when we’re at the courthouse and our bargain is sealed. The land will be yours free and clear from that time on.”
He frowned as he rocked back in his chair. “What’s my part of the bargain?”
“Your name,” she said simply. “The land is yours if you’ll marry me and agree to live on my ranch for as long as we’re married. I think eight months should about do it. That should be enough time to get a crop in, increase the herd and stock for winter.”
The front two legs of his chair hit the floor. “I’m sorry; I thought I just heard you ask me to marry you?”
She looked down. “I told you I can’t explain, but I’ve had my lawyer draw up a prenuptial agreement. Your land will remain yours, along with the three hundred acres, when we separate. Mine will remain mine, along with all Britain holdings.” She squared her shoulders as if preparing to fight. “All I’m asking for is eight months. From now until the first hard freeze should do it. After that either of us can file for divorce and, as stated in the prenup, we both agree not to contest the divorce. All profits from both ranches will be combined for the length of the marriage and split evenly when we separate.”
Cord felt like laughing out loud for the first time in years. Ideas this crazy only appear in jokes, or con schemes. Just for the hell of it, he asked, “What makes you think we’ll separate?”
“I’ve been married three times before, and all three cost me dearly. This time I’ll know the price going in. If you want, you can have total control of the farming and ranching on both places, but anything dealing with the horses or the oil business is mine. It’s part of the agreement. I’ll hand over the ranch business and accounts to you and trust you to run them wisely, since half of the profit for the term we’re married will be yours. The horses are not part of the bargain, and no one can sell them or move them without my permission. I’ve seen the way you work, the way you run this place, and I think you’d be able to handle both my land and yours.”
“What else?” He knew she was either crazy or trying to pull one over on him, but he’d hear her out.
“You’ll have to quit your day job at Parker Trucking, but when we split, half of my ranch’s income should compensate you for the loss of wages.”
“What does your spread pull down?”
“A quarter million in profit on a down year when the ranch is worked. Since my dad got sick and died it hasn’t been worked. If all goes well, we clear over half a million on a good year. The ranch is in my name only, so I can bargain with it and I’ve got enough funds to make it work.”
He would have tried to look disappointed, but his jaw was open too far to fake it. She’d just offered him nearly a quarter of a million to stay married to her for eight months.
This had to be some kind of sick joke. She was playing a game, probably. “Why should I believe a word you’ve said?”
“Look at the agreement,” she said as her fingers tapped the envelope. “Talk to your lawyers, then let me know what you decide. The only thing I ask is that we keep this agreement to ourselves. As far as everyone knows, you’re just the next man I fell in love with and brought home. Most folks won’t ask any questions.”
“Are you crazy, lady?” He had to ask, though it occurred to him that either way she’d answer no.
“Don’t call me lady or honey, or darling, or babe—”
“Got it.” He stopped her before she went on. “You’re not dying, are you?” It was the only reason he could think of that a woman like her would want to marry him. She might still die, but maybe she figured being married to him would make the time she had left seem longer.
“I said I wasn’t answering questions, Cord, so don’t bother asking. It’s yes or no.” She turned to leave. “I’ll be at the courthouse all morning. If you show up before noon, the deal is on; if not, don’t bother ever speaking to me again.”
“If I say yes, I want one thing added.” He figured he’d push a little to see how far she was willing to take this prank.
“What?” She looked back at him.
“If I play your husband, I want you sleeping beside me every night until it’s over.” He guessed sleeping next to him would shock her out of this game she seemed to be playing.
He smiled. “No questions why. Do we agree or not?”
He thought she’d keep walking, but as always, she surprised him. She turned and walked back until she stood a foot in front of him, her boot almost touching his.
“I’ve married and slept with three men I thought I knew and didn’t. One more added to the list won’t matter. I agree. Only, I warn you, if you ever hit me, I’ll shoot first and wait for an apology later.”
He studied her cold blue eyes and wondered if she’d been hit in the past. He’d bet on it.
“Just look over the papers, Cord. I swear I’m not trying to pull anything over on you.”
“All right. I’ll look at them.” He doubted he’d have the time.
“As soon as possible,” she added, pushing just a little.
“As soon as possible,” he agreed.
