The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride

By: Carolyn Brown

Chapter 1

Emily took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.

The cold February wind swept across the wide porch of the ranch house and cut right through her lightweight denim jacket. Her heavy coat was in the pickup, but this job wouldn’t take long. Hand the box of letters over to Clarice Barton and she’d be back in her truck and on her way. Then her grandfather’s spirit would rest in peace. He’d said that it wouldn’t until the box was put in Clarice’s hands.

She heard footsteps on hardwood floors, and then something brushed against her leg. She looked down just as a big yellow cat laid a dead mouse on her boots. There were two things that Emily hated and mice were both of them. Live ones topped out the list above dead ones, but only slightly.

She kicked her foot just as the door opened and the mouse flew up like a baseball. The woman who slung open the screen door caught the animal midair, realized what she had in her hand, and threw it back toward Emily. She sidestepped the thing and the cat jumped up, snagged it with a paw, quickly flipped it into its mouth, and ran off the porch.

“Dammit!” The lady wiped her hand on the side of her jeans. “God almighty, I hate them things, and that damned cat keeps bringing them up to the porch like she’s haulin’ gold into the house.”

The woman’s black hair was sprinkled with white. Bright red lipstick had run into the wrinkles around her mouth and disappeared from the middle. When she smiled, her brown eyes twinkled brightly. Sure enough, the hardwood floor to the big two-story house was so shiny that Emily could see the reflection of the woman’s worn athletic shoes in it.

“I’m sorry,” Emily gasped. “It was a reflex action.”

The woman giggled. “Well, now that we’ve both decided that we hate mice, what can I do for you, honey? You lost or something?” she asked.

“Is this Lightning Ridge Ranch? Are you Clarice Barton?” Emily shivered against the cold and the idea of a mouse touching her favorite boots.

“Yes, it’s Lightning Ridge, but I’m not Clarice. She’s making a run out to the henhouse. We’re making a chocolate cake later on and I used up all the eggs makin’ hot rolls. It’s cold. You better come on inside and wait for her. I’m Dotty, Clarice’s best friend and helper around here. I’m going to have to wash my hands a dozen times to get the feel of dead mouse off.” The lady stepped aside. “What do you need Clarice for?”

“I’m here to deliver this box.”

“Your nose is red and you look chilled. Come on in the living room. We got a little blaze going in the fireplace. It’ll warm you right up. This weather is plumb crazy these days. February ain’t supposed to be this damned cold. Spring ain’t that far away. Winter needs to step aside. What’d you say your name was?” Dotty motioned her into the living room with a flick of her wrist.

“I’m Emily, and thank you. The warmth feels good,” she said.

“Well, you just wait right here. She won’t be long. Go on and sit down, honey. Take that rockin’ chair and pull it up next to the fireplace. Can I get you a cup of coffee or hot chocolate?”

“No, ma’am. I’m fine,” Emily answered. She would have loved a cup of anything hot just to wrap her chilled fingers around, but she didn’t want to stick around long enough to drink a whole cup.

“Well, I’m in the middle of stirrin’ up some hot rolls. Just make yourself at home until Clarice gets here.”

Dotty disappeared, leaving Emily alone in the living room. She held the ancient boot box in her lap. Her grandfather had worn out the boots that came in the box and now it held letters from a woman who was not her grandmother. His passing and her two promises to him in his final days seemed surreal, especially sitting in the house of the woman who’d written the letters more than sixty years before.

Warmth radiated out from the fireplace as she took stock of her surroundings. The room was a perfect square with furniture arranged facing the fireplace to give it a cozy feel. A framed picture of a cowboy took center stage on the mantel. She set the box on the coffee table and stepped in closer to look at the photograph. He had dark brown hair and green eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. It had been taken in the summer because there were wildflowers in the background. One shiny black boot was propped on a rail fence, and he held a Stetson in his right hand. His left thumb was tucked into the pocket of his tight jeans, leaving the rest of his hand to draw attention to the zipper. And right there in the corner of the frame was a yellow sticky note with the words, “Miss you, Nana!” stuck to it.

The crimson flushing her cheeks had nothing to do with the heat rising from the fireplace and everything to do with the way she’d mentally undressed this man she’d never even seen in real life. Get a grip, Em, she thought to herself. She backed away quickly and stood by the door, but when she looked over her shoulder, the cowboy was staring at her. She moved to the other side of the room and shivers shot down her spine when she realized he was still looking at her. She tried another corner and behold, those green eyes had followed her.

She was tired. It had been a long, emotional week and this was the final thing she had to do before she could really mourn for her grandfather. She’d driven since daybreak that morning, and her eyes were playing tricks on her. That must be it. Her dark brows knit together as she glanced at the picture from across the room. Did he have a wedding ring on that left hand? Determined not to let a picture intimidate her, she circled the room so she could see the photograph better, and his hand was ring-free.

How old was he, and when was the picture taken? Not one thing gave away a year or a time other than it was spring or summer. He might be a fifty-year-old man with gray hair nowadays and bowed legs from riding too many horses through the years. Or he could be a lot younger than he looked in the photograph and still be in college, just coming home to work on the ranch in the summertime like she had when she was getting her degree.

Unless he came looking for a warm spot to take the chill off, she’d never meet him anyway. Her mission was to deliver letters, and studying the picture was just a diversion while she waited on Clarice.

“My grandson, Greg Adams,” a woman said from the doorway.

“Fine-lookin’ cowboy, isn’t he? His daddy and momma wanted him to be a businessman in a big old office in Houston, but he’s got his grandpa’s ranchin’ savvy. He’s down in southern Texas at a cattle sale. Cute little sticker he left there, isn’t it?”

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