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Joe Wyatt rocked on his heels, trying to stay relaxed as he waited for his soon-to-be bride to enter the terminal. One hundred years ago, he would have been meeting her train in Marietta. Today, he was meeting her plane in Bozeman.
It’d been three months since he’d placed the ad that he was looking for a wife, three months since strangers began answering the ad. Three months where he’d questioned himself even as he explored options, but the questions and doubts were behind him. Sophie had been his first, and final, choice and he, apparently, was hers, as the daughter of California dairy farmers would be stepping through the arrival gate any moment.
He knew what she’d looked like. Medium height, brown eyes, high cheekbones, a strong brow, and dark brown hair. They’d had a half-dozen calls before they had their first FaceTime conversations, and then two more FaceTime conversations after that where they discussed what they wanted, and expected, and how they’d break the news to their families if they really went through with it.
They’d agreed on a simple story. They’d met online—which was true—and they’d become very attached and wanted to be together. Thus, Sophie’s arrival today.
What their families wouldn’t know was that if Sophie and Joe clicked in person, they were planning on being married at the end of the week. They weren’t going to do a long engagement. Sophie was leaving her world behind, and he was determined to include her fully in his.
His granddad and mom knew he’d come to the airport today to meet Sophie’s plane. They didn’t know much else about her.
But why should they? He didn’t know much about her, either.
And then she was there. He spotted her immediately. Sophie Correia looked like a California girl as she walked through the sliding glass doors, wearing jeans, boots, and a cropped denim jacket. It was her waist-length hair that gave her away, hair so dark it looked like coffee in the terminal lighting. She wore a backpack, and pulled a small roller bag, and had polarized sunglasses perched on her small, straight nose.
Her gaze scanned the crowd and, as she impatiently pushed a long strand of dark hair back from her forehead, she reminded him of a California movie star, young, glossy, pretty. Almost too pretty, and he felt a kick of disappointment because he had a sinking suspicion that she’d hate the ranch. The Wyatt ranch was remote, high in the Gallatin mountains, thirty minutes from anything.
He cut through the thinning crowd. “Sophie? I’m Joe Wyatt.”
She looked up at him, lips curving into a smile. “Nice to meet you in person, Joe Wyatt.”
He hesitated only a moment before he took her hand, his fingers closing around hers. Her skin was cool, her palm soft, and yet he felt a tingle of heat and he dropped her hand to reach for her roller bag. “Is this all you have?”
“No, I’ve got two big checked bags coming. They said it shouldn’t take long.”
“It doesn’t, not here. It’s not a big airport,” he said, looking down at her. Her aviator-style sunglasses reflected his own image, and Joe thought it peculiar that she was still wearing sunglasses inside. He wasn’t sure if it was a California thing, or something else, but then, as if she could read his mind, she removed the reflective glasses and slid them into a pocket of her jean jacket before shyly glancing up at him. That was when he saw her brown eyes were watery. Her long black lashes were wet. She’d been crying.
His gut tightened and he felt another kick of disappointment, along with a whisper of concern because she’d ended a serious relationship in the last year. He’d wondered if she was ready for a commitment so soon after that relationship had ended, but she’d assured him she was ready.
Tears worried him, though. Not because he couldn’t handle emotions, but Joe spent most of his day out on the property. He wasn’t available to do a lot of comfort and conversation. His future wife had to be strong, independent. Self-sufficient. She needed to be low maintenance as well.
Sophie had presented herself as all of that, and more, having been raised on a large family dairy farm, familiar with the long hours her father and brothers worked. But seeing her here in front of him, he had serious reservations.
The tension inside of him hardened into a ball inside his gut, even as a little voice in his head said this wasn’t a great start. Too soft, he mentally added to the earlier concerns of too pretty, too glossy. She’d never survive life on the ranch, and what he needed was a pragmatic, level-headed woman, who didn’t mind isolation or hard work.
He wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, though. Perhaps something had happened on the flight. Maybe she’d just gotten bad news. “Everything okay?” he asked gruffly.
