The Cowboy’s Bride


Barbara Ankrum

Drive, she said…

When Isabella Stanton’s Dallas society wedding becomes the most humiliating day of her life, there’s only one thing to do: run—hard to do in a wedding dressShe begs a ride from the handsome wedding limo driver offering him a huge bonus to help her escape. After a lifetime of trying to please everyone but herself, Isabella has no plans, no job, and no set destination. Her only certainty–she can never go home again.

Will Hardesty understands escape. Growing up heir apparent cowboy on his family’s ranch in Marietta, Montana, he left behind his difficult father to play football in college and the NFL. After an injury costs him his career and his wife, he buys a limo company, focusing on business not romance. Initially he thinks he’s Driving Miss Crazy, but even his inner cynic can’t resist his adorable passenger who’s funny and consistently finds the bright side of everything.

But will an emergency detour to his family’s ranch coupled with a convenient lie about their blossoming relationship be the romantic nudge they both need or their undoing?

Enjoy an Excerpt →

Other Tule AuthorsYou'll Also Love:

More Tule TitlesYou Might Enjoy:

Start reading this book:

Chapter One

“Everything is perfect.”

Eliza Stanton, Texas state congresswoman and mother of the bride sighed like Snow White seeing the wishing well for the first time as she fussed with her daughter’s long, blonde hair in the bridal changing room. “Absolutely perfect. The flowers, this dress, the chapel. The groom. Everything, frankly, Isabella, except for this hair.”

Isabella stared at her image in the full-length mirror, taking in her mother’s slight frown as she tucked in a stray piece of Isabella’s hair that wasn’t quite up to par.

“Stop fussing, Eliza, for heaven’s sake,” her grandmother Lucille scolded, brushing a crooked finger along Isabella’s cheek comfortingly. “You’re going to make the poor girl more nervous than she already is.”

Eliza tossed her mother an amused look. “She’s not nervous. Are you, darling.” But before she could answer what was clearly not a question, her mother added, “Because the church is filled to the brim and, of course, with everyone we hoped would come. Senator Duff Kramer and his wife Marion are here. Along with the mayor and his wife. The lions of the community. They’re all seated in the second row. On Theodore’s side, of course. But still…”

If only her mother’s political ambition could be put on pause just for today. But today was the point, after all. Today was the apex of all of Eliza’s hopes and dreams for Isabella, considering the family she was marrying into. The Margates, one of Dallas’s wealthiest families. Raphael Margate, patriarch extraordinaire, especially.

Marrying Theo was, perhaps, the first thing in her life that had made her mother truly happy or made her look at Isabella with something resembling pride. Or validation. But even that had its limits.

Her mother clucked her tongue. “Isabella, stand up straight. You’re spoiling the line of the dress.”

Isabella shifted on command, wishing Meg, her maid of honor, would come and rescue her from her mother. But Eliza had sent her on an errand to check on the flowers, which were all perfectly perfect and in place.

Isabella wished she had stood up for herself more in the planning of this day. Wished she hadn’t let her mother bully her into inviting so many people she didn’t know, or choosing a dress she wasn’t in love with, or even picking the color of the bridesmaid dresses. While everything was perfectly tasteful—as it would always be with Eliza Stanton—none of it was truly Isabella’s choice. But rocking any boat her mother was captaining had never been productive.

But today was a new beginning for her. She could almost taste her new life with Theo—being loved for exactly who she was and not who her parents wanted her to be.

Who that future her was, exactly, she wasn’t quite sure. But she’d find out. At least she was on the brink of finding out. Better late than never.

At almost thirty, it was well past time.

Her skin prickled with a flash of heat, even though it was only the end of May and the blades of the ceiling fan spun above her, stirring a weak breeze. Summer hadn’t yet fully begun to press in on Dallas as it would in July. Still, she should have chosen a December date for her wedding. But it hadn’t really been her choice at all.

She cast a longing look at the leaded glass window to her left that was partially open. “Have you seen Theo yet?”

