Hitched by Christmasby Jule McBride
Luke Lydell, former state cop, current cowboy and part-time private investigator, was supposed to be Claire Buchanan's joke bachelorette gift from her four sisters, her bridesmaidsa last hurrah before her Christmas wedding to wealthy rancher Clive Stoddard. But Luke wasn't laughing. Growing up an orphan dumped on the steps of Lost Springs Ranch for troubled
Luke Lydell, former state cop, current cowboy and part-time private investigator, was supposed to be Claire Buchanan's joke bachelorette gift from her four sisters, her bridesmaidsa last hurrah before her Christmas wedding to wealthy rancher Clive Stoddard. But Luke wasn't laughing. Growing up an orphan dumped on the steps of Lost Springs Ranch for troubled boys, he'd always wanted Claire, a rich rancher's daughter, for his own. So this time, he's playing for keeps .
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Luke Lydell narrowed fierce blue eyes that belied his probable Native American heritage, ruffled a work-cal-lused hand through his jaw-length, arrow-straight jet hair, then surveyed the crowded bleachers where countless women were shouting bids toward an auctioneer's podium. Resituating himself on a foldout metal chair that was about as uncomfortable as a saddle during the last days of fall roundup, Luke turned his attention to the bachelors being auctioned off.
"You might have lost your good looks over the years, Lydell," ribbed one of the guys Luke had grown up with at the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys, "but you haven't lost your bad attitude."
"Well, I sure don't raise Cain and kick butt the way I used to," Luke returned.
"Maybe not." Another whispered voice came over the auctioneer's. "But you were the only guy in the bachelor's auction brochure still wild enough to wear a ripped shirt."
"Shredded." Luke laughed softly, feeling glad the whispered conversation was taking his mind off the one thing he wanted to forgetthe announcement of Claire Buchanan's engagement in yesterday's paper.
"And you posed with a bull, no less."
"Great pose," someone commented. "So romantic."
"Lindsay needed a picture," Luke defended calmly, glancing toward where Rex Trowbridge and Lindsay Duncan, the organizers, were watching the bachelor auction from the sidelines, "and that was the only picture I had. Me 'n' Slim Struthersremember him?well, we took that picture for the sake of comparison, so potential buyers could see the size of the bull."
"The bull was bigger than you," offered someone mildly.
"Right," replied Luke. "That was the point. The folks were purchasing the bull, not me."
"Well, today you're for sale."
Luke smiled. "I guess I figured one of these women would notice my ripped rags in the brochure and take pity on me. You watch. She'll buy me, take me home and feed me. And then she'll offer to darn my shirts."
"Not in a month of Sundays, Lydell. All these women want us to do is cut their grass, trim their hedges and baby-sit their kids for a weekend."
"If you're lucky, hedge trimming's all they'll want." Luke glanced at the crowd again. "But we'll find out soon enough. We're at their mercy today."
"Ain't that the truth."
Luke's eyes settled on the bachelor who was on the auction block, strutting his stuff. "Well," Luke continued, suddenly feeling vaguely uneasy, "this is for a good cause." All the guys wanted to participate in the bachelor auction, to help raise money for the ranch where they'd grown up. Luke had wanted to. Now, seeing the riled-up crowd, he wasn't so sure. Every year at Christmas Luke gave back his fair share to the Lost Springs Ranch for Boysmore than most people knew. Now, still keeping an eye on the women, he said, "Guess I didn't expect the women to be so "
Luke considered. "That'll do."
They were all differentyoung and old, rich and poor, and clad in everything from down-home western clothes to fancy frilly sundresses, but they had one thing in common: they were seriously intent on purchasing themselves a man. When Luke's eyes landed on a busty, pretty blonde in a big straw hat who kept placing bids by waving a white bandanna printed with black designs, he couldn't help but say, "What form of surrender do you think she has in mind?"
No one answered because the auctioneer suddenly shouted, "Sold to the wild buncha gals in front!"
"Which wild bunch?" Luke joked, watching the gavel come down. Another guy began parading while the crowd buzzed like hornets. And in the heat of an east Wyoming June, no less. Luke blew out a mock-wary sigh. "Anybody besides me starting to feel like grade A beefcake?"
"Sure" came the reply. "But if I'm prime rib, what would that make you, Lydell?"
Luke's lips tilted. Ribbing with the men was taking the edge off the more serious worries of investigative work, ranching and the unstoppable lust Luke felt for Claire Buchananall of which weren't far from his mind. "I figure I'm a choice tenderloin. Or a filet. Take your pick."