She was doing a good job of acting like this mattered to her. If this was real, maybe he was just the lesser of two evils she had to pick between.
She straightened and took a long breath. “I’ll make plans to meet you at the courthouse. My lawyer’s office number is on the envelope. If you show up, we’ll sign everything there and the three hundred acres will be yours.”
He nodded once. “I’ll be there by eleven if I come.”
She gave him a jerky nod. A fighter realizing the fight was over.
For a moment he thought he saw fear in her eyes. Not of him, but of something beyond tomorrow if he didn’t come. “Are you sure about this?” he said in little more than a whisper.
“No,” she whispered back, “but it’s the only plan I have.”
Without another word, she walked away. No good-bye, no hello-next-husband kiss. To her this was a business deal, and he had no idea why she needed him. He’d be signing away eight months of his life if he showed up tomorrow, but he’d given away time before. Six years in fact.
This time, no matter how bad it was, if he took her offer, he could be walking away a rich man. He could farm the three hundred acres for a good profit alone this summer and, with just eight months of her farm income, he could afford the right equipment to make his land pay when he moved back home.
Cord picked up the envelope and began to read. Somehow this was too good to be true. She’d even included bank statements. He wouldn’t be taking over a rundown ranch with everything falling apart. The account could easily buy whatever he’d need to get started. He’d driven by her land, and most of it that he could see from the road wasn’t being used as farm or ranchland.
The sun was down by the time he finished reading every line twice. All the facts were there, except for the sleeping arrangements. Even if she planned to torture him for eight months, it would be worth it for enough money to really start farming. Once he was making money on his land, it wouldn’t matter that no one spoke to him. He could come back here and live alone in peace.
He’d never been a gambler, but this time he might just roll the dice.
After cleaning out the refrigerator, he packed the one old suitcase he owned and set it by the door, then lay awake in bed until five thinking of all the reasons she might have asked him to marry her. None made any sense.
He called himself every kind of fool, but he’d always said he’d never had a chance. What if his crazy neighbor was offering him a chance? One slim chance to change his life. Did he really want to toss it away?
He got up, drank the last of the milk, and took a shower. It wouldn’t hurt to go see if she was really waiting for him at the courthouse.
On his way out, he picked up his mother’s thin gold ring and slipped it on his little finger, then locked up the house and headed for town in his pickup, with a rusty trailer pulling the one horse he owned.
While he drove toward town, he went over the contract one more time in his mind, looking for the deep well he was sure he’d fall into. All the details Nevada had talked about were there. From the day they married he’d have control of the Britain ranch as well as keep total control of his own property. If the marriage lasted eight months, he’d receive half the profits from both ranches. Since his would be lucky to make twenty thousand over the summer, he wasn’t taking much of a risk compared to her. There was enough money in her accounts to buy several hundred more head, and the grass was already up high enough to feed them. They’d have a good season with cattle alone, not counting the crops he planned to get in the ground.
The deed to the three hundred acres had been folded in the envelope. It already had his name on it. All it needed was her signature. She’d even included a title company’s notarized statement saying she was the sole owner of Britain land.
He headed to the town square deciding he must be dreaming. Tomorrow he’d wake up and find himself back in the grease pit working. But today, he thought, I might as well ride this dream out. Maybe her insanity was spreading.
On impulse, he stopped in at Bailey Brothers and bought a suit. When Cord walked out in his new clothes, he couldn’t seem to get comfortable. He felt like he was wearing a costume, trying to pretend to be someone he wasn’t, but there was no turning back now.
He walked across the street to the post office. If he was really going to be getting married in a few minutes, he might as well change his address.
“Morning,” the bashful woman behind the counter greeted him.
“Morning, Ronny,” he answered, remembering the time he’d dropped in and asked her who’d paid for the postage on all the newspapers he got in prison after his folks died. She’d looked so shy and embarrassed; he’d left without waiting for the answer.
Since then he’d learned her name was Ronny Logan and he had a faint memory of her from school, only she was very timid and he’d been wild, running with a group of boys who called themselves “The Outlaws.” She was still shy and he’d learned to avoid people, so that kind of made them alike. Not that it would be likely that their types would ever get together and form a club, but they had something in common, it seemed.
He picked up the change-of-address packet and headed out.
