The Cowboy Imports a Bride(The Cowboys Of Chance Creek #3)
The Cowboy Imports a Bride
By Cora Seton
"I'm going to make this short and sweet." Holt Matheson stalked into the dining room and hung his cowboy hat on the back of the nearest chair. He braced his hands against the walnut dining room table and looked from one to the other of his grown children, who sat two per side in varying degrees of boredom and irritation. All of them were dusty from the day's work. Usually Holt convened these meetings right after dinner. Today it was barely two in the afternoon – and they'd been summoned inside smack in the middle of their ranching chores.
"I have four sons ranging in age from 28 to 33. Four sons," he repeated, slapping his hand on the polished surface of the table. "And not one single daughter-in-law or grandchild in sight. What the hell is wrong with all of you?"
Rob Matheson, the youngest of the four, tilted his chair back on two legs and laced his hands behind his neck, exchanging a puzzled glance with his oldest brother, Jake. Normally Holt stuck to tried and true subjects: get up before the sun and don't stop working until it's dark; don't turn your back on an unbroken horse; just because you elect a government doesn't mean it isn't out to get you; and his perennial favorite – take your barn boots off before you enter the house.
Marriage was a new topic at the Matheson table.
"You saying you want us to go knock someone up?" Ned drawled. Rob coughed to cover his laugh. Second eldest, Ned always could get away with baiting their father. If he'd said that, he'd more than likely be flat on the floor by now. As the afternoon sun slanted through the windows, a fly droned somewhere out of sight. It was August, hotter than hell, and as usual his father refused to turn on the air-conditioning.
"I'm saying I'm starting to wonder if you all are batting for the wrong team," Holt said, straightening up. His rectangular belt buckle, emblazoned with a bald eagle, glinted in the sunlight.
"Holt," Lisa chided from the opposite end of the table. "Set a good example for the children."
Rob bit back another laugh. After thirty-four years of marriage to his father, his mother was still trying to civilize him. He rubbed a hand across his forehead and added his voice to the discussion. "What's wrong, Dad – you need some more cheap labor?"
Ned snorted. "More like free labor."
Luke, only a year older than Rob, grinned, flashing white teeth against his tanned skin. All four Matheson boys were blond and blue-eyed. They got their height and broad shoulders from their father, but their mother's Viking heritage won out as far as hair was concerned. When they were together, they attracted a lot of female attention. Rob didn't mind that one bit – as long as most of it was directed his way.
"Show some respect!" Holt boomed. "You get paid plenty." The room fell silent. It was true their father paid them – if you counted a roof over their heads, three meals a day and housekeeping service as payment. They each received a small spending allowance as well, but nothing to write home about. Holt kept them in line by keeping them cash-poor. "Now I've heard plenty about your exploits down at the Dancing Boot, and I've seen more than one pretty filly creeping out of here on a Sunday morning who didn't look like she was heading to church, so I'll assume that it's possible I'll one day have a grandchild, but I'm getting mighty impatient waiting for that day to come. By the time I was Rob's age I had four sons!"
Holt caught each of their gazes in turn and let his point sink home. "I can't force you to marry, but I can lay out a few enticements in your path. So here's how it's going to be. The first one of you who brings home a bride will get 200 acres near the river to do with exactly as you see fit."
Jake sat up straight, and Rob understood why: 200 acres was nothing to sneeze at. A man could do a lot with 200 acres. "No meddling?" he asked.
Holt's eyebrows lowered. "When do I ever meddle?"
"When do you not meddle, you old coot?" Lisa said. "You run our children's lives like they were still in diapers." Holt shot her a hard look but she didn't back down.
"No meddling," Holt confirmed after a long moment. "200 acres to the first one who gets a girl to the altar and marries her. Now get back to work."
He strode from the room. Lisa pushed her chair back from the table, stood up and followed him. Rob wondered if the rest of his brothers felt as blindsided as he did. 200 acres. All his own. What could he do with 200 acres if his father kept his nose out of it?