"Dead meat," somebody behind him said succinctly. "That's what we all are. And wearing that outfit, you deserve whatever you get, Luke."
Luke could have said his choice of attire was entirely unintentional, since he'd been stuck up on the north side of the Cross Creek Ranch where he'd been moving cattle since before sunrise, but he only glanced down and assured, "We aim to please."
In the silence that followed, Luke's eyes scanned the crowd again, and for the first time he allowed himself to take a good look at Claire. His eyes drifted over her unusual face, the plump mouth and dusky, smoky blue eyes that were ringed with natural shadows. As far as Luke was concerned, she had absolutely no right to embed herself so firmly in his gray matter, not when she was getting married next Christmas.
Ever since yesterday's announcement of her engagement, Luke had been remembering the past they'd once shared. As he'd haggled over beef prices, ear-tagged cattle and gone over cases for various law enforcement agencies around the area, her face kept swimming before his eyes. Even after all these years, every inch of her was still tangled up inside him like a wild thing caught in barbed wire.
Luke just wished she wasn't about to witness him being auctioned off to some crazy woman who'd use him for God only knew what nefarious purposes. Now, don'tyou put the cart before the horse. If Luke was lucky, maybe he'd be the one man who didn't garner any bids.
Keep dreamin'. Looking at the rowdy crowd, Luke was definitely starting to hope whoever purchased his services would want something simple, such as carpentry work or.
Just not sex. Luke was strong as an oxsix one and lean, his body thick with ropy muscle. Even so, as he stared warily at the hollering she-devils, Luke saw a few women he wasn't sure he could whip in hand-to-hand combat.
Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that. Not that Luke had anything against sex, but he definitely preferred standard dating rituals for the warm-up. And a few of the women out there looked ready to wrestle a man down and hog-tie him. He winced, realizing it was almost his turn on the auction block and that he had no choice but to put on a show for the ladies. So what if he had to pose and flex a few muscles? The proceeds from this event were going to the Lost Springs Ranch, after all. Still, he felt as if he was about to get eaten alive. He glanced down at the jeans hugging his thighs. "Maybe I should have worn nicer slacks," he found himself saying. What he meant was looser.
"Lydell," someone whispered, "you don't own anything we'd refer to as slacks."
But Luke did have better jeans. Fortunately, he was wearing new Tony Llama boots, and his belt buckle was niceone he'd won years ago at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, when he'd ridden a full eight seconds on a nasty bull named Big Harold. Otherwise, his T-shirt had felt sweat-damp and too dirty to wear by the time he'd reached Lost Springs, so he'd left it slung over the seat of his Harley. Now he lifted a hand and rubbed his bare chest, which had turned a dark chestnut from the summer sun, his fingers just touching the red bandanna tied around his neck.
An elbow dug into his rib. "Getting antsy, cowboy?"
For some reason, the word stung for a second. Not that he didn't love cowboying. But many of the guys who'd been raised with him at Lost Springs had moved on, some heading for cities. While Lost Springs provided a decent, well-maintained place where an orphaned or abandoned kid could get a clean bed and three squares a day, it hadn't been an easy upbringing for any of them. Luke had gotten itchy feet himself, but after doing some traveling, he'd returned home like the prodigal son.
Not that Luke had a proud pa to greet him. Now, as his blue eyes scanned the landscape again, Luke tried to tell himself he'd come back because he missed ranching. And because he could pick up investigative work in Casper from his old cop buddies. And because Lightning Creek, Wyoming, was the closest thing to a home he'd ever known. He tried to tell himself he hadn't returned because of Claire. But that was probably a lie.
His gaze dropped from the big, cloudless, western blue sky, over rolling hills and grasslands, to where heat shimmered on the rock faces, then he looked toward where folks milled near the bleachers, eating corn bread and ribs. He could still see where Twyla from the Tease 'n' Tweeze was raffling off a quilt made by the Converse County Quilt Quorum and the table where Claire had been raffling off two of her oil paintings.
Claire was good. Luke had even secretly bought some of her artwork, including paintings titled Blue Sage Dreams and Lost Springs Ranch. In the latter, Claire had captured the ranch in fiery twilight. A lone boy wandered in the scrub grass, his small figure dwarfed by the far off silhouette of steep mountains and a western sky that stretched forever. One of his arms was lifted toward the endless sky, and he looked strangely alone and forgotten while the vast sky he reached for seemed to beg eternal questionswhere did we come from? Where are we going?
