The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride
Author:Carolyn Brown

Chapter 2

 

 

 

 

Emily sat cross-legged in the middle of a king-sized bed in her hotel room and opened up her laptop. She typed Lightning Ridge Ranch into the search engine and immediately a link came up for the ranch website. There was a picture of Greg with a foot propped on a rail fence, one of Clarice sitting on the porch swing, but she wore a pretty flowing skirt and sweater instead of jeans and boots, and one of a whole pasture of Black Angus cattle. It had a page that told all about the cattle sale in the fall; how many cow and calf combinations, bulls and steers they’d sold. Yes, sir, it was a big operation; ten times the size of her ranch when it was at its prime. It would swallow up the little hundred acres that she had these days.

 

She flipped back to Greg’s picture. She stared at him so long without blinking that the image became fuzzy. What was it about him that made her heart flutter around in her chest? Was it the eyes?

 

She pushed the laptop to one side, picked up the remote, and hit the power button. The CMT channel popped up with a video of “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On” by the Pistol Annies. The volume was so loud that at first she didn’t hear her phone ring. It was the flickering light on the nightstand that caught her attention. She rolled to one side and grabbed it, answering without even checking the caller ID.

 

“Do I hear Miranda Lambert?” Taylor asked.

 

“Yes, you do.” Emily pressed the mute button on the remote.

 

“Did you find the lady that the letters belonged to? I bet you are in Louisiana tonight, aren’t you?” Taylor asked.

 

Emily sighed. “I did find Clarice and she’s offered me a job for a month. Her grandson has been after her to hire an assistant. Someone to help with the computerized ranch stuff, payroll, taxes, and then help drive her and her friends around when they need to go places. I think she just wants to hear more about Gramps, but I’m thinking about stayin’ on. You’ll never believe what happened right smack off the bat when I rang the doorbell.”

 

“You are shittin’ me,” Taylor stammered. “If you want to ranch, come on home.”

 

“I promised Gramps I’d take a whole month. And after all the times you’ve teased me with dead mice, I figured you’d get a kick out of that story.”

 

“You also promised him that you’d sell me the final hundred acres if you found something else you wanted to do. I don’t see that happenin’, the way you’ve hung on to this last parcel like a bulldog with an old ham bone. And darlin’, I hate cats, but I could kiss that old yellow critter for that trick. And since they’ve got mice on that ranch, don’t you think you better get on back here to God’s country, where you belong?” Taylor asked.

 

“To begin with, all ranches have mice. And I’d kiss a mouse on the nose before you’d kiss a cat. And about sellin’ the ranch, it ain’t never goin’ to happen, Taylor. I’m not selling the last of Shine Canyon to you. And those promises go two ways, remember. You have to sell my land back to me a hundred acres at a time as I get the money saved up. My roots are firmly planted in that dirt out there. I’ll be home in a month.” She could visualize his dark brows knitting together in a fine line over his light blue eyes. “Are you lighting up a cigarette? I swear, they’re going to give you cancer just like they did Gramps.”

 

“He was eighty years old,” Taylor said.

 

Emily heard the click of a cigarette lighter and then the whoosh as Taylor blew out a stream.

 

“If I come home will you quit smoking?” she asked.

 

“If you’ll come on back to Happy, I’ll think about it,” he answered.

 

“Gramps said I was supposed to take a month and figure out what I really wanted before I make a decision. I reckon I can do that working for Clarice as well as I can sitting on a sandbar. Besides, I heard it rains a lot during this time of year in Florida. You won’t quit until you are ready anyway, so don’t be usin’ your smokin’ as blackmail,” she said.

 

“I knew you couldn’t survive a whole month away from the smell of hay and cattle any more than I can survive a whole day without a cigarette,” he said between puffs.

 

“I don’t want to watch you die like Gramps did,” Emily begged.

 

Another click of a lighter and Taylor said, “I know, darlin’. And I promise I’ll quit on my thirtieth birthday. You know I keep my promises always, and I’ll be thirty next fall, so how’s that?”

