Book 2 in the Burnt Boot, Texas Series
Can a girl ever have too many cowboys?
No sooner does pint-sized spitfire Jill Cleary set foot on Fiddle Creek Ranch than she finds herself in the middle of a hundred-year-old feud. Quaid Brennan and Tyrell Gallagher are both tall, handsome, and rich...and both are courting Jill to within an inch of her life. She's doing her best to give these feuding ranchers equal time-too bad it's dark-eyed Sawyer O'Donnell who makes her blood boil and her hormones hum.
Burnt Boot, Texas Series:
Cowboy Boots for Christmas (Book 1)
The Trouble with Texas Cowboys (Book 2)
Praise for The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride:
"Another heartwarming read from the amazing Carolyn Brown...overflowing with romance and laughter." -Night Owl Reviews Reviewer Top Pick
"Will leave readers swooning and wishing they had their very own cowboy." -RT Book Reviews, 4 stars
"Another scrumptious, heartwarming story by author extraordinaire Carolyn Brown." -Romance Junkies
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The scariest sight in the world is a woman's finger on the trigger of a sawed-off shotgun. Sawyer O'Donnell was not an idiot. When he saw the big hole in the barrel of that gun aimed right at his heart, he dropped the broom and threw up his palms.
"Lady, you might want to put that shotgun down. I'm not havin' no part of this feud business. Let's talk about it," he whispered.
The gun stayed right where it was, and his hands didn't drop an inch.
Gladys hadn't said a damn thing about a crazy woman in Burnt Boot when he was hired on as foreman of Fiddle Creek Ranch. Maybe the redhead with the bloodshot green eyes was a member of one of the feuding families. Hopefully, she wasn't out to shoot first and ask questions later.
"Who in the hell are you, and why are you in my bunkhouse?" she asked bluntly.
"Your bunkhouse?" Sawyer raised his voice. "Lady, you made a wrong turn back there at crazy and demented. This is my bunkhouse, and you are damn sure not welcome here. So put that blunderbuss away and take your ass back to wherever you came from."
"Yes, it is my bunkhouse. I told Aunt Gladys I'd do my own cleaning when I got here. She said the door would be open and she'd meet me here," she said.
His hands came down. "Aunt Gladys? Who are you? She didn't tell me that anyone else would be living here."
Deep-throated laughter preceded Gladys into the bunkhouse. "She'd be my great-niece, Jill Cleary, and I didn't know until last night that she was coming to Burnt Boot. I didn't tell you because I wanted y'all to meet before either one of you went to jumpin' ship." She clamped a hand on the gun and lowered it until the barrel pointed at the ground. "Darlin', you got to load a gun, or it ain't worth a damn. You made good time. I wasn't expectin' you for another hour. Saw you comin' in, but I had one more bale of hay to kick off the back of the truck before I could get here. Now give me a hug and meet my brand-new foreman, Sawyer O'Donnell. He'll be sharin' this bunkhouse with you."
Jill propped the gun against the back of a worn sofa and rolled up on her toes to hug her aunt. "I'm not sharing my living quarters with a stranger. I'd rather pitch a tent by the river."
Gladys pushed her back but held on to her shoulders. "In January?"
"Then I'll stay in the house with you," Jill said. "You said you'd hired a foreman that was living on Salt Draw. Why didn't you tell me he was living in the bunkhouse?"
"Same reason I didn't rush down here and tell him that you'd be living in it too. You'd have bitched. He would have quit. You've lived in bunkhouses before now, and so has he. Looks like only two in this big old place would be a blessing after living with twenty or thirty people. And, darlin', I love you, and someday you'll inherit all I've got and all Polly has got, too, but you are not livin' with me. Not with your temper. And, besides, you said when you called last night that you wanted to live in the bunkhouse, so that's what you are going to do."
Sawyer looked from one woman to the other. Gladys was a tall, lanky woman with a touch of white in her black hair. High cheekbones and dark eyes said she had some Native American blood. She'd said she was past eighty, and that's why she needed help on her small ranch. But she damn sure didn't look it or act it, either. Jill had a mop of wavy shoulder-length red hair, green eyes, a cute little nose, and full lips made for kissing. There was no way in hell they could be related.
