The Cowboy Rescues a Bride (Cowboys of Chance Creek)
The Cowboy Rescues a Bride
By Cora Seton
Ned Matheson shoved his hands in the pockets of his thick, tan shearling work coat and hunched his shoulders against a strong wind sweeping east across the snow-covered pastures of the Double-Bar-K. The sun wasn’t up yet on this January morning, and Montana winters were known for their brutality, but that wouldn’t stop the animals that inhabited the ranch from waiting for him to tend to them.
He knew what it felt like to wait for something—and how good it felt to finally get it. After thirty-two long years of waiting, he was finally coming into his own. Finally taking charge of his family’s cattle herd, after years of playing second fiddle to his older brother, Jake. He’d always known he was capable of running the family business—he was as good a judge of the stock as anyone, as cunning in negotiations, and he was the only one of his brothers who could repair all the equipment they used on the ranch as well as do all the other chores around the place. He should have been put in charge a long time ago. Instead, it took Jake coming to loggerheads with his father and moving onto his own acreage to clear the way for him.
None of that was on his mind, though, as his footsteps crunched over the frozen snow on his way to the barn. He wasn’t paying attention to the cattle grouped over by the brush to the south in the home pasture, out of the wind, nor was it on the task ahead of him—hauling hay to a sheltered feed spot and making sure all the cattle were in good shape. Instead, he was thinking of a certain slim young woman with a dark, thick, waist-length braid, brown eyes that searched him out when she thought he wasn’t paying attention, a low, musical voice that hooked his heart every time she spoke, and a sweet, curving mouth that hardly ever smiled, except when they were alone in his cabin.
He’d just left her there, in fact. Which sounded far more salacious than it was. Fila Sahar shared his cabin, but she hadn’t shared his bed and he figured it would be a while before she did.
He shook his head ruefully. That was frustration talking. They’d get there eventually. Fila just wasn’t your run-of-the-mill young woman. You couldn’t pick her up at a bar, take her out a few times and talk her into coming home for a little fun. Her circumstances made her different. When they were together it would be because he’d persuaded her to be together for good.
And he would persuade her of that.
“You’re taking your time this morning.”
His father’s buzz-saw voice cut through his pleasant reverie and snapped his head up. Holt was leaning in the doorway of the trim red and white barn. Ned wondered how long he’d been there at the mercy of the cold, bitter wind. Why the hell was the man waiting out here?
“I talked to Ethan last night.”
Ned knew he meant Ethan Cruz—their next door neighbor. The Cruzes had owned their ranch just about as long as the Mathesons had worked the Double-Bar-K. Two of the oldest ranching families in the county, the older generation had been something of rivals, but the younger generation got along just fine. Ned’s youngest brother, Rob, was one of Ethan’s best friends and a part-owner of the Cruz ranch, and Ned, Jake and Luke all went to the Cruz’s Thursday night poker and pool games each week.
“What did he have to say?”
“His guests have all gone back home. The Big House is empty. They want Fila and Mia back.”
Ned shouldered his way past his father into the barn and flicked on the lights. No need to have this conversation out in the dark and cold. Not that it was warm in here. Holt followed him inside. “Did you hear me?”
“I heard you. I don’t think either of them wants to go back.”
“I wasn’t asking you. I was telling you.”
Ned turned to face him. “You’re telling me who can and can’t live in my cabin?”
“I built that cabin for you.”
Ned bit back a sharp retort. It was the least his father could do for all the work he’d done on this place. Knowing they’d each inherit a share of the ranch someday, he and his brothers had been content for years to work the spread in exchange for room, board and a small allowance. Lately, though, they’d come to realize the true cost of such an arrangement. Holt had always ruled their lives with an iron fist, but it wasn’t until the last few months that he’d begun to interfere in their love lives. Jake and Rob were both married because of his interference, but both had managed to convince him to carve off a chunk of the spread for their very own. He’d figured he’d be the next one Holt tried to marry off.
So why kick out Fila? Ned was pretty sure he knew.