 

“If that’s what I can have, then I’ll take it. Taylor, I have to do this. Please understand, but also know that I meant it when I said my roots are in the land out there. I could never leave it completely or I’d wither up and die. I just need this month to regroup,” she said.

 

“I know, and it’s okay. This dirt, it ain’t goin’ nowhere. It’ll be right here when you come home, and you’ll have family around you to help you settle those roots even deeper.”

 

 

Emily swallowed hard to get the baseball-sized lump out of her throat, but she kept the tears at bay. “I’ll call every couple of days. Things all right out there?”

 

“It’s fine, Em. I’ll look for you to be home by calving season, or else sell this place to me. I brought Old Bill and the other dogs over here to our place so I don’t have to go over there and feed them every day,” he said.

 

“Thank you, Taylor,” she said.

 

“Night, honey,” he said.

 

Emily pushed the button to hang up and laid the phone beside her on the bed. She could always depend on Taylor and Dusty to help her, and she could take a job in Amarillo for a steady income to supplement growing a few calves and as many acres of alfalfa as she could plant. There was comfort in knowing that.

 

***

 

By mid-morning Greg and his big black bull were just inside the Conroe city limits sign. He fished his phone from his shirt pocket and punched in Jeremiah’s business number.

 

“Conroe Investigative Services, may I help you?” a feminine voice asked.

 

“Could I speak with Jeremiah please? This is Greg Adams.”

 

“I’ll patch you right through to him. He’s been expecting your call.”

 

In seconds Jeremiah’s big booming voice came through the phone. “Hey, what’s happenin’? Mama said you might call today because you’d be comin’ through town. Got time for coffee? I’ll meet you out at the coffee shop on the highway.”

 

His size, looks, and voice didn’t match. He was short, bald-headed, and slightly overweight, but his voice made him ten feet tall, bulletproof, and movie-star handsome. In a crowd there wasn’t one thing that made him stand out from anyone else. Maybe that’s what made him such a damn fine private investigator.

 

“I know just the one you’re talkin’ about. I’ll be there in ten minutes,” Greg said.

 

Greg parked behind the coffee shop where they’d made room for a couple of semitrucks, and Jeremiah pulled his dark SUV in beside him. Greg shook the legs of his jeans down over his boots. Jeremiah adjusted the collar of his black knit shirt and pulled on a black leather jacket.

 

“You still don’t look mean even in black leather.” Greg laughed.

 

“Well, you just barely look like a cowboy even in boots and a Stetson. It’s good to see you. Been a while.”

 

They didn’t shake hands but did a man-hug in the middle of the parking lot.

 

“Dotty fusses that you don’t come home often enough,” Greg said as they headed inside the shop.

 

“I hear it on a regular basis. Don’t tell Mama, but I’ve got a girlfriend. She’d have me married with three kids and the president of the PTA within twenty-four hours.” Jeremiah laughed.

 

Greg stepped up to the counter and ordered two black coffees. “You still drink it the right way? You haven’t gone all double latte with skim milk, have you?”

 

“Still drink it black.” Jeremiah nodded. “I talked to Mama last night. She told me a story about your nana and an old boyfriend’s letters. Clarice has offered the girl who brought her the letters a job at the ranch.”

 

They found a table in the corner and sat down across from each other.

 

“Nana needs someone to help her. She’s eighty and we don’t let her drive anymore. It was tough on her to let her license expire, but she’d had three fender benders and I was afraid the next one wouldn’t just be a fender bender. It’s only for a month, and then she’ll see how nice it was and let me hire some real help,” Greg explained.

 

“Givin’ up her driver’s license was the toughest thing Mama did. I think it was even worse than giving up the bourbon.” Jeremiah chuckled. “I’ll be home for the church bazaar, and I’m bringing Stacy to meet Mama. I want to surprise her.”

 

“And you don’t want to listen to all that sentimental shit between now and then, right?” Greg laughed with him.

 

“Women! And the older they get the worse it is. Everything has to do with the heart and little with the head,” Jeremiah said.

 

“Says the man who is bringing home a woman to meet Mama.”

 

“Man, you know what I’m talkin’ about. You’re the one who’s going to be living with three women in the house now.”

 

“Three?”

