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"Do you, Victoria Anderson, take Eli Laughlin to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health?"
Reverend Watkins droned on, but Victoria couldn't have said whether the man recited the sacred words of the wedding vows or if he were trying to auction off a pile of manure. She was far too nervous to concentrate on anything but the ruggedly handsome, dark-haired stranger standing next to herthe very one whom she would pledge herself to within the next few seconds.
When the rotund little minister cleared his throat and gave her an expectant look, she swallowed the panic threatening to choke her. "I do," she murmured, her voice surprisingly steady, considering the state of her nerves.
The good reverend turned to her almost-husband and repeated his question, but Victoria heard none of the words. Two short hours ago, Eli Laughlin had been nothing more than a few long-distance phone calls and a half dozen or so email messages. In fact, during the course of their brief acquaintance, they hadn't even bothered to exchange pictures.
Not that it would have made a difference in her decision to marry himit wouldn't have. There just weren't a lot of options for a down-on-her-luck heiress with less than five hundred dollars to her name and several death threats hanging over her head.
But she fervently wished they had at least discussed physical characteristics. It might have lessened her shock when Eli met her at the airport in Cheyenne. She wasn't sure how she had expected him to look, but she knew beyond a shadow of doubt, nothing could have prepared her for the reality of the man she had traveled over eighteen hundred miles to marry.
Of course, if she hadn't been so distracted by the hurried preparations and the urgent need to leave Charlotte, she might have taken a hint from the sound of his voice. She had always heard of someone having bedroom eyes, but Eli Laughlin had a bedroom voice. Smooth and deep, his voice couldas her nanny used to saycharm the bloomers off an old maid. The first time he had called to interview her, just the sound of it had caused goose bumps to shimmer up and down her arms and her pulse to flutter erratically. It stood to reason nature wouldn't have bestowed that kind of voice on a scrawny little wimp.
Victoria glanced up at him from beneath her lashesway up. When they had discussed their arrangement, she hadn't given his size a second thought, hadn't considered it would matter. She had been more concerned with convincing him that she met his list of qualifications, and listening to him outline his reasons for treating the marriage like a business agreement. But now?
The man was well over six feet tall, had the broadest shoulders she had ever seen and every time he moved, the most fascinating bulges pulled at the fabric of his chambray shirt. From her vantage point, he looked like a giant and a well muscled one at that.
Her gaze traveled to his face. Weren't men who spent the majority of their time outdoors supposed to have skin like leather? The only wrinkles Eli had were the faint creases fanning the corners of his dark brown eyes and the laugh lines bracketing his mouth.
"I do." The sound of him responding to the minister jolted her back to reality.
"By the power vested in me by the state of Wyoming, I pronounce you husband and wife," Reverend Watkins said cheerfully. "Son, you may kiss your bride now."
Surely Eli wasn't going to kiss her, she thought as she stared up at her new husband. They had met in person only a few hours ago when he'd picked her up at the airport in Cheyenne. Her pulse sped up when he put his arms around her and started to lower his head.
The feel of his firm lips when his mouth covered hers, and the sense of being completely surrounded by the man, sent a shiver of awareness up her spine. It wasn't a lingering kiss, more of a little peck really. But when he released her and took a step back, the brief contact had been enough to convince her that he was more man than she had known in all of her twenty-six years.
A moment of panic seized her. What on earth had she gotten herself into?
But remembering the prenuptial agreement, especially the part outlining a one-month "get acquainted" phase, she began to relax a bit. The marriage would remain in name only unless both parties agreed to waive the clause and consummate the union before the end of the specified four weeks.
"Congratulations to both of you," Blake Hartwell said, brushing Eli aside to hug her.
On the hour's drive from the airport to his attorney's office in Eagle Fork to sign the prenuptial agreement, Eli had explained that the wedding ceremony would take place at Blake's grandmother's house as soon as the document was signed. Eli and Blake had been best friends since they met in grade school. He and his grandmother, Jean Hartwell, would be their witnesses to the marriage.
As Blake wrapped her in a bear hug, she realized he was every bit as tall and muscular as her new husband. She briefly wondered if all the men in Wyoming were as large and intimidating as the two she had met thus far.
"Thank you," Victoria murmured as he turned her loose to shake Eli's hand.