“I caught a glimpse of him a few minutes ago,” her grandmother volunteered. “He’s here and looking quite dashing.” And then she mumbled, “Even if he did think so, himself.”

“Mother,” Eliza warned.

Lucille rolled her eyes, earning a grin from Isabella. No doubt, Theo was well aware of his good looks. Sometimes—often—she even wondered if he felt like he was slumming with her.

In her mind’s eye, Isabella imagined him standing at the front of the church waiting for her, looking all … perfect in that black Gucci tux he’d bought on his last solo trip to Milan with his guy friends.

Lucille was right about one thing. Theo had been quite taken with himself in that tux when he’d tried it on for her at his apartment months ago, dancing over to her to the downbeat of a Drake song before stripping that suit off one devastating piece at a time. And by the time he was done, he had her under him on the sectional—her, shrieking with laughter and desperate for him to touch her everywhere. That might be the last time she could remember having his full and undivided attention before the wedding preparations moved into full-blown chaos.

Isabella blushed at both the memory and at her opinionated grandmother, the only person here with absolutely no stake in her marriage to Theo. For a moment, Isabella wished she was little again, sitting with Lucille on her wicker porch swing, sorting through the thousands of antique buttons Lucille’s own great-grandmother had collected a hundred years before. A mindless, but wonderful game they’d invented between them on summer days spent at her big house in the Hill Country when her parents were off campaigning.

Afterward, they’d play Michigan poker with Lucille’s girlfriends, using the colored buttons as currency even though all of those ladies had more actual money than God. There was always a small, cash payout, and sometimes, Isabella even won. And all the elderly women would fawn over her prowess with cards and secretly slip in a few extra dollars to the pot, even though money was never the thing she lacked most.

But in Lucille’s eyes, Isabella was always enough.

Today would finally end all the speculation in her parents’ eyes as to whether she would ever fulfill her potential. Today, at twenty-nine, she’d marry the man of her—and her mother’s—dreams. She’d be Mrs. Theo Margate. And any doubts that might have crept in in the last few months would seem ridiculous after today. They’d be happy. She knew they would.

Isabella swiped a bead of sweat from beneath her nose.

The idea of marrying into Theo Margate’s family for her mother was like … catnip to a feline. As a state representative, her mother was not only ambitious for bigger and more, but she was also hungry for the kinds of connections Theo’s father could circle into her sphere. The potential list was long.

Of course, her mother never said as much in so many words. Not to Isabella at least and certainly not to Theo. But even her father—who had lived with Eliza’s consuming ambition most of his life before moving off on his own a few years ago—seemed embarrassed by how she gushed about Isabella and Theo’s future. And if that stole a little of the shine off her relationship with Theo, Isabella tried not to feel bitter about it. Eliza would be Eliza and there was no stopping her.

If Theo sensed her mother’s ambition, he never mentioned it, short of maybe drinking a bit more when they were all together or laughing a bit more loudly. He was a private man and even with her, there were things he never discussed. Business, for one. Family was also an off-limits topic, even though he worked for his father’s empire, in the corporate end of the Dallas basketball team he partially owned.

Theo’s parents were divorced, and she’d never met his mother who had left the family years ago for a separate life in California, essentially abandoning her boys, Theo and his brother Jason, as youngsters.

Theo’s father had married Helena, a woman nearly half his age ten years ago. It was Helena who’d insisted that Isabella and Theo take the family jet on an all-paid trip to Paris for their honeymoon and stay at the fabulous hotel she and Raphael had stayed at when they’d married. After agreeing, and accepting their gift, Theo had quietly nixed the hotel and France altogether, and booked a social media popular five-star resort on the Croatian coast instead. Which struck Isabella as a bit passive-aggressive, but she’d let it go.

She had let go of a lot of little things over the past year, but that was the nature of relationships, right? Letting go of little microaggressions that meant nothing, really. He worked a lot. But so did she. He’d missed more than a handful of dates they’d planned because of his job, but that was to be expected. Of course, he apologized for all of that, saying he was distracted, saying the wedding and all that came with it had made him tense and that work was overwhelming.