 

“Clarice offered room and board with the job. I haven’t talked to Mama this morning, so I don’t know if she took the job or not. She’s a looker, though. Mama sent a picture of her. Pretty blue eyes,” Jeremiah said.

 

“And your new woman? She got blue eyes?”

 

“Sometimes. Sometimes they’re green. Naturally they are gorgeous brown.”

 

Greg cocked his head to one side.

 

“Contacts. She matches them to her mood. I don’t mess with her when she has green eyes. I just find something to do outside the office and leave it with her.” Jeremiah smiled again.

 

“So she’s your new secretary?”

 

Jeremiah nodded. “Six months now.”

 

“Is that a record?”

 

Jeremiah’s head bobbed again. “Oh, yeah, by a whole week. I think I’m in love.”

 

“You better know you’re in love before you bring her home, because you will be afterward.”

 

“Crazy ain’t it, the way we love those two old gals? Love ’em like they are our real mamas.”

 

Greg held out his cup and Jeremiah tapped his to it. “I was always more at home on the ranch than in Houston.”

 

“And I was a sinkin’ ship when Mama jerked me up by the collar and took me in after my real mama died,” Jeremiah said.

 

***

 

Nothing was as beautiful as a sunset in Ravenna, Texas. Bright yellow laced with orange, sprinkled with a bit of hot pink and some baby blue. No artist’s palette could ever string the colors together the way that nature did when the sun set out over the bare mesquite trees and scrub oaks.

 

Greg parked his truck out by the barn and jogged all the way to the house. He took the stairs two at a time. Cooking smells filling the house promised that Dotty had kept her word and made his favorite meal, which included hot yeast rolls and Southern fried chicken. But he flat-out had to hit the bathroom.

 

No one waited in the foyer when he started back down, so evidently he’d managed to sneak in without anyone knowing. He tiptoed across the foyer, leaned on the doorjamb leading into the dining room, and waited in the shadows.

 

Nana and Dotty’s voices drifted from the kitchen where they argued about whether it was time to pour the gravy in the bowl. Dotty said cold gravy was terrible and she hadn’t cooked all damn day for supper to be spoiled by putting it on the table too soon.

 

Nana said that he should be driving up any second. And then Emily carried a bowl of salad to the dining room table and Greg’s chest tightened. The picture did not do her a bit of justice. She was shorter than he’d imagined. Her waist nipped in above rounded hips, and her hair was so black that the light from the dining room chandelier gave it a deep blue cast. But it was her blue eyes and those kissable lips that kept him from blinking until his eyes went dry.

 

***

 

Emily hadn’t noticed a picture of Greg in the dining room, but there must be one sitting somewhere because she felt his eyes on her. A shiver danced down her spine as she scanned the buffet and the shelf above the archway for a photograph, but she didn’t see one. The only time in her entire life that she’d had a feeling like that was in the living room the day before and in the bedroom where his picture sat on the chest of drawers. So somewhere tucked away was a picture of Greg Adams. She had no doubt about it. She just had to find it.

 

 

It might be in the kitchen. Maybe on the refrigerator door that was covered with so many multicolored sticky notes that it looked like a circus tent. Dotty said that the pink ones were recipes, the yellow ones at the top were important messages, the ones at the bottom weren’t so important, the green ones were cute little sayings that she and Clarice liked, and the purple ones were… hell’s bells, she couldn’t remember what the purple ones were. Evidently everyone in the house had a sticky note fetish. Did she need to rush down to the office supply store and buy several dollars’ worth? She’d glanced at the notes but feared that it might be rude to read through them.

 

“Greg! You rascal,” Clarice squealed after she’d set the butter dish on the table. She dashed over to the door with her arms wide open and he picked her up and swung her around the room.

 

Clarice giggled like a girl. “You snuck in on us.”

 

“I came in the front door,” he said.

 

“Come and meet Emily,” Clarice said.

 

Emily couldn’t take her eyes off the cowboy. He was taller than she’d thought he would be, but there was no doubt by the swagger and the drawl that he was pure cowboy, not one of those wannabes that dressed up on Saturday night in boots and belt buckles to go to the local honky-tonk with hopes of getting lucky.