She nodded, smiling unsteadily. “Yes. Everything okay at your end?”
“Yes, now that you’re here. Let’s go find those bags of yours.”
They didn’t talk much as they waited at the baggage carousel for her suitcases and the silence felt awkward. Joe shifted his weight from foot to foot, trying not to read too much into the silence, thinking it was inevitable there’d be some initial awkwardness. She was here in his world; he was responsible for her.
Joe considered the different things he could say and finally asked about her flight. She said it was fine. He struggled to think of something else to say. “Was the plane crowded?”
“Every seat filled,” she answered, before adding, “but it’s a small plane.”
He nodded. More silence stretched, and it felt heavier and even less comfortable than before.
Sophie excused herself to use the ladies’ room and when she returned he noticed she’d put some makeup on, covering the traces of her earlier tears. She was so pretty she didn’t need makeup, but he took the mascara and whatever else she did to be a sign that the tears were behind her.
Her suitcases arrived a few minutes later and he tucked the smaller roller bag under his arm, pulling the two big cases through the terminal doors to the street. “Wait here while I drive the truck around,” he told her. “No sense dragging you and your bags through the parking lot. It’s pretty dirty from the melting snow.”
“You just had snow?”
“It’s pretty much gone now, but it’s made everything muddy. I’ll be right back.” And then he was off, walking quickly, wanting to put distance between them so he could regroup before they were trapped in the car for the next forty-five minutes.
Sophie watched Joe Wyatt walk away from her, her stomach doing mad panicked somersaults, one after the other. What was she doing? What was she thinking?
This was insane. She wasn’t impulsive, wasn’t prone to mad adventures, and yet here she was, and it was definitely crazy. She didn’t know this man. She was in the middle of nowhere, and she was going to get in his truck? Drive to an even more remote nowhere?
He could be an ax-murderer.
He could chain her up in a basement—
Sophie stopped herself, queasy.
She needed to calm down, fast. She’d done her research. She’d made calls, talked to ranchers, business owners and everyone liked the Wyatts; Joe, in particular. Everyone described them as honest, hardworking, trustworthy. The oldest son, Joe, might be a bit gruff and standoffish, but he was a man of integrity, with neighbors uniformly describing him as a good man.
But what did that mean?
What did she really know?
She should go. She should get on the next flight out of Bozeman and head home. She didn’t need to marry now. There’d be other opportunities later. Maybe.
And just like that, she pictured Leo, who was supposed to have married her, and the gorgeous, wildly expensive wedding dress which had briefly hung in her closet, and fresh shame and hurt burned through her, just as hot and fresh as it had been when Leo had betrayed her.
For a moment, Sophie couldn’t breathe, her chest squeezing tightly with endless pain.
Worse, Leo was now part of her family. Leo would forever be part of her family. If she returned to her family in California.
She didn’t have to return home, though, if she ran back into the airport. She could jump on a plane and go anywhere. She could get a job in a different city… have a different life… a new life.
A big black truck pulled up in front of her and shifted into park. The driver door swung open and Joe climbed out and came around to meet her on the curb. His eyes met hers beneath the brim of his cowboy hat. He was taller than she’d expected, bigger, with broad shoulders, long legs, and a disarmingly square jaw.
“You okay?” he asked, eyes narrowing, expression grim.
He struck her as hard. Resolute.
Nothing like Leo, and that was good. Leo was a salesman—literally, VP of sales with his family’s company, Brazer Farms—and he was all about charm, being the favorite one.
She forced a smile. “Yes, I’m good. Thank you.”
He didn’t look like he believed her. “You were crying when you got off the plane.”
“I’ve never been to Montana before.”
He lifted a brow. “And that’s why you were crying?”
Sophie flushed, and huffed out an embarrassed laugh, thinking he probably hadn’t cried a day in his life. “This is suddenly very real, and very scary.”
Joe nodded, his stern expression easing. “I’d be worried about you if you weren’t a little nervous. It’s not every day one agrees to marry a stranger.”