Except for the fact he’d had virtually nothing to do with the planning of the wedding, she got that, and she gave him that grace and told herself this was just how love worked.

“We’re gonna be good together, Isabella,” Theo had told her just yesterday, staring down at the beautiful ring he’d bought her at Tiffany’s almost ten months ago. “You’ll see.”

“I know,” she’d whispered back.

But it hadn’t occurred to her before this very moment to wonder whether he’d said that to convince her or himself?

Of course, they’d be good together. Better than good. Brilliant. Everyone said so. Everything was perfect. Today would be perfect. And in just a few minutes, Theo would vow to love her forever in front of all their family and friends and she would finally—once and for all—belong somewhere. Some place of her very own.

Her maid of honor, Meg, burst through the door in all her blush-colored silk glory. She looked amazing as always. “They’re ready. Theo and Alan are standing up at the front of the chapel with Reverend Mitchell. Are you ready?”

Isabella held up one finger and pushed away her mother’s fussing hands, crossing the room in a swish of silk to the half-open window.

Air. She needed air.

Bending down, she inhaled the damp spring breeze wafting through the window until she could straighten without being dizzy.

Just nerves. Perfectly normal.

Even her forever best friend, Carrie, who couldn’t make it from the West Coast to the wedding because of her late-stage pregnancy, had admitted to nerves five years ago when she’d married the love of her life, Deke Reimer. Three moves, a career change and two and three-quarters kids later, they were still together. Deliriously happy, by all accounts. So maybe everything would be fine. The two years she and Theo had been together had had ups and downs like any couple, wrangling compromises all couples made. But the last few months had been good. Better than good.

A bride who didn’t get a little nervous before the most momentous day of her life was probably overconfident. Or crazy.

Outside the church, in the circular driveway that bisected the sprawling, green lawn, a tall, dark-haired man leaned against the side of a champagne-colored six-passenger limo, his curls falling against his forehead obscuring a clear view of his face as he stared down at his phone. He had the cheekbones of a model. That much she could tell. Not as perfectly, darkly handsome as Theo. Few were. But still, altogether, he was—

She blinked, pulling her gaze from him.

What are you doing? Focus. Breathe.

But entirely against her will, she looked back at him, at the long, graceful leanness of him in his black suit—almost a tux, but somehow better on him than that. Running five fingers through his hair, he seemed to react badly to something on his phone and he jerked a look toward the street just as a small, tan dog trotted toward him on a long leash and stopped in front of him.

Isabella smiled at how the dog craned its neck up at him, begging for attention. The man obliged, scrubbing the fur behind the dog’s ears before crouching down beside it to give it his full attention. The woman whose dog it was stopped to chat, and he smiled up at her.

Theo didn’t much like dogs. But she hoped to change his mind.

The man petting the dog was, of course, the driver Theo must have hired to take them to the hotel reception after the ceremony. He’d mentioned that the driver had worked for his father several times. Though, she wondered how Theo would feel about what their friends—her friends—had done to the back of that limo. Tin cans. A JUST MARRIED sign.

She inhaled a long slow breath. So tacky and yet so sweet.

Her father popped his head in the doorway. “What’s the holdup?” he demanded. “Isn’t she ready?”

Isabella turned toward him, arms out to her sides.

Taking in the sight of her, Jonathan Stanton let out a low whistle and mimed taking a photo. “Ah. Look at you!” His smile told her he was pleased with her appearance, but she longed for him to pull her into his arms and tell her she looked beautiful. Just once.

“It’s just … her hair,” her mother complained, still plucking at that strand. “It’s not quite—”

Isabella batted her mother’s hand away. “It’s fine. Please, Mother. Stop now.”

Eliza forced a smile and handed Isabella her bouquet, a gorgeous concoction of white hydrangeas and creamy roses. “You’re right. All that’s left is the I dos.”

