Excerpt: Last Year's Bride

Excerpt: Last Year's Bride

Sons of Montana

Chapter One

“It’s only one blessed night!” Sam McCullough smacked his hand on the old round oak dinner table as he rose and glowered across the meat loaf at his son. “You’re not going to tell me you’ve got a date.”

“No.” Cole had plenty of practice keeping his voice even. “I just don’t like the notion of doing business at a Valentine’s Day dance.”

“It’s not a dance,” his sister Sadie corrected. “It’s a ball.” She used her fingers to put quotes around the word, as if her enunciation weren’t enough. She was grinning like the Cheshire cat from the old storybook she used to lug around when she was a little thing. Now she was nineteen and read fashion mags.

“The ‘ball’ –“ Sam’s voice made the same quotation marks his daughter’s had “ – is a business proposition itself. You reckon Troy Sheenan is in it for the pretty music? You better believe he’s got his eye on the bottom line.”

“And it’s a damn sight blacker than ours,” Cole muttered. He forked in another bite of his grandmother’s meat loaf, but he didn’t take his eyes away from his father’s. Under the grizzled stubble on Sam’s cheeks, Cole saw the wash of red that meant the old man was getting riled. He knew his grandmother saw it, too. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that her fork had stopped halfway to her mouth. She pressed her lips together, but then after a brief moment the fork continued its journey and she took another bite and kept on chewing.

“Ours won’t be red much longer. I’m workin’ on it,” Sam said, both hand pressing down against the table as he leaned to ward Cole. The cords in his neck stood out.

“So’m I,” Sadie chipped in cheerfully. “Got an interview Sunday afternoon.”

Sadie’s job prospects – she was a marketing major at MSU whose work experience was largely confined to waiting tables at the diner in Marietta and writing ads for the Copper Mountain Courier and the Bozeman Chronicle — were not going to save them from foreclosure, and they all knew it.

Cole wasn’t convinced anything was going to save them – and wasn’t sure he wanted it to. As much as he loved the ranch that had been in his family for a little over a hundred years – and had been his life for virtually all of his own thirty years – he knew the pain of fighting a losing battle, of watching his father die a little more each day as their financial ground eroded beneath them. It seemed to him that his dad’s new plan, running cattle for his old friend – and now millionaire several times over – Tom McKay, wasn’t much better than any of the others he’d come up with over the past dozen years.

“One Saturday night,” Sam pressed him. “One little dance. It’s not like you have better things to do. It’s not like I’m askin’ you to marry the girl!”

Cole’s jaw went tight. Good thing, too, he thought grimly. He rolled his shoulders and tried to ease the feeling of carrying not just the ranch, but the entire Absaroka mountain range on his back.

“You might have fun,” his grandmother remarked, her tone mild. She smiled at him over the cup of coffee she cradled in her hand. “Been a long time since you’ve had some fun, Cole.”

It wouldn’t be fun to go a fancy “ball” at the old Graff Hotel which in his youth had been a rundown flea bag joint and had recently been “restored to its former glory” by local-rancher’s-son-made-good. Troy Sheenan, the older brother of one of Cole’s classmates, Dillon Sheenan, had parlayed his smarts into millions of bucks in the California technology market and had decided to spend a lot of it locally, restoring the Graff. Cole had always liked Troy, and he admired his decision even though he wasn’t sure he understood it. And maybe it was just envy that had him squirming at the thought of turning up at the Graff as if he belonged there with all the rich folks.

But he couldn’t see any way out of it. Not if his grandmother was sticking her oar in. Emily McCullough rarely voiced a comment when he and his father locked horns. She watched worriedly, but she didn’t speak up unless she was worrying about Sam’s dodgy heart. He’d had a heart attack in his mid-thirties, right after Sadie’s mother had upped and left.

“Congenital defect,” the doc in Bozeman had said. “But we can do something about it.”

Or they could have if Sam had agreed. He hadn’t.

“No time,” he’d said succinctly, checking himself out of the cardiac unit as soon as he could pull on his boots and slap his hat on his head.

“You’ll have all the time in the world if they bury you,” Cole had argued often since, and his older brother Clint had shaken his head and muttered, “Damn fool.”

But no one told Sam anything, least of all his sons or his mother. Only Sadie could occasionally worm her way through a chink in the Sam McCullough armor.

Now she tossed her dark hair and said stoutly, “I’d go, but I don’t suppose Tom McKay’s daughter would want to dance with me.”

A faint smile flickered across Sam’s hard face. “Don’t reckon,” he said drily. Then he turned his gaze back to Cole. “It’s a real live cowboy she’s hankerin’ to meet.”

Cole had heard a lot about Tom McKay’s daughter in the last week or so. The opposite of his sister who had never been sick in her life despite growing up teething on spurs, Lacey McKay had been frail and sickly for much of her life. Her father’s rough-and-tumble Montana childhood had been the stuff of fantasies. A liver transplant two years ago had given her a new lease on life. And a promise from her father had brought her to Marietta to see the stuff of her fantasies in person. That apparently included meeting “a real live cowboy.”

“I ain’t pushin’ you to marry the girl,” Sam pointed out. Again.

No chance of that. Cole couldn’t count the number of times he had heard his father hold forth long and hard about the foolishness of thinking “hot-house city girls” could survive the wilds of rural Montana. He could recite Sam’s diatribes by heart, had grown up on them. The words ground together like stones in the pit of his stomach.

“What do you say, Cole?” his grandmother asked quietly. “I won’t even put much starch in your shirt.” She gave him a gentle coaxing smile.

She knew he’d do anything for her, so she rarely ever asked. She had been the shelter of his youth, the one he had always been able to count on, who had kept him steady and strong when so often he had wanted to go right off the rails. If she hadn’t protected him from every bit of his foolishness, it was only because she hadn’t been there at the time.

She worried about his dad. Sam was her only son. He was hard and stubborn and could argue a fence post into the ground. But she loved him. So did Cole – when he didn’t want to hit the old man over the head with a shovel.

Now he wiped his mouth on his napkin, set it beside his plate, then pushed his chair back from the table and stood up so that he could meet his father’s gaze eye to eye. It was gratifying that, for the last decade, he had an inch and a half on his father and it was Sam who had to look up.

Now their gazes locked, Sam’s blue eyes as hard as the ice on the Yellowstone River. Cole knew what they were saying: It’s for the ranch. It’s your duty. A man does his duty. Always.

He let his breath out slowly. “Fine. I’ll go.”

“Right. There’s a dinner beforehand.” Sam was breathing easy now. “Be a good time for you to talk to him about how many cattle we can run. I’ve been thinking Angus from that spread down in Utah. Or there’s a place in Idaho – the Bar Nine Hollow – that would be a good place to pick up some.” Confrontation over, foreclosure forgotten, business at hand, Sam moved right on.

But Cole hadn’t forgotten. He carried his plate to the sink. Sam was still giving orders when Cole walked out of the room.