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Matt Sanchez hated weddings. In his opinion, the sentimental ceremonies were only a reminder of everything that could go wrong in a person's life and normally he made a point to steer clear of any social function with a white dress, tossed rice and weeping women. But the wedding of Raine Ketchum and Neil Rankin was one he couldn't avoid. The bride was his cousin and he loved her. Even if he would have preferred to saddle up his favorite horse and ride to the far end of the Sandbur Ranch, he couldn't miss the most important day of her life.
Thankfully, the exchange of vows had taken place more than an hour ago and now the Saddler house, the original ranch house on the Sandbur, was brimming with guests and relatives, some of whom had traveled all the way from New Mexico. Wedding cake was still being served and champagne, beer and punch were flowing like the San Antonio River after a spring flood.
In the great room, the rugs had been rolled back and the wooden floor sprinkled with cornmeal to make boots slide gracefully as couples danced to a four-piece band. Music, laughter and loud conversations collided, then ricocheted off the wood-beamed ceilings before they filled every nook and corner of the house.
At any other time, the reception would have been held outside, beneath the live oaks that graced the backyard. But February weather in South Texas could be fickle. Normally it was splendid with bright sunshine and temperatures just mild enough to make a person forget the long, blistering heat of the past seven months. Even so, there were occasions that northerners blew through and Matt's Aunt Geraldine, who'd helped Raine with all the wedding plans, hadn't wanted to brave the chance of having cold or wet guests.
As for Matt, he'd be happy just to find some quiet, out-of-the-way space to park his boots until all the whooping and hollering died down and he could go back to being the general manager of the Sandbur.
"What's the matter, Matt? You look like you're ready to bolt for higher ground!"
The question came from his cousin Lex who'd just strolled off the dance floor after a fast twirl with an energetic redhead. Of all his family members, Lex was probably the most sociable. With his tall blond looks, women flocked to him like snow geese flocked to South Texas in winter.
"It's getting too loud in here," Matt replied in a raised voice so that Lex could hear. "Our new cousins from New Mexico are going to think we're a raucous bunch."
The other man laughed. "We are a bunch of loud Texans, cuz. And from what I can see, our new family members are thoroughly enjoying themselves."
Not more than a month had passed since he'd learned that Raine's mother, Darla, had actually been married to a member of the Ketchum family from New Mexico. Everyone here on the ranch had been shocked to learn they had a boatload of cousins they'd never known about, and for the past few days they had all been getting acquainted. Matt was happy about his new relatives, yet he'd be even happier, he realized, once this shindig was over and quiet returned to the Sandbur.
With a short snort, Matt dug at the tie knotted at his throat. He couldn't remember the last time he'd worn a suit and if he had his way it was going to be a hell of a lot longer before he wore another one. He felt like a green horse that was cinched tight and left to paw with frustration at the saddling post.
"Well, I must be getting old," he commented gruffly.
"All this merrymaking is getting on my nerves."
The other man rolled his eyes. "Hell's bells, you're only thirty-nine, Matt. You should be dancing with some of these beautiful women here this afternoon. Who knows, you might get lucky and one of them will seduce you. God knows you'd never take the initiative."
If anyone else had said such a thing to him, he'd give him a mouthful of knuckles. But Lex was like a brother, so he simply glowered at the other man.
"I don't need a woman to dance with—or anything else."
Lex shot him a disgusted look. "Yeah. How many times have I heard that before?"
Fortunately for Matt, another woman, a brunette this time, approached the two of them and wrapped an arm around Lex's. "C'mon, good lookin'," she said to him with a cheeky grin. "You two can talk cattle tomorrow. I've been waiting for a dance!"
Matt watched the pair glide off into a quick two-step, then decided he'd had enough. It wasn't that he was antisocial. He liked people in general. But he'd never been comfortable with merrymaking. Now that his sweet Erica was gone, he wouldn't know how to take another woman into his arms and waltz her around the dance floor. It just wasn't in him.
If he could make it to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, then slip outside without anyone noticing, he could wait out this reception in peace, Matt thought, as he left the loud din in the great room.
Even the hallways and connecting rooms were packed with people gathered together in loose groups while others were simply wandering around with drinks in their hands. He worked his way through the human jumble until he reached the kitchen, only to find it was just as chaotic as the rest of the house.