Gladys read his mind. "Yes, Sawyer, we really are kinfolk. Jill is mine and Polly's only living relative and she has come to Burnt Boot to work for us. And this bunkhouse is big enough for the two of you."
Sawyer wasn't too sure about that last statement. The bunkhouse had looked huge when he moved in, but a woman living in it would damn sure make it smaller in a hurry.
Travis Tritt's old song "T-R-O-U-B-L-E" played through his mind. The verse that kept running around on a continuous loop said that the men were going to love her and the women were going to hate her, because she reminded them of everything they were never going to be. It said that it could be the beginning of another war, because the world wasn't ready for nothing like her.
With those tight-fittin' jeans attempting to cover up that cute little rounded butt and cinching in a small waist, Jill was sure enough trouble with a capital T in Burnt Boot, Texas. The Gallagher and the Brennan men would both love her because she was so damn pretty, but the minute they found out she was in line to inherit Fiddle Creek-well, look out, Burnt Boot.
According to what Verdie had told him already, the feud was already hotter'n a Texas wildfire. Naomi Gallagher, the head she-coon of that clan, was out for Brennan blood. Throwing Jill in that mix would be like throwing a five-gallon bucket of gasoline on the fire. Both families wanted the land separating their properties for the water rights that ran through Gladys's ranch, and even if they didn't, one look at Jill and they'd forget the ranch and want her.
"You two get settled in, and we'll have a long talk in the morning. Welcome home to Burnt Boot, Jill darlin'. Me and Polly are glad that you've finally come home to roost for good." Gladys gave her niece another hug and whistled all the way to her truck.
The engine of the truck had barely died down, and Sawyer was still trying to make sense of the whole scene, when it sounded as if Gladys was coming back. Thank God! She'd been teasing about Jill not living at the house with her and now she was coming back to get her.
A truck door slammed, and Sawyer hurried to throw open the door. Hell, he'd even carry Jill out there, shotgun and all, and put her into the truck.
It wasn't Gladys standing on the other side of the screen door. It was Betsy Gallagher.
"Evenin', Sawyer. I heard you'd gotten moved in. Thought I'd stop by and ask you to Sunday dinner at my granny's place," she said.
Red-haired and cute as a button, Betsy was a member of one of the feuding families in Burnt Boot. He'd been warned about taking sides in any way, form, or shape, but with the mayhem that had just happened, his mind went blank and he couldn't think of a reason why he couldn't go to dinner with her.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" Betsy asked.
"It's a mess in here." He stepped out on the porch.
"I heard that Jill Cleary was coming back to work for Gladys."
"She is." Sawyer still racked his brain, trying to come up with a plausible excuse not to go to dinner with her.
Betsy ran a hand down his arm and smiled up at him. "I expect you have lots to do, so I should be going. You can take me home from church on Sunday and have dinner with us, right?"
"I suppose," he said.
"Good. I'll see to it you have a good time." She winked slyly.
He went back inside, threw himself on the sofa with a groan, and covered his eyes with his arm.
"What happened?" Jill asked.
A second knock brought Sawyer to a sitting position, but Jill was already on the way to the door. "I'll get it," she threw over her shoulder.
"Hello, Jill," a masculine voice said.
Sawyer fell back and covered his eyes again. At least it wasn't another woman out there asking for him.
"I heard you made it to the ranch this afternoon," he said. "I'm Quaid Brennan. We met years ago when you were a little girl and visited Gladys. I thought I'd come over and invite you to come to the Brennan Sunday dinner after church, and I'd love it if you helped me teach Sunday school and sat with us in church. We'd sure enjoy making you welcome to Burnt Boot."
"Sure, and thank you."
"Good. I'll pick you up at nine for Sunday school, then?"
"That will be great."
She shut the door and melted into a rocking chair beside the sofa. "Shit! Aunt Gladys is going to scalp me. She said I wasn't supposed to get involved with either family, but I couldn't think of a single excuse."
"I know exactly how you feel. But if you sit with them in church, everyone is going to think you've joined up with that side," Sawyer moaned.
"Hey, we'll make it through the day and be home in the middle of the afternoon. Let's get back to our cleaning and figure out an excuse if anyone else comes around."