He wasn't sure. But he wanted like hell to find out.
* * * * *
"I won't be able to make it on Saturday after all."
Morgan Tate closed her eyes at her father's words. Clutching the cell phone to her ear, she checked to make sure her office door was shut. Barely bigger than a broom closet, it was still a mark of how far she'd risen at Cassidy Wineries. Assistant Manager of the distillery – a far cry from the grunt work she used to do when she joined the company ten years ago. In three days the company was unveiling the first vintage produced entirely under her supervision. She'd hoped her father would come to the tasting room for the celebration being hosted in its honor.
"Why not?" She tried to keep the anger out of her voice. When did he ever come to anything she invited him to? She shouldn't be surprised he'd back out now.
"It's Linda – she's pregnant." Pride rang out clearly in his voice. "Everyone's coming to celebrate!"
Linda. His other daughter. His real daughter. The one he'd had under the sanction of marriage – not the one he'd fathered during an illicit affair with a student. As always, Morgan felt the sting of shame of her birth. She was used to being kept in the shadows, though – the child no one had wanted. The daughter her father wished would disappear. He might never say as much, and he still did his duty by her when it suited him, but more than once he'd hinted that he wouldn't take it amiss if she moved to Toronto, or even to the United States – anywhere far from Victoria.
She forced herself to take a deep, steadying breath, twirling a strand of her thick, long dark hair around one finger. "Congratulations, Dad. I know you'll be a terrific grandfather."
Of course Linda would beat her to motherhood, too. Linda seemed to make it her life's work to be the perfect daughter – the daughter Edward Tate could be proud of. She'd beat Morgan in grades, looks, scholarships, jobs, marriage and now this. Not that they ever talked – of course not – but her father made sure to keep her up-to-the-minute on his true children's exploits. She was sure he didn't go trumpeting her successes to them.
"Yes, well." Edward cleared his throat, obviously impatient to end the call. He'd managed to weasel out of another occasion, so now he'd head back to his ivory tower to work on his precious research. Studying other cultures was far more interesting than learning about your own daughter. He spent more time with his graduate students than he ever spent with her.
"Okay. See you soon," she said.
The phone clicked before she even finished the sentence.
Damn, damn, damn. Why did she always do this? Seek approval from the one man determined never to give it to her? It'd been worse in the weeks since she'd learned her mother died. Aria Cruz had always been out of reach, too, living with her husband and children in Chance Creek, Montana, but at least Morgan knew that when she did come to Victoria to visit – one month out of every year – she'd focus her complete attention on her. Aria had loved her. Not enough to risk ruining her marriage to Alex Cruz, of course. She'd only been twenty the year she'd spent in Victoria, studying anthropology at UVic. Swept away by a much older, distinguished professor, she'd gotten pregnant that fall, had the baby in the spring, and left her infant with Edward's parents to raise when she returned in September to Montana and married Alex.
Morgan had always known the truth of her parentage. She'd always known she came last – after the legitimate children of her mother and father's marriages. She'd learned to be a realist – to depend only on herself. But she couldn't help hoping that one day – just once – she'd come first with her father.
With any man.
If she was smart, she thought as she tucked her cell phone back in her pocket, she'd turn her back on men all together. Stay single.
Join a nunnery, even.
But her biological clock was ticking with a vengeance these days. Now that she'd reached this milestone in her career, it suddenly became obvious how much the rest of her life was lagging behind. Maybe it was meeting her half-brother and sister in Montana for the first time last month when she went to find out why her mother missed her yearly visit.
Maybe it was her mother's death.
She stared out the window that overlooked the Cassidy vineyards. She'd half-known that something bad had happened before she arrived in Montana. Her mother had never let her down like that before. Then her worst fears were confirmed when Aria's daughter, Claire, told her their mother was dead. She hadn't been prepared for the grief that had come and gone in waves ever since. Aria was far from a perfect mother – but she was Morgan's mother, nonetheless. Now she was gone, and more than ever Morgan found herself alone in the world.