The Cowboy Lassos a Bride (Cowboys of Chance Creek)
The Cowboy Lassos a Bride
By Cora Seton
Late November, six weeks later
It was never easy to get out of bed several hours before sunup on a cold November morning, but Jake Matheson didn’t mind that. Born and raised on the Double-Bar-K ranch in Chance Creek, Montana, he’d known since he could walk that one day this spread would be his and he loved every inch of it. He especially loved these early morning moments when he was alone with his thoughts—before he caught up with his father and brothers and got to the real work of the day. For now he could pretend he was his own man; that the place was all his. Soon enough the others would intrude.
As usual, his thoughts were on Hannah Ashton. Their interlude at Bella and Evan Mortimer’s wedding was never far from his mind these days. He’d taken a chance that night, dancing with her when Cody was a no-show, and an even bigger chance pulling her into the break room at the reception hall and kissing her as if he had a right to. But he’d wanted Hannah for months and Cody was an ass who didn’t deserve her. He was afraid if he didn’t do something she’d marry the idiot and he’d lose his chance forever.
As things turned out, he nearly had lost his chance. When they’d split up to leave the break room and see Bella and Evan off, Tracey Richards had accosted him. They’d known each other a long time, since he often ate at Linda’s Diner, where Tracey had worked for years. Their friendship, such as it was, was overly flirtatious. It didn’t mean anything, which Tracey knew. But Hannah didn’t.
He’d looked up too late and seen Hannah’s eyes widen as she watched him tug Tracey’s hair in fun. A minute later she’d dashed away. He hadn’t been able to push through the crowd fast enough after her, and he’d never found her again that night. Since he didn’t want to expose her to talk—she was still with Cody—he couldn’t ask around or enlist anyone else’s help. When she didn’t reappear, he left the wedding, furious at himself for blowing it.
She showed up the next week at Ethan and Autumn’s poker night with Cody on her arm and he’d struggled not to take the man outside and kick his ass. It turned out he didn’t have to. Cody had soon ruined things with Hannah in a way that set Jake up as a hero in her eyes. He’d arranged to hunt a bison and had taken Hannah to view it before the hunt. When it turned out the animal had been hand-raised and was kept in a pen barely large enough for it to turn around, Hannah flipped her lid.
She went back a few nights later, stole the beast, and tried to hide it in a corral she’d built in Carl Whitfield’s woods outside town. That hadn’t gone well—in fact, that night would go down in Chance Creek history as disastrous—but the upshot was that the next day Jake helped Hannah round up the bison she’d named Gladys, and now Gladys lived on the Double-Bar-K.
And Hannah came every morning to see her.
They hadn’t spoken yet about what happened at the Mortimer’s wedding, but Jake planned to, soon. With Cody out of the picture it was time to make his move. He was determined to ask her out on a date today and he hoped she would say yes. Hoped they could work their way back around to picking up where they’d left off in that break room. Once he had her in his arms again, he wouldn’t let her go a second time.
Because he figured Hannah was the one.
As he got to work in the hayloft of the largest of the barns on the property, preparing to fix a leak under the eaves before it allowed any dampness to ruin the hay stored within it, he heard the creak of the barn door as it opened far below him, and his father’s voice cut across the stillness.
“Why the hell are those cattle still in the far pasture?”
Jake’s jaw tightened as he felt along the top edge of the wall to find the location of the leak. So much for peace and quiet. Someday he’d inherit the Double-Bar-K, and even now he was nominally in charge of the herd, but as long as Holt Matheson walked this earth, he’d remain a glorified field hand. As his fingers traced over the rough wood high above his head, he told himself to rein in his temper and stick with the job at hand.
“I told you we were supposed to move the cattle,” his brother Ned chimed in.
Jake stifled an urge to bang his head against the wall. Ned’s voice often acted like nails across a chalkboard in his mind. This was one of those times. And it was a reminder that while someday Jake would inherit the Double-Bar-K and finally get to take charge of how it was run, he would still have to contend with his brothers—including Ned.
“We’ll move them tomorrow. Today we fix the barn,” he shouted down to them, as if he actually held the authority to make such decisions. Which he should.
“I told you last night to move the cattle!” Holt’s craggy face appeared through the trap-door entrance to the hayloft.