 

The vibes coming off him were like long, warm tendrils finding their way into her cold heart to warm it back to life. She imagined it turning from blue to a nice healthy pink inside her chest. She’d barely caught her breath when he set Clarice on her feet and crossed the room in a few long strides, his hand out.

 

“Pleased to meet you, Emily,” he said.

 

She put her hand in his. “Likewise.”

 

Time stood still. The clock hands didn’t move. Clarice became a statue. The sun hung on the horizon. Nothing moved.

 

“Nana said you decided to take the job,” he drawled and let go of her hand.

 

“Why did you come in the front door? Where’s the new bull?” Clarice asked.

 

In an instant, things were back to normal. At least everything but the feeling that Emily was dreaming and that she’d wake up any minute in west Texas.

 

Greg threw an arm around Clarice’s shoulders and said, “Drank too much coffee and had to get inside in a hurry. Bull is in the trailer. I’m starving. Can we eat before we turn him loose?”

 

Clarice stood back and scanned him from toes to head. “I’m glad you are home. How were your folks? Emily agreed to stay on for a month.”

 

“I’ve been after Nana for a year to hire someone to help her. Folks are just fine, Nana. They send their love and hugs. Stop worrying. I am home. I’m not going back no matter what they offer.” Greg smiled.

 

“You keep saying that, but I still worry that they’ll offer you a corner office, a six-figure salary, and an expense account for Italian-made business suits,” Clarice said.

 

“They do every time I go down there, but I turn them down because I love Lightning Ridge and you.” He smiled. “Supper looks good. Fried chicken is my favorite, Emily. They spoil me when I’ve been gone a few days. I should leave more often.”

 

“Bullshit!” Dotty rounded the end of the table with a platter of chicken. “Clarice frets every time that pickup of yours heads south. Even your notes don’t convince her that you’ll be back.” She set it down and gave him a quick hug. “Now let’s eat so she can go pass judgment on your new bull. I see you’ve met Emily. She’ll be stayin’ in the room across the hall from you, so you don’t have the whole upstairs to yourself anymore.”

 

Greg pulled out a chair for Clarice. “I stopped and had coffee with Jeremiah. He’s coming home for the church bazaar.”

 

Dotty seated herself before Greg could get there. “He’d damn sure better. I’m getting homesick to see my kid. It’s been six months.”

 

But he did make it to Emily’s chair before she could get seated. His hand brushed her shoulder, and warmth spread from there to her heart again.

 

Dotty sipped at her sweet tea and explained, “Jeremiah is my son. I got him when he was thirteen and his mama died. I worked with her at the school lunchroom and they were going to put Jeremiah in the foster program, so I took him in and adopted him the next year,” she explained. “Y’all best get after this food. Cold gravy and mashed potatoes ain’t worth eatin’. Does he look all right, Greg? I worry about him down there in that big place doin’ what he does, carryin’ a gun and all.”

 

Greg dipped into the mashed potatoes and handed the bowl across the table to Emily. Their eyes caught for a split second, then they both looked away, but not before Emily got yet another flutter in her chest. What in the hell was wrong with her? She’d seen sexy cowboys before. She’d dated sexy cowboys before. They’d kissed her and there had been a couple who had gone beyond that, but none of them sent her into a tailspin just by holding her hand in his.

 

That picture above the mantel didn’t do him justice. In real, three-dimensional life he was so much more. His dark brown hair had been flattened by a cowboy hat with a slight horizontal indention on his forehead as further proof. His smile was genuine, and his eyes were piercing, as if they could see to the bottom of her soul and beyond. Jeremiah—they were talking about Jeremiah before Greg handed her the bowl of potatoes. She blinked several times and forced herself to listen rather than daydream.

 

“Is Jeremiah a policeman?” she asked.

 

“No, he’s a private investigator. I swear to God, if I’d known he was going to go into that field, I would have never let him watch all them cop shows,” Dotty said. “I thought if I sent him to college he’d change his mind. He’s real good with computers, and Clarice offered him a job here, but oh, no, he had to go to the city and work at something that worries a mama to death.”