“Cord.” Her soft voice stopped him.
“Yeah,” he said, surprised she’d called his name.
“You look real nice today.”
Stepping back out into the morning air, Cord straightened. Compliments were so rare he could almost feel them raw on his face, but he stood taller as he walked back toward the courthouse square.
NEVADA BRITAIN WATCHED FROM THE THIRD-FLOOR WINDOW of the courthouse as Cord McDowell walked into the building. Her heart pounded faster and faster. She had hoped he’d come, but she hadn’t believed he would.
He was bigger than any of her former husbands and solid as a rock, and handsome in a keep-your-distance kind of way. But his looks and his manner had nothing to do with why she’d asked him to marry her.
She knew she was taking a gamble that might get her killed, but she’d let others stop her from doing what she knew was right before and lived to regret it. If Cord was a cold man able to kill in rage, she’d know it soon enough. In a few minutes she’d be betting her life on one trait McDowell did show. He was a survivor.
Cord might turn out to be as mean as a snake like folks said, but he was easy on the eyes and she’d developed an instinct about when to run. She liked the power in his movements, like he was a giant trying to walk among fairies. When he wasn’t in public, his shoulders were straight and he seemed taller, but now, while people were watching, he kept his head low and his shoulders rounded to pull his six-foot-five frame down a few inches.
When he stepped off the elevator and moved to where she stood by the windows, Nevada noticed his old boots had been polished and the suit was so new it still had wrinkles from hanging on the rack. His tan skin warmed against the white of his open-collared shirt.
“You came,” she said, more to herself than him.
“I forgot to buy a tie. I’m sorry.” He looked as uncomfortable as she felt. When she didn’t say anything, he added, “I brought the contract.”
“My lawyer had another copy. We’ll stop in his office first.” She forced a smile she didn’t feel. “Don’t worry about the tie. You look fine.” A knight in not-so-shining armor, she thought, or a killer who’d honed his skills in prison. Either way, her troubles would be over.
He just stood there looking at her. Finally, he said, “I know you said you don’t want to tell me why you’re doing this, but before we take another step I have to know what I’m getting into. Not all, maybe, but some.”
She managed a nod. He was right. He should know. “I’ve got problems with the drilling business. I need to be at the office. The ranch is losing money. If I don’t turn it around I might lose it too.”
He met her eyes, and she knew that fighting for her land was something he understood.
She rushed on before she lost her nerve. “And I’ve got an ex who wants to make life miserable for me. If he knows I’m married again, he might move on.” Nevada closed her eyes, knowing that she was leaving out boulders and talking about pebbles but she wasn’t used to sharing her troubles.
“Fair enough.” Cord seemed satisfied. “Let’s do this.”
They walked down the hallway, and he cleared his throat twice before he said, “I’ve got a thousand questions about the ranch, but we can talk about them later.” He seemed to be fighting to keep his voice conversational, to just talk to her like they were two normal people going to get married. “I jotted down some ideas I want to go over with you.”
“I hope I know the answers. I gave everyone on the Boxed B the weekend off so we’d have time to look at the books and ride the land. You’re not taking on an easy job, I got to warn you. I’ve tried to keep everything going, but half the ranch hands quit and the other half seem to be waiting around doing nothing until I fire them. I can’t handle both the oil business and the ranch, so you’ll be in charge there.”
She wanted to add more about trouble sure to come, but it would be best to bring him in a little at a time. Letting him believe her biggest problem was the ranch would be the safest plan. If he knew more, he’d bolt on her.
They reached the office door. “Work doesn’t scare me,” he said before he turned the knob. “I didn’t figure it would be easy. Nothing in my life ever has been.”
She nodded, thinking they had more in common than he knew. “From this point on, I’ll trust you, Cord, if you’ll trust me. It’s the only promise I can make, but you have my word.” The lie only stung a little on her tongue as she told herself omitting a problem isn’t lying. “I need you far more than you need me in this deal, and the strip of land between our places is a small price to pay. With you by my side I may still lose it all, but at least with you I have a fighting chance.”
“I’ll try trusting.” He touched her arm. “But I’m not long on practice in that area.”
The white-headed lawyer in a thousand-dollar suit rushed to greet them. “Welcome.” He grinned. “We’re ready for you, Miss Britain.”