Another knock on the door stopped him before he could finish the sentence.
"Your turn," she said.
He hauled himself up off the sofa, crossed the room, and slung the door open, praying that this time it would be Gladys, but it was Kinsey Brennan. He looked past her to the third truck in the driveway, to see Tyrell Gallagher sitting in the driver's seat. Shit fire! Each side had sent a double team to Fiddle Creek to gang up on them.
"Hey, Sawyer. We haven't been formally introduced, but I met you at your cousin's wedding reception. I came to invite you to Sunday dinner." She smiled.
Tall, willowy, blond, and brown-eyed, she looked like a runway model, but Sawyer had the perfect excuse all ready.
"I'm going to dinner with Betsy Gallagher," he said.
"Oh, well then, you must give us equal time, darlin'." She opened the screen door and stepped inside. Before he could take a single step back, her breasts were brushing against his chest. "You have to come to supper at the Brennan household. It'll be more private anyway without the whole family there." She picked up his hand and wrote a number in the palm. "This is my cell phone number. Call me at a quarter to six, and I'll talk to you the whole way and give you instructions on how to get to River Bend. See you then." She blew a kiss off the tips of her fingers and then touched his lips with her forefinger.
"Holy shit!" Jill said. "What's going on?"
"News travels fast in a small town. They know you have arrived, and they're going to swamp you with dates," he said.
"Fiddle Creek, and you're a damn fine-lookin' woman."
"But why you?"
"They just want to get rid of the threat. If one of those women can snag me, then that's one cowboy out of their way," he said.
"You sure about that?"
A heavy knock landed on the door.
"I bet you dollars to cow patties that's a Gallagher wanting to take you to Sunday dinner," he said.
She grimaced. "Maybe it's for you."
"If it is, tell the woman I've got the plague."
* * *
Jill answered the door, and there stood a tall, dark cowboy with pretty brown eyes. Lord, please let this be a Bible seller who's lost his way and is looking for directions, she prayed.
Her prayer fell on deaf ears.
"Miss Jill Cleary, I swear you have grown up to be a gorgeous woman. The last time I saw you, you were in pigtails. You won't remember me, probably. I'm Tyrell Gallagher. I heard you'd made it to town and I wanted to ask you to Sunday dinner." His Texas drawl was sexy as hell, and he was easy on the eyes.
"Thank you for coming by and for the invitation, but I've already got dinner plans for Sunday," she said.
"Well, then, darlin', you could invite me inside," Tyrell said.
"It's a mess in here." She used Sawyer's line and stepped out on the porch like he'd done.
He pinned her against the rough wood wall of the bunkhouse with a hand on either side of her. "I can't change your mind about dinner?"
"Sorry, but the plans are made." She felt like a caged cat and fought the urge to holler for Sawyer to come save her.
"Then supper? We have two meals at Wild Horse on Sunday. Supper is buffet instead of a sit-down dinner, but you can still meet the family," he whispered close enough that she caught the faint scent of peppermint gum over the top of whiskey.
"Okay," she said. "What time?"
"I'll pick you up at six. What's your favorite color of roses?"
"I don't have a favorite," she said.
He took a step back and grinned. "Then red it is. I'll see you Sunday."
She hurried into the house, and Sawyer was gone from the sofa. Surely he hadn't slipped out the back door and left her alone. I take back everything I thought about him when I first got here, Lord. Please don't let him be gone. I'm going to need a friend and lots of support, she prayed again.
She had a moment of panic until he came from the kitchen with two opened bottles of beer in his hands. He handed one to her and downed a third of the other one before he went back to the sofa and sat down on one end.
"I thought you'd left me to the wolves all by myself. It was a scary moment. I don't even know you, Sawyer O'Donnell, but please promise you'll stick around."
"I gave Gladys my word I'd stay for a year," he said.
She exhaled loudly. "We got off on the wrong foot. I'm tired and weary from driving and worried that I made the wrong decision in coming here, so I'm sorry for aiming my gun at you."
"Same here. I'm not a bit sorry that I took this job, but I wish to hell Fiddle Creek wasn't right in the middle of two feuding families," he said.
