Cord Tanner crossed the dust-choked street, the jingle bobs on his spurs clanging louder than a dinner bell inside his head. Waking up dead broke and sicker than a bull on green pasture had put him in a real sour mood. Until he figured out how deep a well he’d dug for himself, it wasn’t apt to sweeten none.
He hefted the saddle he was packing, gripped his rifle, and stepped into J. A. Zachary’s law office with a passel of regrets riding his shoulders. The four folks in the room gawked at him.
A glassy-eyed gentleman garbed in a black suit and gloves stood by the door and greeted Cord with a stiff nod. A matronly lady dressed in black sat on a settee by the front window. Cord spied a fringe of frizzy hair the color of carrots peeking out from under her black pot hat. He nodded to her.
The matron turned up her nose, as if she got a whiff of fresh shit on him. So much for being neighborly.
James Zachary presided over the room from behind his desk and didn’t appear any happier to see Cord either. After giving him a long, hard look, he snorted and pushed to his feet.
“Let me know when you’re ready, Miss Northroupe,” Zachary said to the other lady, who perched on one of the armless chairs angled before his desk. “I’ll be in the next room.”
“Thank you.” Her British accent surprised Cord.
As Zachary left, Cord shifted the saddle’s dead weight, which was wearing on his sore shoulder, and eyed Miss Northroupe. So this was the lady boss his old friend Ott had roped him into helping. He’d seen her before. But where?
In that faded mourning dress and ugly black bonnet topped with a godawful black feather, she reminded him of a little prairie chicken guarding her nest, feathers fluffed, chest puffed out, and head up. But a shadow of fear lurked in her wide eyes and he knew she was putting on a brave front.
Miss Northroupe had good reason to be skittish. Some cowpokes didn’t cotton much to working for a woman, especially a young one like she appeared to be.
Cord didn’t care one way or the other. A boss was a boss. He’d worked for good ones and more than his share of bad.
He inclined his head Miss Northroupe’s way. “Name’s Tanner. Ott Oakes said you had a job for me.”
“Indeed, I do.” Miss Northroupe favored him with a shaky smile. “I trust Mr. Oakes explained the details to you and stressed the position in question is a temporary one?”
She had him there. Truth be told, Cord recalled Ott saying his boss lady needed Cord’s help. Other than Ott mentioning a herd of horses, the rest of last night was a blur. Cord didn’t even remember agreeing to do the job, though Ott swore he had.
Zachary and Miss Northroupe appeared to be expecting Cord, so it must be true. He wished to hell he knew what he’d gotten himself into. Since he didn’t, he decided he’d best play along.
“Yes, ma’am, the temporary job you’re offering suits me just fine.” That was the God’s honest truth.
He’d hire on for a month at the most. By then, he’d have a horse and a helluva lot more than two bits in his pocket.
Then Cord aimed to put this town and its heap of bad memories in a cloud of dust behind him. Miss Northroupe
could hire another cowpoke to ride herd over her outfit.
“Excellent.” Miss Northroupe motioned to the empty chair beside her. “Do leave your equipage by the door and be seated.”
He obliged her, then eased onto the chair. She smelled of lavender water and high hopes. Wisps of golden hair escaped her bonnet, curling this way and that around her face. Her blue eyes put him in mind of a clear prairie sky. Farm-girl freckles dusted her nubbin of a nose, and her mouth had the prettiest bow to it. Inviting lips, the kind a man hankered to taste.
She cleared her throat, and her mouth puckered up, like
she’d eaten something sour. “Mr. Oakes has great trust in you. Though I usually agree with his character assessments, in this case, I shall reserve judgment until I’m convinced you will undertake this short-term task with dignity and respect.”
He didn’t blame her none for being wary of him. She had a ripe woman’s body and a sweet face that’d tempt a cowboy into settling down, something she clearly didn’t want from him.
“I’m just a rambling cowpoke with no notions of sticking around these parts. When the job’s done and I’m paid for my trouble, I’ll be on my way.”
Miss Northroupe frowned as she eyed him again. Her gaze wandered to his belt buckle, then ventured lower.
Cord tensed up. Usually, he didn’t mind a pretty woman looking him over. But Miss Northroupe had him feeling like a plug horse at auction instead of a young stud. He leaned forward and braced both arms on his knees.
Their eyes locked. She let out a whisper of a gasp and sat back, cheeks turning bright red. Cord reckoned she was embarrassed because he’d caught her staring at what a proper lady had no right to look at.