“And I told you there’s a leak in this barn and I mean to fix it today.”
“Those cattle aren’t going to move themselves.” Ned’s voice drifted up from below.
Jake fought back a familiar urge to chuck something at him. Like a pitchfork. Ned always sided with their father. Always. They were like two peas in a pod: ornery and stubborn as mules.
“You want this hay ruined?” Jake squared off with Holt.
“You want those cattle frozen when the weather turns overnight?”
“The weather won’t turn overnight.”
“Tell that to my knees.” Holt swore the aches in his knees could predict everything from thunderstorms to drought. Jake didn’t see how his knees could get any less accurate. He tilted his head down to address them.
“The weather’s going to hold.”
“Ha, ha. Very funny. Get out there and move that cattle.”
Ned’s head and shoulders appeared through the trap door as his father paced across the loft to check the leak. “Told you we should move the cattle.”
Jake knew the origin of his father’s blustery temper. He understood why the man acted as if there were threats to his authority everywhere, why he was quick to challenge anyone who set himself up as an equal. He knew why Ned followed so closely in his father’s path when it came to temperament. Knowing what he knew, he should have been able to keep his own emotions in check. Should have been able to keep his mouth shut.
But he couldn’t.
Which is why he said, “I know the weather is going to hold. I read the forecast.”
Which is why his father decided to ruin his life.
It was still dark when Hannah Ashton pulled into the dirt lane that led to the Double-Bar-K ranch, but lights blazed at Holt and Lisa Matheson’s stately home and at each of the smaller cabins strung out at intervals beyond it where their four grown sons lived. Hannah knew that Holt and his sons would all be hard at work at their various chores around the ranch. Lisa would be in her large kitchen cooking for any of them who felt like stopping in for a hot morning meal, and preparing for a busy day of her own.
Hannah had begun to understand the rhythms of life on the Double-Bar-K. Owned by Mathesons for over a hundred and fifty years, it meant the world to the family, and it was beginning to have meaning for her, too. She loved the way the land spread in every direction, and the far off mountains that gave texture to the valley. She loved how the stars still winked high above her when she arrived in the morning, fading away during her short visit. She loved the air of expectation as the ranch came to life.
She parked next to Holt’s pickup and got out into the chilly late November air. The sky toward the east was just beginning to brighten, but sunup was still a ways off. She walked quickly toward the pasture nearest to the house, anticipation building within her. She was excited to see Gladys again—the bison she rescued just weeks ago.
She was excited to see Jake Matheson, too. As foolish as that was.
Rounding a barn, the split rail fence of the pasture came into view, along with the unmistakably large, dark shape of Gladys grazing on grass not far off. Her heart warmed. She wasn’t sure why she loved the large, shaggy beast so much. She’d only seen her for the first time a few weeks back. Something about the animal called to her—Gladys was so prehistoric looking, so different from your run-of-the-mill cow. Maybe she was special because she stood for something in Hannah’s mind. The need to stand up for herself. The need to be true to herself—to do something more than hitch her wagon to someone else’s life. The day she saved Gladys was the day she proclaimed to the world she would do whatever it took to live authentically. Each time she visited Gladys, it reminded her that her dream to be a vet was important. It was worth the trouble to make it happen. It warmed her heart that Jake was just as interested in the bison as she was. More even, since he wanted to start a herd.
Speaking of Jake… Hannah scanned the area as she made her way to the pasture fence, but Jake was nowhere to be seen. She checked her watch. She had a few minutes. Maybe if she lingered for a while, the handsome cowboy would show up.
She knew she shouldn’t wait for him. Knew she shouldn’t encourage him if he was interested. She’d made some important decisions since dumping Cody. She’d set her life in a whole new direction—one that didn’t allow time for a serious relationship. Her acceptance to Montana State University had come. In two months she’d be starting classes, and if all went well she’d head off to veterinary school in Colorado next fall. But in the past few weeks Jake had been very attentive to her, and she’d begun to wonder if she’d misinterpreted his exchange with Tracey at the wedding. In fact, she’d heard the other day Tracey was seeing a cowboy from out near Bozeman, so whatever little flirtation the two of them had must not have worked out.