Scores of servants, most of them hired only for the occasion, were dealing with beverages, food and dirty dishes. He stopped just inside the room and looked around for the familiar face of Cook, the old woman who'd been the ramrod of the Sandbur kitchen for more years than he'd been alive. She was in her seventies now, but she could work rings around a woman half her age. Matt expected to find her slinging hash during this hectic celebration, so it was a surprise to see her seated at a worktable, a cup of coffee clutched in her bony hands.
Well, the old woman must finally be feeling her age, Matt thought, as he made his way over to the cabinet. The idea bothered him. She was like a grandmother to him and all his cousins. He didn't want to imagine the ranch without her.
As he gathered up a cup and filled it from a huge silver coffee urn, he could hear her saying to someone, "Well now, I never was interested in money. That's not to say I don't like the stuff. Just never had much use for it. I got everything I need right here on the ranch. I don't need to go around digging for treasure. The Saddler and Sanchez families already treat me like a queen."
"I'm sure they do," a younger female voice replied.
"But it would be exciting, wouldn't it, if a person did happen to find money buried on the ranch? I've heard the amount might be as high as a million dollars."
His ears wide-open now, Matt slowly stirred a dollop of cream into his coffee while he waited for Cook's response. It came with a snort and he turned around to see she was leaning across the table, her head tilted toward a young woman he'd never seen before. She had light blond hair that was twisted atop her head into a mass of cascading curls. Rhinestones adorned her slender neck and the skinny straps of her dark blue velvet dress. Her skin was shell-pink, her features perfectly etched. Without question, she was a very beautiful woman. Except for her nose, he thought. It appeared to Matt that she was trying to stick it in places where she had no right.
"Bah!" Cook exclaimed with a wave of her hand.
"Miss Sara had more money than that before Nate died. But I don't believe she buried any of it. Why would she? It's a silly notion if you ask me."
"Do you know anything about her husband's death?" the blonde asked. "There've been rumors for years—"
"And that's all they are," Matt quickly interrupted as he stepped forward to where the two women were sitting. "Just rumors."
The blonde looked up at him, her pretty rose-colored lips forming a perfect O. Across from her, Cook said, "Matt, this is Miss Juliet Madsen. She works for the newspaper in Goliad. Isn't that somethin'?"
It was something all right, he thought grimly. His eyes narrowed skeptically on the woman's face. "I'm Matt Sanchez, Miss Juliet. And I think you and I need to have a talk. Would you excuse us, Cook?"
"Sure. I need to get back to work anyway," the old cook said.
His eyes still on the nosy guest, Matt placed his hand on Cook's shoulder. "No. You stay put. Finish your coffee and rest. This won't take long anyway."
Juliet warily rose to her feet and followed the man through the busy kitchen and out the back door.Along the way, her heart was pounding as she eyed the man's long legs, wide expanse of shoulders, and black hair inching over the back of his collar. She'd noticed him before, during the wedding ceremony.Actually, she'd more than noticed. Once she'd spotted him among the groomsmen, she'd hardly been able to observe anything else about the wedding. His hard looks were striking; so much so that just looking at him sent electrical shivers down her spine. Later, she'd learned he was a part of the wedding family, the eldest son of Elizabeth and Mingo Sanchez.
Matt shut the door behind them and Juliet looked around to see they were on a backyard patio that was partially covered with an arbor. Far above the slatted wood and drooping honeysuckle vine, a weak afternoon sun was trying to shove its way through the overcast skies.
Chilly air brushed her exposed skin and she wrapped her arms protectively around herself as she waited for him to speak.
"First of all, I don't know who invited you here," he began, "but that's really beside the point. You—"
"What is the point, Mr. Sanchez?" she quickly interrupted, thinking it would be better to go on the offensive before he took the upper hand. "Geraldine Saddler kindly invited me to the wedding so that I could cover the event for the Fannin Review. You find something wrong with that?"
He jammed his hands in his trouser pockets as he stepped toward her and Juliet was glad. He had big hands; the kind that wouldn't let you forget that you'd been touched. Not that he would ever do such a thing to her, but from the furious look on his face, she wasn't sure what might be going through his mind.
"No," he said in a low, smooth voice. "I don't find anything wrong with you taking down wedding details. But that's not what I overheard you discussing with Cook."