Everything was happening so fast she felt overwhelmed by it all. Her first trip to Wyoming, the wedding and the fact that with a few quietly spoken words she had once again changed her surname were almost more than she could take in. It was surreal to think that in a little less than four months she had gone from being Victoria Bardwell to being Victoria Anderson and now Victoria Laughlin.
"Thanks for your help," Eli said as she abandoned her disturbing thoughts in favor of watching the exchange between him and his friend. "I appreciate you and Grandma Jean standing up with us on such short notice."
"Glad to do it," Blake said, grinning.
"I wouldn't have missed this for anything. It's not every day one of my boys gets hitched," Jean Hartwell said. Shouldering her grandson out of the way, she hugged Eli. "You treat this little girl right, you hear?" Turning to Victoria, she grinned. "You got a real good boy here. But if he does give you any trouble, just let me know. I'll straighten him out in two shakes of a lamb's tail."
"I'll remember that, Mrs. Hartwell," Victoria said, smiling. She wondered what the Hartwells thought of her and Eli's unorthodox marriage, but if they had any objections they kept their opinions to themselves. They had shown her nothing but kindness and made her feel as if their wedding was like any other marriage ceremony witnessed by close friends.
"You're married to one of my boys now," the woman said, kissing Victoria's cheek. "Call me Grandma Jean." Turning to the minister, she asked, "Would you like to join us for some refreshments, Preacher?"
"I'm afraid I won't be able to stay, Jean," the man said, smiling as he walked toward the front door. "I have to drive down to the hospital in Cheyenne to see a member of the congregation who came down with pneumonia."
After seeing Reverend Watkins out, Blake's grandmother motioned for them to follow her. "I've got a wedding cake and some of my best elderberry wine waiting for you two in the dining room. I know you'll want to get on the road before too long, so we'd better get to celebrating."
Eli watched his new wife follow Grandma Jean out of the room and wondered what the hell he had been thinking when he chose Victoria Anderson to be his wife. She wasn't anything like the woman he had been looking for when he placed his advertisement on the Hitching Post website. He had been looking for a woman who could help out with ranch work and eventually bear him a son to carry on the legacy of the Rusty Spur Ranch. But he would bet his next breath that his new wife had never worked a day in her life, much less on a ranch.
"You're the only son of a gun I know who could fall in a pile of manure and come out smelling like a rose." Blake's tone was low and quiet and Eli assumed his friend didn't want the women to hear him.
"What do you mean?" he asked, frowning.
"When you posted your ad on that rancher's dating website, you made it sound more like you were looking for a female hired hand instead of a wife," Blake said, laughing. "I wouldn't have given you a plugged nickel for your chances of finding any woman to take you up on an offer that sounded about as romantic as a trip to the dentist. But I'll be damned if you didn't end up with the prom queen!"
As his friend slapped him on the back and followed the women into the dining room, Eli had to admit that in the looks department, he had hit a home run when he chose Victoria. Her long, golden-brown hair complemented her lightly tanned complexion, and she had the most expressive violet eyes he had ever seen.
Unfortunately, beauty hadn't been one of his criteria for a suitable wife. He had wanted a woman who understood the daily operation of a ranch the size of the Rusty Spur and could pitch in to help if the need arose. And she had assured him she had the experience he had been looking for. But one look at his new wife's designer clothes and her delicate, perfectly manicured hands signing the marriage license, and he had known for certain that her claim to be knowledgeable of any kind of farm or ranch work was a total myth.
He had suspected as much the first time he called to interview her, but he chose her anyway over several other, more qualified respondents for one simple reason. Her soft Southern drawl caused his pulse to race. In hindsight, he probably should have been thinking with his head and not his hormones. But at the time, he had reasoned that if they were eventually going to have a child together it probably wouldn't hurt to find his wife desirable. What he hadn't anticipated was his reaction when he saw her for the first time.
He had always thought that having a woman rob a man of breath was just a line in a song or a novel. But that was the only way to describe what had happened to him when she stepped off the plane in Cheyenne. At first sight, he'd sucked in a sharp breath and he wasn't sure he had released it even yet.
"Eli Laughlin, stop standing there like a moon-eyed calf and get in here to help your bride cut the wedding cake," Grandma Jean said from the doorway of the dining room.