Maybe whoever she mourned had kept her away from the corrals and the wranglers. Poor little gal probably didn’t know the first thing about men and not much more about horses. If that was the case, he aimed to put her mind at ease on one score .
“Don’t mean to brag, but I’m real good with horses.” Cord leaned back and angled his buckle up. “I won this in Oklahoma last spring for being the best bronco buster.”
She sucked in a sharp breath. “Bronco busting, you say?”
“Yes, ma’am. Ott told me that you run horses on your outfit. I reckon breaking them will be one of my chores.”
Miss Northroupe pressed a lace-gloved hand to her bosom and went pale as milk, as if he’d said something downright vulgar. “I’m sure your award was justly deserved. However, it isn’t an attribute to someone who raises thoroughbreds. We don’t break our horses. My stableman trains them to be exemplary hunters.”
“You don’t say?” Though it riled him that she didn’t want the likes of him breaking her fine thoroughbreds, the notion of a woman running a stud farm spurred his curiosity.
“Indeed. I should have several hunters finished by now, but I’ve suffered the loss of my father and, ultimately, my ranch hands. Those remaining in my employ can’t attend to the various tasks at hand, which is why I’m forced to tread this path.”
The old gentleman by the door hunched his bony shoulders, cleared his throat, and stared holes in the floor. By the window, the matron folded her hands and mumbled to herself.
Cord shook his head. These highfalutin British folks were making a mighty big fuss over hiring a ranch hand. Didn’t they know that cowboys drifted like tumbleweeds from spread to spread?
“That is why, before we proceed any further,” Miss Northroupe said over the matron’s mutterings, “I must have your word of honor that you’ll obey all my orders without question.”
He bit back a laugh, wondering if her bossy ways had been what sent her former cowhands packing. “Short of breaking the law, I’ll do anything you ask of me.”
Miss Northroupe took a deep breath that strained the thin cloth covering her bosom and looked him square in the eyes. “Very well, Mr. Tanner. You now work for me.”
“You won’t regret hiring me, ma’am.”
“I sincerely hope you’re right.”
Miss Northroupe nodded to the old gent. He shuffled to the connecting door Zachary had left by and knocked on it twice.
“After you sign the contract which details your duties on the Prairie Rose,” Miss Northroupe said with the slightest quiver in her voice, “we’ll get on with finalizing our common bond.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Cord had worked for demanding bosses before but had never signed a contract.
As the old gent moseyed back to his post by the front door, Zachary stepped into the office. He placed a paper, pen, and inkstand on the desk before Cord, then stood by the bookcase.
Seeing as he’d worked every ranch job, Cord only gave the contract a quick scan. Nothing peculiar jumped out at him.
He dipped the nib in ink, ready to sign. “Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll get right on it.”
“Very well. Your first task is to marry me this afternoon.”
Cord strangled the pen so hard he nearly snapped it in two. He shook his head and looked her over, certain his ears were playing tricks on him. “Come again, ma’am?”
Poker-faced, she said, “You will marry me this afternoon.”
“Like hell I will. I’m looking for a job. Not a wife.”
The matron commenced chattering like a squirrel, and the old gent set up a racket clearing his throat. Zachary coughed—like he was trying to hide a laugh—and turned his back on them.
The prim, proper and clearly crazy Miss Northroupe sent Cord a patient smile. “Moments ago, I gave you a job. You promised to do whatever I asked of you, excluding breaking the law.”
Cord snatched up the contract and read every blasted word. It was there, all right. Tucked in amidst the list of dos and don’ts. Husband. Short-term marriage of convenience. For his services, she’d pay him and give him one of her fine horses.
The headache Cord had tried his best to ignore since he’d rolled out of the hay this morning reared, kicked, and bucked like an outlaw horse. Ott couldn’t have known his boss lady aimed to hobble Cord into marrying her. His old friend wouldn’t have pulled such a dirty, low-down trick on him.
But the old gent and matron knew what their boss lady had up her faded sleeves. Judging by their down-in-the-mouth expressions, they didn’t cotton to this idiotic idea any more than Cord did.
Same with James Zachary, who seemed mighty interested in gawking at a row of books on a shelf. Cord would bet good money the lawyer had drawn up this asinine contract, but the man had the sense to turn his back to them so as not to embarrass the lady when Cord tore her contract in two and walked out.
Cord was fixing to do that when he glanced her way. She was doing her best to hold back tears. His head commenced pounding. Hell, it was easier to rope the wind than deal with a crying woman.
“No offense, ma’am,” Cord began, intending to let her down easy like, “but I don’t want to get married.”