 

Clarice put a chicken thigh on her plate and passed the platter to Greg. “Emily has taken the job I offered her. We’ve spent the day in the office. She’s done more in one day than I could get done in a week. She’s really good at organizing things. When she’s not doing book work or driving me and the girls, she’ll work on the ranch.”

 

Greg forked a chicken leg onto his plate. “She don’t have to do that. Y’all can find something for her to do in the house.”

 

“I’m used to hard work, and with spring comin’ on, an extra hand might come in useful,” Emily said. “I’ve had to be inside more than outside the past few weeks and I don’t mind gettin’ my hands dirty.”

 

“I’m sorry about your grandpa,” Greg said.

 

When she looked across the table at him, his expression said that he understood her pain. “Thank you. He was sick for a long time, so it wasn’t a surprise.”

 

“But we’re never ready to let go of those we love.” His deep drawl was sincere.

 

“No, we are not,” Clarice said.

 

“Nana, I can’t wait for you to see this new bull,” Greg changed the subject abruptly.

 

Emily understood his pain in that moment. Something had happened in his past that had been difficult to face. The death of his grandfather? A lost love?

 

Clarice inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. “Greg is like his grandpa. Lester was all business.”

 

“Grandpa was a man’s man,” Greg said.

 

 

“Yes, he was. I loved him deeply, and we had a lot of wonderful years together, but he was not a romantic soul,” Clarice said softly.

 

“He brought you wildflowers,” Dotty piped up. “Every spring he brought you wildflowers.”

 

Clarice smiled brightly. “Yes, he did, for my birthday. Lester loved deeply, but he wasn’t one much for speaking his mind about all that folderol and payin’ endless compliments, as he used to say.”

 

Max, the ranch foreman, peeked inside the dining room from the kitchen. “Lester was a businessman. That’s where Bart got his business sense. How much chicken did you fry, Dotty?”

 

“Enough to feed you if you want to eat, but you’re going to go get your own plate,” she answered.

 

“Good-lookin’ bull out there in the trailer,” Max said over his shoulder.

 

“See? The men on this ranch are all business,” Clarice said.

 

“Nana, you are just as business-minded as I am,” Greg told her.

 

Clarice passed the chicken platter back to her. “You’d best get what you want. When Max gets started it looks like a dead chicken yard by the time he’s finished.”

 

“Don’t be tellin’ tales on me.” Max carried a plate, napkin, and silverware to the table. “Greg can outdo me any day when it comes to fried chicken.”

 

“But not steak. I love steak, but Max could eat a whole bull,” Greg teased.

 

“Not in one sitting, but hey, like the wise man said, a person could eat an elephant a bite at a time.”

 

***

 

Emily smiled at the banter. She’d loved that part of holidays and Sundays at Taylor’s place most of all. The big family and all the noise left her knowing that she belonged right there in Happy. But the sicker that Gramps got, the fewer trips they made from one ranch to the other, and she didn’t even realize how much she had missed it until that very evening.

 

“So you have a ranch and you’re on vacation?” Greg asked.

 

She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. “I have a hundred acres. It used to be three sections back before Gramps got sick. It’s hardly enough to be called a ranch, but it’s a starting point to rebuild it. I was born on that land and it’s my home, but right now I’m glad to be away from it for a few weeks.”

 

He stretched his legs out under the table and his knee bumped hers. “Sorry about that. I’ve been driving all day and feel like I could stretch to the stars.”

 

“No problem. I felt like that yesterday when I drove all the way from Happy to Sherman,” she said.

 

Her mouth was dry so she took a couple of long drinks of her sweet tea. Greg Adams might be business on the outside, but those eyes and his smile said there was a sweet, sensitive man down underneath that tough exterior. One that had known pain and suffering as well as joys and happiness and who loved his big ranch as much as she loved what was left of hers. No one could endure the hard work of ranching without loving what they did.

 

“I’m glad that we’ve got someone to help us,” Dotty said out of nowhere. “Clarice’s eyesight ain’t what it used to be, and that computer screen gives her headaches. When she’s got a headache she’s plumb bitchy. I hate computers. They’re all going to fall apart one of these days and everyone is going to wish they had their old ledgers back like how we used to take care of things with an ink pen and lined pages.”