His father leaned closer. “She’s not the one for you.”
Ned stilled. “I say she is.”
Holt’s expression hardened. “I say she ain’t. And you don’t want to push me.”
So this was how it was going to go. If he was truthful, Ned had expected it might, but he’d hoped against hope his father would surprise him. Holt Matheson was a man of contradictions. Since most folks in Chance Creek had known him all their lives, they knew that underneath his aggravating bluster lay a man who loved his family, his town and all of America. Those who didn’t know him generally counted him a jackass. Ned understood his father’s shades of gray. Holt counted on things staying within a strict framework that he understood. Whatever was native to Chance Creek was good. Whatever was foreign to it was bad. The more foreign it got, the worse it was to his way of thinking.
Which left Fila shit out of luck.
Despite Holt’s classification system, Fila wasn’t actually foreign. Born in Connecticut of Afghan parents, raised as American as apple pie for her first twelve years, she’d traveled to the country of her parents’ birth to attend the funeral of her grandmother and there disaster had struck. The funeral procession was attacked by Taliban warriors, Fila’s parents were killed in front of her, and she was taken captive. Raised in a remote Afghan mountain village for the next ten years, Fila did what she had to in order to survive. When her chance to escape came, she took it and made her way here—to the home of the woman whose organization, Aria’s House, helped her return to the United States. Aria Cruz had already passed away, but her son, Ethan, and his wife, Autumn, took Fila in, gave her a home and a place to get back on her feet.
That made Fila as American as any of them.
But Holt couldn’t see it. Especially when the Taliban men that had followed her to Chance Creek to retrieve her ended up shooting Rob in the shoulder before they were captured. Rob was fine—nearly fully recovered—but Holt couldn’t forgive Fila her part in the incident. Ned was afraid he never would.
That didn’t mean he was going to change his mind.
“You’re the one who shouldn’t push things.” He met his father’s steely gaze with one of his own. “She’s the one I mean to marry. Best get used to it right now.”
Holt’s face changed color, but his tone remained steely. “You marry that girl and I’ll cut you right out of my will. You will be dead to me!”
“Better start making funeral arrangements then.” Ned turned on his heel and headed back toward the door, anger simmering throughout his bloodstream. “Make my casket walnut. I’ve always been partial to a walnut casket.”
Ned slowed to a stop despite himself. That break in Holt’s voice wasn’t something he was accustomed to. He waited for more. He wasn’t disappointed.
“I could accept a first-generation American. It’s not what I want for my son but I could accept it. I could accept a woman who for all intents and purposes practices a different religion—”
“Fila’s not all that religious—”
“That’s why I said for all intents and purposes,” Holt snapped. “I could even accept you falling for a girl that nearly got your brother killed, seeing as I doubt she meant for that to happen.”
“No, I doubt she did.”
Holt ignored his sarcasm. “But I cannot stand here and watch you hitch yourself to a damaged woman.”
Ned stiffened. “What the hell do you mean by that?”
Holt must have caught his tone. Realized he’d gone too far. For once he explained himself. “I mean that girl can’t hardly meet a man’s eyes. She can’t hardly walk out her door. She has no skills. She’s frightened of her own shadow. What kind of partner is she going to be for you? You’re going to be her nursemaid, not her husband. You think you can heal her? You can’t.”
Of all the things his father could have said, this was the one that cut him to the quick—because it was true. He did want to heal Fila. He thought he could. Holt’s words highlighted his darkest fear.
Maybe Fila was beyond saving. Maybe she’d never confront her demons and win.
“Watching you marry that girl will be like watching you commit suicide. You can’t ask that of me.”
How the hell could he answer that?
Ned decided he couldn’t. He walked out the door.
Fila hummed along with the pop song playing on the iPod Ned had stationed in a dock on the kitchen counter this morning for her. She’d been able to find an online radio station that played hit music from the last decade—all the songs she’d missed while she’d been away. She was determined to learn them, to recapture her lost years. Pop music was one of the things she’d missed the most during her time in captivity.