Her father offered his arm.

“We’ll be good together, Theo and I? Won’t we?” she whispered.

He looked surprised by her question. “Why wouldn’t you?”

“Of course, you will,” her mother answered. “Theo is everything we both hoped for you. And more.” Because she couldn’t help but add a small dig.

Turning back to the mirror, Isabella pulled the strand of hair back out of the updo that Neila, her hair person, had so carefully crafted—twists of hair, artfully curled into a plaited bun at the back of her head and a wispy veil cascading down her past the Monique Lhuillier long-sleeved satin gown that her mother had chosen—because Isabella preferred a little imperfection. At least imperfection she could control.

Moments later, she found herself walking down the aisle toward Theo, who was watching her with a hungry look that no one, least of all her, could miss. His best man, Alan—Theo’s best friend since college—looked … odd. Which was to say, he wasn’t looking at her at all, but at the floor instead.

Meg, who had preceded her down the aisle, took her place opposite Theo at the alter and looked beautiful and happy, as did the other bridesmaids, all friends Isabella had had since grade school. She felt a knot of emotion clog her throat and she tightened her hand around her father’s arm.

There were things she longed to say to her father, things that felt important. But they rarely said those kinds of things to each other and now seemed even more inappropriate. So, she simply squeezed his arm.

He squeezed her back and handed her off to Theo, who was smiling down at her with a wink.

In that moment, she was sure that her nerves were all for naught. Here was the man she would marry and spend the rest of her life with. And she loved him. She was sure she did.

Theo took her hands in his, leaning toward her. He rubbed his thumb across the backs of her cold hands. “You look amazing.”

“So do you,” she whispered back.

The reverend cleared his throat. “We are gathered here today, in the sight of God and this good company to join together this man and this woman…”

As the reverend spoke, Isabella’s gaze strayed to the full chapel, to all the smiling faces watching her and Theo. Full of happiness and expectations that come with weddings. So many people she didn’t even know. Her mother’s political friends. Theo’s parents’ friends as well.


Reverend Mitchell was quipping on about their personal story, though she’d specifically told him she didn’t want any of that in the ceremony. She wanted it simple and straightforward.

“And I’m told that when Theodore met Isabella for the first time at a friend’s lake house in Granbury, he was smitten,” the reverend went on with a chuckle, “and he decided then and there that she would be his wife. So apparently, Isabella, you have your maid of honor to thank for this day.”

Meg ducked her head as the audience laughed appreciatively. Theo was laughing, too.

And after an interminably jokey summary of their last two and a half years, Mitchell finally got to the good part.

“So—and only because I’m forced to ask this question, by law—is there anyone here who has reason or can give just cause why these two lovely people should not be united in marriage? Speak now, or forever hold your—”

At the center of the chapel, a woman shot to her feet. A pretty, petite woman Isabella had never seen before. Dressed to the nines in ice blue with a netted, black-feathered fascinator perched atop her long, dark hair.

She pointed dramatically to her clearly pregnant belly. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said quite loudly. “Is this reason enough?”

A collective gasp erupted from the entire crowd.

All the blood left Theo’s face and he dropped her hands.

A buzz thrummed suddenly in Isabella’s ears. What? What?

The woman began edging out of the pew row she was in, saying, “Excuse me. Pardon me,” as she bumped knees with the entire row. “Excuse me.”

Isabella stared first at her swollen belly, then disbelievingly at Theo.

He shook his head. “I-I-I don’t know her.”

“What did you say?” shouted the woman who was now marching up the aisle toward them. “Did you just say you don’t know me?”

Eliza Stanton shot to her feet, a look of horror on her face. She flailed her arms as if she could somehow command this all to stop. Isabella’s father yanked her, protesting, back down to her seat.

Theo took two steps back and pleaded with Isabella with a look. “This is … there’s been some kind of—”

“Mistake?” the woman in blue hissed, reaching the steps of the alter. “Oh, yes, Theo. There’s a mistake all right. But you’re the one who made it. You said you were going to marry me! Liar!”