“True.” She hesitated. “You said if either of us had doubts at the end of the week, we wouldn’t go through with the ceremony.” She tipped her head back to look him in the eyes, eyes that were a light cool, clear blue. “You mean that?”
“Yes. I’ve no intention of marrying someone that isn’t going to be happy… much less make my mom unhappy. She’s to think this is a love match, and neither of us are going to disillusion her.”
Sophie glanced down at her luggage. She’d arrived with two carry-on bags and two big suitcases, everything she’d thought she’d need to start this new life as Joe Wyatt’s wife. But Paradise Valley, Montana, was a long way from her family’s dairy farm in Tulare, California.
But wasn’t that what she’d wanted? A fresh start far from her close-knit community where everyone knew everything about each other, including Sophie’s humiliation when her groom ran off with her sister Sarah?
“Your mom knows I’m coming, though?” she asked.
“Yes. Granddad, too.”
Joe had told her they both lived at the ranch. Mr. Wyatt had raised his four grandsons after his son, their dad, died in a car accident. “And what have you told them?” she asked.
“We met online and have been talking and messaging and we’ve hit it off. So I’ve invited you out to meet everyone.”
It was what he’d told her he’d say, but she was double-checking, wanting to be sure the story hadn’t changed. “They’ll expect us to be a little… uncomfortable… around each other,” she said, looking up at him again, and then away, discomfited by the hard square jaw and the firm press of his lips. “Seeing as it’s the first time we’ve met in real life.”
“We’ve got a week,” he said, agreeing with her. “We either make it work in the next seven days, or I’ll drive you back here next Thursday and put you on a plane.”
“Doesn’t sound like there’s much wiggle room.”
“I’m thirty-three and I need a wife and kids and you’re either the right woman, or you’re not.” He opened the passenger door of the truck for her before loading her luggage into the back of the cab. “It’s time we find out.”
She stiffened at his brusque tone. “You have to be the right one for me as well. I’m not going to be a doormat. I want a husband who will respect me, and treat me like an equal.”
His gaze swept her face, lingering on her eyes and then dropping to her mouth. “It’s going to be an interesting week, Sophie. Welcome to Montana.”
Joe turned on the radio and let the country music station fill the car with sound while he drove. This was not going well.
On the curb, he’d seen a flash of fire from her, but now Sophie had gone quiet, her expression shuttered, gaze fixed on the road ahead of them.
He told himself it was better this way, they needed to be honest, and not start off with any romantic notions, but it felt like he’d swallowed a rock, seeing her go from uncertain but smiling to all shut down as if she was one of the summer cottages in Paradise Valley that had been boarded up for winter.
But as the miles passed, he felt guilty. He wasn’t being very chivalrous. This was his future wife, for goodness’ sake. No need to alienate her. “My granddad is on the quiet side. He’s pretty reserved. If he doesn’t talk, don’t take it personally. My mom… she’s the talker.”
Sophie shot him a curious glance. “She gets along well with your girlfriends?”
“I haven’t brought anyone home in years. So this is going to be interesting.”
“Is your ranch far?”
“In good weather, like today, it’s forty minutes to Marietta from here—that’s the nearest proper town to the Diamond W Ranch—and then the ranch house is another thirty-five minutes.” He looked at her. “Hungry?”
“A little bit,” she admitted. “All I’ve had today are the pretzels the flight attendant passed out.”
“No wonder you’re a little cranky.”
Her jaw dropped. “Me, cranky? I think you’re the one that’s sounding hangry.”
He flashed a smile. “Maybe. I wouldn’t say no to a burger. What do you like to eat?”
“Everything. I’m not picky.”
“I was going to stop in Marietta to pick up supplies at the feed store. We can eat in Marietta, too, if you can wait another half hour.”
“Not a problem.”