"I'm going to supper at the Gallaghers' ranch and dinner at the Brennans'. At least no one can say I'm choosing sides," she said with a long sigh as she plopped down on the other end of the sofa and kicked off her boots. "I shouldn't sit down, or I'll never get up and get this cleaning done. My feet hurt. My head is aching, and damn, Sawyer, why did I just agree to do two things I don't want to do?"
He picked up her feet and put them in his lap, massaging the soles through her socks. "I'm going to Wild Horse for dinner and River Bend for supper, but believe me, it's not happening but this one time," he said. "I'll be ready for them next time around."
She dramatically threw a hand over her eyes. "Next time? Shit! We're going to have to outrun them again? That feels so good. Did you ever think of leaving ranchin' and going into massage work?"
"No, ma'am. My heart is in ranchin', but it makes a person plumb cranky to have achin' feet." He cocked his head to one side, drew his eyes down, and asked, "What is that noise?"
"Sounds like thunder. Maybe if it rains, they'll all stay on their asses at home and leave us alone so we can get this place cleaned up before dark. Thanks for the foot rub. It really did help."
He cocked his ear to one side. "It's not thunder. That's cattle and four-wheelers."
She set her beer down and ran to the back door. Sure enough, there were four-wheelers out in the distance. She couldn't make out who was driving them, but she distinctly counted six.
Sawyer went the other way-to the front door. "I see three four-wheelers out on the far side, going toward the store. What the hell are they doing on Fiddle Creek?"
That's when they saw the cattle stampeding toward the bunkhouse. She jumped back and slammed the door shut. "Shit fire, Sawyer! What is going on?"
"It's a full-out stampede, but when they reach the bunkhouse, it'll break their momentum and slow 'em down. Gladys is going to have a hissy. I see River Bend brands all mixed up with ours, and I was right, there's Wild Horse brands in there too. Both sides must've had the same idea."
"To cut fences and create havoc?" she asked.
"That's the general definition of a feud," he answered.
Gladys, Quaid Brennan, and Tyrell Gallagher all arrived at the same time, braking so hard that gravel spewed all over the front of the bunkhouse.
"You son of a bitch." Tyrell jumped out of his truck and bowed up to Quaid, who had barely gotten his boots on the ground. "Why did you cut our fence and cause this mess?"
Gladys stepped between them.
Jill grabbed her boots and headed outside, yelling at Sawyer the whole way. "Go help her. I swear, if one of them throws a punch and hits her, I'll shoot him dead."
Sawyer didn't hesitate. He and Jill might have gotten off to a bad start, but she was right. If one of those fools hurt Gladys, she could shoot him, and Sawyer would carry the body down to the Red River and toss it into the water.
Sawyer joined Gladys. "Looks like you two need to use your energy to sort out your cattle rather than fightin'."
"That's right," Gladys said. "I'm damn sure not sortin' them out, but I will be doin' a count tomorrow, and if a single one of Fiddle Creek cows is missin', you'll both answer to me. Now get busy roundin' up your herds, and then get the hell off Fiddle Creek."
"Don't worry, Miz Gladys. I'm going out there to make sure that anything with our brand stays right here," Sawyer said.
"And I'm going with him," Jill said from the porch.
Gladys nodded. "And you had best fix your own fences too."
Without a word to her or to each other, both cowboys headed toward their trucks. They had phones to their ears as they backed away from the bunkhouse.
"Welcome to Burnt Boot." Gladys laughed. "I'm glad I hired y'all, because I'm going back to the store and leaving you to take care of it."
"My truck or yours?" Jill asked.
"I'll drive if you'll bring that shotgun with you."
"You got it. And, Sawyer, it's beginning to look like we'd best stick together if we're going to survive living here."
He held out his hand. "Deal."
She shook it and then went back inside to get her gun.
The truck engine was running when she got back. Sawyer put it in gear and drove toward the herd of cattle right smack in the middle of the Fiddle Creek pasture behind the bunkhouse.
"We need to be cleanin', not settling feud wars," she said.
"I know, but here we are. Speaking of cleanin', I didn't know that you were moving into the bunkhouse. Thought I had it all to myself, so I unloaded my things in the foreman's bedroom. That comes with a private bathroom. I can move them to the other side if you want," he said.