Grateful for a diversion from his disturbing thoughts, Eli smiled at the woman who was grandmother to all of her grandson's friends. "Yes, ma'am. On my way."
When he entered the room, Victoria was standing behind a three-tiered cake sitting on one end of the dining table. She looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.
Walking over to stand beside her, he tried to give her a reassuring smile. "Are you doing all right?"
She nodded. "It was very sweet of Mrs. Hartwell to go to all this trouble. I didn't expect a cake ." Pausing, she looked directly at him and laughed. "To tell you the truth, I really don't know what I expected."
Her nervous laughter and the vulnerability she couldn't quite hide caused an unexpected emotion to spread throughout his chest. For reasons he couldn't even begin to understand, Victoria Anderson-Laugh-lin brought out a protectiveness in him that Eli hadn't even known he possessed.
He told himself that it was because she was pretty, petite and delicately femininethe type of woman who made a man feel like a man. But the fact was she was his wife and she carried his name now. For some reason that upped the ante. It was his job to protect her and it came as no small surprise how quickly the feeling had settled over him.
Eli took a deep breath. He must be losing it. Hell, they hadn't been married more than ten minutes and he was already thinking like a husband?
Emotions like that were something he had tried to avoid and approaching their marriage as a business deal, he thought he had done that. Apparently, he had underestimated the sense of responsibility that came along with having a wife.
"Okay, you two. Give me a big smile," Blake said, holding up a digital camera. He motioned toward Victoria. "Put your arms around your wife, dude. This is your official wedding photo."
If Eli could have reached over the cake to choke his best friend, he would have. Blake knew that he and Victoria were little more than strangers. But being thrown in jail on his wedding day for throttling the best man probably wasn't a good idea, Eli decided as he put his arms around her. He would just have to settle the score with Blake later.
When he pulled her to him, Victoria placed her hand on his chest and the warmth of her palm through his shirt felt damned good. Maybe too good. The pre-nuptial agreement they signed had a clause that stated they would refrain from having sex for a period of four weeks in order to get to know each other and find out if they were compatible. He took a deep breath. If the magnetic pull between them was as strong as he was beginning to suspect, he was in for a miserable month of bone-chilling showers and a hell of a lot of frustration.
The camera flashed and just as Eli was about to release her, Blake grinned. "Now give your bride a kiss. I missed getting a picture of it during the ceremony."
Eli wasn't entirely certain all the pictures were a good idea. What if, after their month of getting to know each other, they decided they weren't a good match and the marriage was annulled?
"Oh, yes, you'll want a picture of your wedding kiss," Grandma Jean chimed in.
Gazing down at the woman in his arms, Eli could read every emotion in the crystalline depths of her violet eyes. Victoria was as surprised this time as she had been when the minister told him he could kiss her after pronouncing them husband and wife. She hadn't expected him to observe the ritual then, and truth to tell, he hadn't intended to. But something about the way she had looked at him throughout the brief ceremony had compelled him to stick to tradition. The way she was gazing up at him now was having the same effect.
Without giving it a second thought, Eli lowered his head to cover her mouth with his. He told himself he was kissing Victoria because refusing would have created an awkward situation. Deep down, he knew better. He wanted to kiss her again, needed to see if his first impression had been correct.
The moment their lips met, he knew for certain that his assessment of the brief kiss they'd shared following their vows had been right on the money. Victoria had the softest, sweetest lips he'd ever had the privilege to kiss. The thought of what they'd do if things worked out between them sent his temperature soaring.
When his body began to tighten, Eli quickly broke the contact and took a step back. To his satisfaction, his bride looked as dazed by this kiss as she had the first one. Unless he missed his guess, she was feeling the same chemistry between them that he was.
"Perfect," Blake said, grinning like the damned Cheshire cat. "One more of you two cutting the cake and I'll be done for now."
"What do you mean, 'for now'?" Eli asked, scowling. Blake had been his best friend for as long as he could remember, but the man was pushing the limits of his patience.
Blake's grin widened as he rocked back on his heels. "I'll have to get at least one picture of Grandma throwing rice at the two of you and then another of you and your beautiful bride driving away to start your new life together on the Rusty Spur."
Eli ground his back teeth. Blake was having way too much fun at his expense.