They weren't questions Luke asked often, but when he'd seen the picture, and how the boy reached for the sky as if it held all the answers, Luke had known Claire somehow understood his childhood, maybe even better than he did. Somehow, the woman had managed to paint what Luke could never say in words, and staring at that fiery orange sky, he'd wondered again who his folks were and why, years ago, they'd abandoned him on the doorstep at Lost Springs on a Christmas morning.
And then Luke had found the gallery owner and bought Claire's painting of the ranch. Ever since, itand othershad hung in his living room, out at the cabin.
Not that Claire would ever know.
Right now, she was standing alone, near the bleachers, looking better in jeans and a plain white T-shirt than any woman had a right to. Unlike the other women, she seemed to be somehow apart, like a lone tree standing above the timberline. She was merely watching the auction with those perceptive, questioning eyes, looking as still as one of the figures in the gorgeous pictures she painted. In Lightning Creek, Wyoming, nothing could hold a candle to Claire Buchanan.
Hell, nothing in the world could hold a candle to Claire.
She was slender, as tall and pale as a birch tree in winter, and after Luke's eyes traced the curve of her long, slender neck, his gaze caressed the delicate bones in her high cheeks that he knew were strangely soft to the touch. Her fine light tawny hair was pulled back, and a braid swept around her neck, trailed over a shoulder and down her chest. Shadows fell in the hollows of her cheeks as well as around her eyes, making her look strangely wise. Luke could still barely believe how intimately he'd once touched her, or how she'd offered herself to him bodily years ago. It was harder to believe he'd turned her down.
Ever since, they hadn't crossed paths much, though Lightning Creek was a small town, and avoiding each other was difficult. In fact, ten years of avoidance had nearly taken an act of God, and even so, they still wound up bumping into each other on occasion, like today.
Blowing out a sigh, Luke tried to ignore the June heat again, but it was the kind of electrical heat that made the air crackle and that would turn downright sultry come sundown. Letting his gaze drift with deceptive casualness past Claire, Luke calmly studied some sticky-fingered kids eating cotton candy. "And now for Luke Lydell!"
"Time to root hog or die," Luke murmured under his breath. The last person he wanted to parade himself in front of was Claire, but he'd figured she'd be here, so he'd had months to prepare himself. Luke rose while the auctioneer said, "Let's give him a hand, gals!"
To rousing applause, Luke strutted across the stage while his bio was read. Barely listening, he tried to ignore both Claire and the rising bids as he flexed his biceps. Suddenly, he realized a group of young squealing girls in the middle of the bleachers seemed hell-bent on buying him.
He squinted. Sure enough, it was Claire's four jeans-clad sistersEmma Jane, Rosie, Vickie and Josie. Luke figured the oldest, Emma Jane, was probably in college by now, while the youngest, Josie, would still be in junior high. Their father, Tex, was with them. One of the few men in the audience, he was smiling broadly at his daughters, his lips curling around an unlit cigar. Repositioning a ten-gallon hat on his head, Tex shoved both hands into the pockets of new-looking jeans. Glancing away, Luke also thought he saw two of Claire's girlfriends, but maybe not. Fact was, Luke didn't know much about Claire's friends; she'd attended a girls' school in Cheyenne during their high school years, only coming home for the summers.
But why would Claire's sisters bid on him?
They'd get him, too, Luke realized uneasily. No doubt, Tex Buchanan was providing them with plenty of cold, hard cash. He would naturally want to make a sizable contribution to the Lost Springs fund-raiser. As Luke paraded for the hooting women, Emma Jane suddenly shrieked such a huge sum that Luke did a double-take.
Josie excitedly shouted another bid.
Frowning, Tex reprimanded his youngest daughter. A seeming family powwow followed, while Josie was reminded that she and Emma Jane weren't at loggerheads; the girls were on the same team and not supposed to bid against each other.
From the area beside the bleachers, Claire was watching her sisters and Tex with growing alarm. Meantime, the competition waved her white bandanna, screaming such an unreasonable amount that Luke stopped flexing his muscles and simply stared. Hell, he thought dryly, if he'd known he could command this kind of money, he'd have willingly sold himself to a woman years ago.
Especially when Emma Jane raised the bid. The competitor whipped off her straw sun hat, slapped it against her thigh and got down to business, shouting yet another offer.
And so it went. The bidding got so high that Luke finally stopped flexing a second time, crossed his arms over his bare chest and merely watched. Just seeing Claire's sisters jump up and down like jackrabbits was starting to make his head hurt, so he was half relieved when they finally won.
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