"I remember the bunkhouse very well, and there are two bedrooms on the other side. One will serve as my office. Let's get a few things clear though, Sawyer. I don't cook, but I will take my turn at cleaning."
He nodded. "You don't cook or you don't like to cook?"
"I never learned."
"Well, I did, so we're in pretty good shape there."
* * *
His dark brown eyes met hers over the top of the console separating the two seats. He'd never been attracted to redheads or green-eyed women. He'd always gone for willowy blonds with pretty blue eyes, but something vulnerable in her eyes said that she needed a friend. And that light sprinkling of freckles across her nose was downright adorable.
"This has been a hell of a day. I expected to have the whole place cleaned and maybe go grab a beer tonight down at Polly's," he said.
"I had the same idea." She smiled. "But don't plans get turned around quick? Here they come."
She pointed. "Four-wheelers from both sides."
Sawyer got out of the truck and stood at the front, arms crossed over his chest until they arrived. They cut the engines-Brennans on one side of his truck, Gallaghers on the other. He saw Betsy and Kinsey and Quaid and Tyrell. The only sounds in the pasture were a bunch of heaving cows still trying to catch their breath from running and the occasional disgruntled snort from a bull or two. But the tension was so thick that a good sharp machete couldn't have split it.
"Okay, this is the way it is," he said. "I'm the foreman here, and to avoid any more trouble, the Brennans are going to gather up their cows first and head them back to River Bend. Then you Gallaghers can get yours out from the Fiddle Creek cattle and take them to Wild Horse."
"Why do the Brennans go first?" Betsy asked.
"Because B comes before G in the alphabet."
He heard Jill chuckle as she crawled out of the truck, the shotgun in her hands.
"And why has she got a gun?" Kinsey asked.
"To keep things nice and friendly," Sawyer said.
"We didn't do any of this," Quaid said.
"Yeah, right," Kinsey shot across the twelve feet separating them.
"Don't you think it's strange that both fences were cut and cattle from both ranches stampeded?" Kinsey stared right at Sawyer.
"I don't give a shit," Jill said. "Your cows are mixed up with ours, and we're being kind enough to let you take them home. Now quit your bitchin' and get on with it. Sawyer and I haven't even unpacked yet, and we've got things to do other than babysit you people."
The Brennans started the tedious job of rounding up fifty head of cattle. Tyrell Gallagher started toward Jill, but she shook her head. "Not today, cowboy. Today it's all business."
He turned and said something to Betsy that made her laugh loudly before the two of them sat down on the cold ground behind a four-wheeler. Their tone said they were brewing up some kind of trouble, but Jill didn't care. Her feet were hurting again, and she and Sawyer had too much to do for her to get another foot massage tonight.
"When we get back to the bunkhouse, if anyone else knocks on our door, one of us is going to shoot them," Jill said just loud enough for Sawyer's ears.
"My gun isn't loaded. You shoot, and I'll get out the shovel to dig the hole to bury them."
"It's a deal," she said. "I'm too tired to dig, but I think I can still shoot pretty straight. Man, who would have thought the day would be like this when it dawned?"
"Ain't it the truth?" He nodded. "How long did you drive?"
"I left at four o'clock this morning from the southwest corner of Texas and drove until, what time is it?"
He took a phone from his shirt pocket and checked. "Four thirty. Be dark in an hour."
She laid the shotgun on the hood of the truck and pulled gloves out of her pocket. "There's a nip to the wind. Feels like snow."
"Yep," he said. He waited until the Brennans were halfway across the pasture with their herd before he gave the Gallaghers permission to start getting their cattle together.
"They don't like taking orders," she said.
"Maybe it will make them mad enough to leave me alone the rest of the time I'm here."
"We've eaten our bullfrog," she said.
"What's that?" he asked.
She smiled. "It's an old adage. Wake up every morning and eat a bullfrog first thing, and the rest of the day will go just fine."
"Honey, I'm afraid we've just eaten his scrawny old toes."
"Then I'm going to need a lot of help."
"Me too, Jill Cleary. Me too," he said.