They pulled off the highway and stopped first at the feed store which looked over the railroad tracks. Sophie wandered around the store inspecting the merchandise while Joe headed out back with one of the store clerks. It wasn’t that different from feed stores in Tulare County and it seemed that the clerk had already pulled everything Joe needed because by the time she made it back to the register, he was almost done loading up his truck.
He jumped down and quickly brushed his hands off on the back of his Levi’s. He wore his jeans the way cowboys did—fitted, tight—and they highlighted his quads and his butt. He had a great butt, at least what she could see of it.
He turned and looked straight at her, his gaze locking with hers through the store window. Had he known she was watching him? Her cheeks suddenly burned, and her stomach did a little flip.
Adrenaline rushed through her, and she forced herself to exit the store and meet him at his truck. “I probably should have helped, shouldn’t I?” she said.
“I wouldn’t have let you.” He went around to the passenger side door and opened it for her. “Let’s go eat.”
He drove down Marietta’s main street and parked in front of an old red brick building. Much of the street was lined with turn-of-the-century brick buildings. It had a western feel, like something one might see in a movie, and she tried to take in everything as she followed Joe to the front door of the restaurant.
The interior walls were exposed brick, and along the back wall was a long counter and counter stools. The waitress seated them at an empty table and placed the menus in front of them promising to be back with waters.
Sophie glanced down at the plastic coated menu. Main Street Diner. Joe opened his and then closed it almost as quickly. She glanced at the options. Lots of beef and bison. Roast pork and chicken, too. She closed her menu as the waitress returned.
“Do you know what you want?” Joe asked her as the waitress set their waters down.
She nodded. “Bacon cheeseburger with fries.”
He smiled crookedly. “The same,” he said to the waitress. “Except I’d like my burger rare, and my fries extra crispy.”
“Anything to drink?” the waitress asked.
“Coffee,” Joe said.
Sophie handed her menu to the waitress. “A Diet Coke for me.”
She waited for the waitress to leave to speak. “I know I probably didn’t make a great impression, getting off the plane crying. I promise I didn’t cry the entire flight. I just teared up as we were landing. I don’t know why I got emotional, either. I’m sure you’re just as nervous as I am—maybe more—because you’re taking me home. This can’t be easy for you, bringing me into your world, and now you have to introduce me to both your mom and your grandfather.”
“I’m not that nervous.”
“I know what I’m doing. I just wonder… if you do.”
She glanced down at her hands where she’d knotted her fingers together. “I want this, too. I’m thirty in a few months and my biological clock is ticking and I’m ready to start a family.” She hesitated. “I want to start a family with you.”
He smiled and, when he did, it was megawatt, with white teeth and a glimpse of a dimple that fascinated her. “Sounds like a plan.”
When their food arrived, they mostly concentrated on eating, and Sophie tried to relax and not think about what would come next. It was one thing to have a burger with a stranger in a public place. It was another to go home with him, and to become utterly dependent on him. He said he lived at a fairly high elevation, that their ranch had beautiful views of the Yellowstone River, but they weren’t close to anything.
“How far to your nearest neighbor?” she asked him as they left the diner and headed to his truck.
“Fifteen minutes, maybe.”
“So you didn’t grow up playing with your neighbors.”
“I had my brothers. We did everything together.”
Sophie was glued to her window as they left Marietta, eager to see the famed Paradise Valley which she’d read a lot about after investigating the Wyatt family. Paradise Valley had originally drawn miners, and then ranchers, and now celebrities and affluent Americans bought up large parcels of land for their own piece of the West.
“Do you have any celebrities near you?” she asked, as Joe left Highway 89 and began driving toward the mountains.
“No. They prefer the valley floor and the foothills. We’re rather inhospitable where we are.”
It didn’t take long for Sophie to realize Joe hadn’t been exaggerating when he said the Wyatt ranch was high in the Gallatins. Sophie felt as if they’d been climbing and climbing, the narrow, gravel road winding up and around the mountain, for miles. In places, the narrow road was swallowed by a thicket of poplar trees, but at every turn there was a jaw-dropping view of the valley. If the road felt steep and treacherous in spring, she couldn’t imagine navigating this in winter with all the snow and ice and wind.