Nevada straightened, moving into her planned speech. “Call me Mrs. McDowell, and this is my husband-to-be, Cord. I’ve never given up Britain to take a husband’s name, but I think I’ll take this one. I’d like people in this town to know I’m married to Cord McDowell.”
The lawyer grinned as if he thought she was joking. When she didn’t say anything, he rushed on. “I’m happy to meet you, Mr. McDowell. If you’ll just step this way, we’ll get the papers signed and witnessed. Your bride tells me you both are in a hurry. The judge who’ll marry you is already waiting in the conference room.”
Nevada tried to keep her breathing slow, but it wasn’t easy. She knew the routine. Said all the right words. Signed all the papers. Only she hadn’t expected Cord to slip a thin gold ring on her finger when he said, “I, Cordell Harrison McDowell, take you, Nevada Britain, to be my wife.”
The judge didn’t say You may kiss the bride when he finished. She guessed he figured she’d already been kissed enough.
Cord didn’t move toward her, and she couldn’t even bring herself to look at him. She’d rushed him into this only half believing he’d agree.
Now he shook the hands of the lawyer and the judge. He seemed in a hurry to be out of the office, but once they were in the hallway, he stood silent, looking at the rug beneath his boots while she tried to think of something to say. They’d been neighbors all their lives, but she knew little about him outside the young boy she’d once seen in school and the time he’d spent in prison since then. She’d heard that his parents had been quiet people already into their forties when he was born. Someone said his mother died of cancer and his father followed her in death a year later of a heart attack.
“You hungry?” Cord finally spoke as they waited for the elevator. “I didn’t bother to eat supper or breakfast, so I could eat half a beef.”
“All right.” She wasn’t sure she could keep anything down, but at least he had a suggestion. If he planned to wait for her to come up with something, they’d be growing along with the grass on the courthouse lawn.
“Where do you like to eat?” He waited for her to step into the elevator. When the door closed she became very much aware of him in the small space.
“I don’t usually eat out in town. I have a great cook at the ranch.”
“I like the diner across the street and down a few doors. I eat there now and then. Whatever’s on the daily special is usually good.”
She nodded, making note that he wasn’t particular about his food, or apparently his clothes. The pant legs of the suit were an inch shorter than they should be, and with his light brown hair, the gray suit washed him out like a camera shot out of focus.
“I need to check in at the office, then I’ll meet you there,” she said as she moved outside.
“Fine,” he answered. “There’s something I need to take care of too. Thirty minutes?”
“Thirty minutes,” she said, and almost ran to her car. As she drove the few blocks to her offices, she noticed him walking toward Parker Trucking and guessed he was going to quit.
Thirty minutes later, it was almost noon and the Blue Moon Diner was packed when they met at the door and walked in. Several people looked up, but no one spoke. She recognized a few of the town’s folks but couldn’t call them by name. The Britains didn’t mix with the locals, never had.
“Friendly group,” Cord mumbled as he slid into the booth across from her. “Must be you. I can’t think of a thing I’ve done wrong lately.”
She smiled. “If you weren’t married to me, you probably wouldn’t speak to me either.”
“You got that right.” He surprised her when he winked at her.
Nevada laughed. He was being honest, just like she’d asked. Suddenly it didn’t matter that folks thought the Britains were uppity or that Cord was an ex-con. “If I weren’t married to you I wouldn’t talk to you either, Mr. McDowell.”
“Sounds like a great way to start a marriage, Mrs. McDowell.”
She caught the corner of his mouth lifting slightly before he raised his menu and said, “It’s going to be a conversation-packed marriage. I can already tell.”
Staring at her menu, she fought down a giggle. Maybe, just maybe, this marriage might be tolerable. At least until he got to know her. Then, like all the other husbands, he’d begin to pick her apart. Thanks to her father, her brothers, and three ex-husbands, she’d learned the hard way that something—no, maybe everything as far as they were concerned—was wrong with her. Only this time, after the eight months was up, she wouldn’t stay around for the insults. This time she’d planned her escape ahead of time. She’d walk away with a working ranch, and he’d have money for a fresh start at his old place. If trouble didn’t come, they might just both survive until winter.