 

“I’m not bitchy,” Clarice argued.

 

Max filled his plate and laid a napkin over his knee. “I agree with Dotty about all this technical crap, but it’s the way of the world. Can’t whip it so we might as well join up with it. So tell us more about this Marvin fellow, Clarice.”

 

“Marvin was stationed over in Korea during the war. I think they call it a conflict now, but it was a war back then,” Clarice said. “I was still in high school when we first started writing back and forth. The church ladies were given names of servicemen who would like to have pen pals. That was way back before cell phones, computers, and all this other stuff you kids have today. So I started writing to him when I was a senior in high school. And then the letters stopped coming and I didn’t know if he’d been killed in action or if he’d come home or what happened, until Emily brought the letters to me.”

 

“That was before you met Grandpa, right?” Greg asked.

 

Clarice smiled. “I’d met Lester. We lived on adjoining ranches, but he was off to college during the time I wrote to Marvin. The letters had stopped coming long before Lester started courting me. Marvin and I might not have even liked each other in person. It’s easy to make a soldier out to be a hero when all you have is words, one small black-and-white picture, and an imagination. We’ll never know because a letter got lost and we both took a different path.”

 

“Crazy, ain’t it?” Max said. “After all these years, you find out that y’all were just a hard day’s drive away from each other.”

 

“Fate,” Dotty said.

 

“You think fate kept them apart and then brought them together again with that bunch of mail, Dotty?” Max asked.

 

“That’s exactly what I think. Now Clarice won’t go to her grave thinkin’ that Marvin was a son-of-a-bitch who just used her for mail call and then threw her away,” Dotty answered. “And now it’s time for chocolate cake.”

 

She disappeared into the kitchen and brought out a triple-layered chocolate cake with fudge icing.

 

***

 

Greg took a shower, donned gray lounging pants and a T-shirt, and sprawled out in his recliner in front of the television in his room. NCIS entertained him for an hour before he switched it to CMT and watched several videos, but his mind stayed on the woman who’d been dropped out of nowhere onto his ranch and was now staying across the hall from him. He tapped his fingers on the chair arm while the Pistol Annies sang “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On.”

 

“I wonder if Emily has sins in her past,” he muttered.

 

Before his inner voice could remind him that everyone had a past, his phone rang. He pushed the remote button, checked the ID, and answered on the third ring. “Hey, Jeremiah, old man. What’s goin’ on?”

 

Jeremiah chuckled. “I couldn’t leave it alone, Greg. Must be my line of business, but I’m not as trusting as you or as Clarice. There’s no charge. I was only on the phone thirty minutes. Talked to several people under the pretense of vetting Clarice’s new assistant girl for a job. She’s pure as the driven snow. Not a stain on her anywhere. Lived on the Shine Canyon Ranch her whole life. It’s not nearly as big as Lightning Ridge, but it wasn’t a two-bit, one-horse operation either. She had to sell off a lot of it to keep money coming in for her grandpa’s chemo, but there’s still some acreage left in the ranch. Only time she was away from Happy, Texas, was when she went to college, and then she was home every single solitary weekend and worked on the ranch during summers and holidays. She’s honest as God and has a reputation of a saint. She ran the ranch and took care of her grandfather, Marvin, who died last week with cancer.”

 

“She comes off as that sort of woman,” Greg said.

 

“Sassy or shy?” Jeremiah asked.

 

“Confident. She knows ranchin’, but like you said today, she’s got this notion that she can make a livin’ on a hundred acres in west Texas. That will just barely support five cows, not a herd big enough to make a livin’. It’s that sentimental stuff we talked about.” Greg laughed.

 

 

“And she ain’t but what, twenty-eight or so?”

 

“That’s about right. Thanks for checking up on her, but I’m not surprised at what you found.”

 

Jeremiah’s tone changed. “Just thought you’d want to know. Don’t tell Mama or Clarice. They’d say that they already knew she was bona fide, but I had to have some solid proof. Got to go. Stacy and I are catching a late dinner together.”

 

“I wouldn’t dream of telling anything. Have fun.”