She chewed on her bottom lip, fighting yet another flurry of nerves as it crossed her mind that she might have overplayed her agricultural background. Yes, she was the daughter of a dairy farmer, but she’d been raised to work in the front office, not in the dairy barns. Her brothers did that. She and her sister helped their mom with the business side, and there was plenty of it, but it was comfortable work, in a comfortable office. Her gaze slid across the rocky mountain with scattered pine trees and patches of lingering snow and tried to imagine what she’d do here, and how she’d help Joe. What was the life of a Montana cowboy wife?
“Are we on your land yet?” she asked.
“Ever since the cattle guard a mile back. The Diamond W Ranch property line extends to the top of the mountain, giving us seven thousand acres total.”
“How do your cattle survive winters up here?”
“We move them to our lowest pastures in October, and feed them daily. Granddad and I will be taking them back up in just a couple weeks.” He shot her a glance. “We still take hay and feed up a couple times a week.”
“You must envy the ranchers on the lower slopes.”
“I don’t really think of it that way. This property has been in the family four generations. My grandfather was raised here, my dad was raised here, and I’ve lived here since I was almost eight. This is home, simple as that.”
It wasn’t a rebuke and yet she felt the distance grow between them.
Or, maybe it was her own fear making her shut down and retreat.
She didn’t want to be afraid, though, and she didn’t want him to second-guess his decision—not yet. She had to pull herself together, had to show him who she really was. Smart, self-sufficient, successful. She’d spent the past five years managing the import/export business for Brazer Farms, one of Central California’s largest dried fruit growers, and she’d grown their business, and figured out ways to cut waste, making the company even more profitable. She loved positive returns on investment. She loved to see how she could make a difference. That was what had appealed to her about Joe’s ad. He’d wanted a wife, and a partner, someone to help him ensure the success of his ranch for the next generation. Having come from a family that was a multigenerational business, she understood the values, and the history, of a family business, and she was looking forward to becoming part of his.
“Tell me about your mom again. You said she’s become frail, and isn’t as mobile as she used to be. What happened to her?” she asked. “If you don’t mind telling me?”
“She has rheumatoid arthritis,” he said. “She was diagnosed in her early thirties and it’s not going to get better. She’s increasingly dependent on those around her.” Joe glanced at her before focusing again on the rough gravel road. “You’re not coming to be her nurse. If and when she needs an aide, I’ll hire one. She hasn’t had an easy life, and her happiness means a great deal to me.”
“It will be an adjustment for her, having another woman in her house, in her kitchen.”
“Does she still cook then?”
“She wishes she could, but no. She’s not very mobile. You’ll see she uses a cane, but even then her balance isn’t good. Granddad and I do most of the cooking—well, mostly me now. It’s not great, but we’re not starving.”
Her gaze swept over him. He most definitely wasn’t starving. The man was built, with muscles and more muscles. “I’ll be happy to take over cooking,” she said, “if that makes things easier for you and your family, although I can’t promise that my food will taste much better than yours.”
A solid two-story log cabin home came into view with a large barn off to one side. The house looked solid and sprawling, with wings off the original structure, and covered porches wrapping the entire lower level. A series of six dormer windows lined the second floor, the windows tall to allow sunlight deep into the room. The metal green roof was steep, and looked new against the weathered logs of the house. A tree in the front had a few bright green leaves but most of the shrubs and roses planted near the front door were still dormant.
In the distance, Sophie could hear barking.
“Home, sweet home,” Joe said, braking, slowing. “You always have to be careful as you get near the house. The dogs like to chase cars.”
The sound of barking grew louder. He pointed to what looked like a pack of dogs racing toward them. Two big black-and-gold German shepherds and a blonde Lab. Sophie stiffened and held her breath, trying not to be alarmed. She wasn’t a fan of big, working dogs.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, glancing at her. “You don’t like dogs?”