Miss Northroupe buried her gloved hands in her skirt. “Neither do I, but I must if I’m to retain my independence.”
That didn’t make a lick of sense. Cord ran a hand over his face and cursed the fact that his hand shook. “Pardon me for disagreeing, ma’am, but getting yourself hitched is a surefire way to lose your freedom.”
Miss Northroupe swallowed, and the high, stiff collar on her dress bobbed. “Not if we agree to abide by the terms of my contract. Really, Mr. Tanner, the only difference between this job and any other you’ve taken on is that I’m paying you to be my husband instead of my ranch hand.”
She had a point there. The fact he considered it for one second had him sweating buckets. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. We don’t even know each other.”
Miss Northroupe rolled her eyes. “Mr. Oakes vouched for your character, and he’s one of the most trustworthy men I know.”
“Then why the hell don’t you marry Ott?”
Violet storm clouds gathered in her eyes. “There’s no need for belligerence. As much as I admire and trust Mr. Oakes, he’s unsuitable.” She took some bosom-expanding breaths that had him squirming in more ways than one and favored him with a tight smile. “Do reconsider my offer, Mr. Tanner. You’d only be required to assume the role of my devoted husband for a month at the most, after which time you’ll be handsomely paid for your services.”
That damning word again. Cord gritted his teeth so hard his head pounded. He was a cowboy. Not a whore. But she wasn’t hiring him as a wrangler. No. She wanted a husband. Though the timing of this job couldn’t have suited him better, he damned sure wasn’t about to sell himself.
“My services ain’t for sale, ma’am.”
She dug her small, white teeth into her lower lip. “Is there nothing I can say or do to change your mind?”
“Nope.” Cord pushed to his feet, not about to let her lasso and drag him into her fool plan.
“Oh, dear.” The matron pressed her round face to the window. “Mr. Yancy has come to town.”
Miss Northroupe’s face turned whiter than a January blizzard. “He likely has business to conduct.”
Zachary moseyed over to the window and took a gander. “He tied his horse by your surrey. He’s walking down the boardwalk. Now he’s going into Lott’s Mercantile.” Zachary ambled back to his desk.
“Mr. Yancy is looking for you. I told you he would.” The matron wrung her hands and tossed a worried glance at Miss Northroupe. “He couldn’t know what you’ve planned, could he?”
“No, of course not.” But Miss Northroupe didn’t sound sure.
“This Yancy you’re talking about,” Cord said, unable to keep the hostility from his voice. “Would that be Gil Yancy?”
“Indeed, it is,” Miss Northroupe said. “Do you know him?”
Like a brother. Or so Cord had thought. Bitter memories of being double-crossed stampeded across his mind, but he cut them off and herded his thoughts back to the here and now.
“I know him. Reckon if you offer Gil what you did me, he’ll jump at the chance to be your temporary husband.”
Despite the heat building in the room, Miss Northroupe shivered. “Very true, but I can’t trust Mr. Yancy will abide by my wishes or the terms of the contract.”
“Then don’t ask him to marry you.”
“If it were only that simple.”
Miss Northroupe didn’t come out and say she looked on Gil as her last choice, but Cord knew by her defeated tone that’s what she meant. Knew, too, that she blamed him for turning her down.
Cord glanced at the contract again. He doubted Miss Northroupe would find a judge who’d honor it. Nope. Once she married, her husband could legally do any damned thing he wanted to do to her land, her stock, and her.
If she married Gil, Cord knew his longtime rival would bed the British lady before the ink dried on the marriage certificate. There’d be no getting rid of him after that.
Since Cord had no designs on the prim lady and no desire to remain in Revolt, he reckoned he was the perfect choice for the job. Temporary husband. Paid handsomely.
Tempting words to a down-on-his-luck cowboy with two choices left him: walk twenty miles to the next town packing his tack and everything he owned on his back, or ask for a job at the place he’d vowed he’d never set foot on again—Prescott Donnelly’s Flying D Ranch.
“All right, Miss Northroupe. You’ve got yourself a deal.” Cord grabbed the pen and plunged the tip in the ink.
“I promise you won’t regret your decision, Mr. Tanner.”
He already regretted it as he filled his lungs with air and dragged in her lavender scent. Damn! If she hadn’t looked scared as a rabbit when he turned her down, or if Gil Yancy hadn’t figured into this, he’d have been on his way to— Where? The Flying D for a handout?
Teeth clenched, Cord scrawled his name on the line. When this job was over, he’d have money in his pockets, a fine horse under him, and the chance to make something of himself. What more could a bastard like him expect from a respectable British lady?