“I don’t dislike cute fluffy dogs, but I was bit by a German shepherd when I was little.” She held up her hand, showing a faint line. “I had to get stitches. It was pretty scary.”
“Our dogs won’t hurt you. They just get excited to see cars.” He shifted into park in front of the imposing house, and turned off the engine. “But at the same time, you can’t act scared. You have to be the dominant one. Dogs sense fear—”
“I’ll be fine,” she interrupted, not wanting him to think she was a total sissy. “Don’t worry.”
He pointed to each of the barking, circling dogs. “That’s Penny, Duke, and Runt.”
“Penny is the Lab?” she asked.
“And Runt is the smaller shepherd?”
He laughed, amused, the sound a low rumble in his chest. “No, Runt’s the big one. The dogs are from the same litter. Runt wasn’t supposed to survive but he turned out to be one fine dog.” He swung his door open. “Sit tight and I’ll come around, introduce you to the dogs, and then take you into the house. Once you’re in the house, they’ll calm down. Runt is very protective to the property and boundaries. Once you’re in the house with me, he’ll realize you’re supposed to be there.”
“But until then he’ll want to take my head off?” she said with a weak laugh.
“Something like that. But if it’s any comfort, I don’t think he’s actually ever bit anyone. He just gets real close.”
“Doesn’t really make me feel better.”
“Just remember, be the alpha.”
Joe climbed out behind the steering wheel, put cowboy boots on the ground, and slammed his door closed. Sophie watched him scratch the dogs’ heads, and behind the ears, before giving each of them big pats. The dogs wagged their tails, howled with pleasure. It’s okay. They don’t actually bite. You’re going to be fine. Act confident.
“Be the alpha.”
Runt lunged forward but Joe issued a sharp command and the big dog sat down immediately.
“Ignore Runt,” Joe instructed. “Focus on Penny. Call her and she’ll come to you, and she’s very gentle. Lavish her with attention, and pretend Runt doesn’t exist. The fact that you’re spoiling Penny will make Runt wildly jealous. The longer you ignore him the more he’ll want to be your friend. Trust me, by the end of the week, he’ll be eating out of your hand.”
So, Sophie did exactly what Joe told her. She called Penny over, and scratched her head, and behind her ear, and told her how pretty she was in her best crooning voice, and when Sophie looked up, she saw Runt watching intently, so intently, she thought Joe was right. Runt looked a little jealous.
The interior of the log cabin was much like the rustic exterior, split logs, lots of wood, and a stacked stone chimney. Joe’s tour of the house was brief—this is the downstairs, this is the upstairs, this will be your room—before she was taken to the family room to meet his mother.
“Mom, this is Sophie. Sophie, my mom, Summer Wyatt. She was born in California but has lived in Montana for twenty-some years now.”
Summer Wyatt probably once fit her name. Even now, Mrs. Wyatt was pretty, a fine-boned faded blonde, reminiscent of sun-baked flowers in the hot part of August. She had hazel eyes and a generous mouth, and wore her long silver-streaked blonde hair in a loose side braid.
“Nice to meet you, Sophie. Where about in California are you from?” She shot Joe an unsmiling side glance. “Joe hasn’t told us much about you.”
“A small town called Tulare. It’s in Central California, halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield.”
“Home of Bob Mathias, the Olympic champion,” Summer said.
“So what brings you to Montana?” Mrs. Wyatt said, not missing a beat. “I’m sure you didn’t come out all this way just to see Joe.”
Sophie shot Joe a quick look. “But I did.” She struggled to hold her smile. “We’ve been messaging back and forth and I thought it was time to meet.”
“No, we had some calls and we FaceTimed.”
“And now you’re here,” Mrs. Wyatt said, and from her tone, it was clear she wasn’t happy.
Sophie’s heart fell but she wasn’t about to let her disappointment show. “Two flights later, plus an hour drive from Bozeman.” She kept smiling as she looked at Joe. “But look at him—he’s worth it.”
End of Excerpt