To Isabella, he stammered, “I swear, I—”

“This can’t be happening,” Isabella breathed, her fingers loosening their grip on her bouquet, which fell to the floor with a plunk of finality.

Oh. My. God. All those long hours. Those nights away when he said he was working. How had she not seen it? How could she not have known?

Theo’s parents looked stricken, got to their feet, holding onto one another. A buzz of shocked sensibility careened around the room.

“I’m sorry,” the woman told the crowded chapel, hands raised. “I’m sorry,” she told Isabella. “But I didn’t know about you. Obviously. Until yesterday. Until I heard about … this. And clearly, you didn’t know about me. He’s been lying to you. To both of us. Did you plan to keep me as a side bit, Theo? Did you think you could just put me off forever? I’m having your child! Your son! You said you wanted to marry me!”

Theo took two steps toward the woman and grabbed her by the arm. “Gina, dammit—”

“Oh, look!” She laughed out loud. “He remembered my name.”

“Oh. Theo…” Isabella breathed.

“Isabella, I—” he began lamely, still shaking his head, unable to use his freaking words.

“Gaaaaahh!” She fled down the aisle she’d walked up only minutes before on her father’s arm.

As she ran, all eyes were on her, stricken with embarrassment for her. Or for Theo. She couldn’t imagine which. She didn’t care now. She couldn’t think. The buzzing in her ears grew louder.

Then she was outside, lifting her skirts and running, running. To where? No clue. Anywhere. Away from here! Tears blurred her vision and wet her cheeks. Cry for Theo? She sobbed. He didn’t deserve tears. That rat. That bastard. That—

Blindly, she ran toward the stupidly decorated limo—with its tin cans and ridiculous sign waiting for its happily-ever-after passengers who would never, ever climb aboard—and toward the tall good-looking driver she’d seen before who was suddenly at full attention as she headed in a collision course with his vehicle.

“Whoa! Whoa!” he shouted, catching her in his arms before she actually ran into the back end of his car. “Easy.”

“Aaaaahhhh!” she cried, furious and weeping and helpless to keep herself from pressing her face into the lapel of his jacket, wishing she could simply vanish.

“Hey, now…” he soothed.

She gathered the lapels in her fists. “Please! Get me out of here. Drive me somewhere. That’s what you do, isn’t it?”

“Where to?” he practically stammered, his hands hovering just over her shoulders as if he were afraid she might shatter into a million pieces if he touched her.

And she just might. “I don’t care. Anywhere! Anywhere far from here.” The words poured out like pieces of hail, so cold in her throat her insides felt frozen.

“Okay. Okay, wait. But lemme get this straight—”

From somewhere behind her came the sound of Theo’s voice. “Isabella! Wait!”

She lifted a desperate look at the driver. “Please!”

He looked from her to Theo, running their way, then he pushed her protectively behind him. He turned to Theo with his hand raised in a stop motion.

“Take your hands off her!” Theo demanded.

But the driver was big. Bigger than Theo and imposing. He stopped.

“Hey,” the driver said, “Back off.”

“Shut the hell up. I need to talk to Isabella.”

“She doesn’t seem to want to talk to you.”

Theo shot a look around the driver’s shoulder. “Isabella. I can explain everything.”

“Go to hell, Theo!”

“It looks bad, I know, but it’s … it’s … not what it looks like.”

In the distance, her parents and Theo’s parents and half the church were pouring out into the parking lot like a mob, heading hesitantly toward them.

She snarled at Theo. “Oh, I think it is exactly what it looked like. She looked very pregnant to me.”

Theo inhaled sharply and found somewhere far away to pin his gaze, his myriad excuses—make that lies—thumbing across his expression.

“Oh, damn,” the driver guy muttered. “You did not.”

“Am I talking to you?” Theo snapped.

“Nope. You didn’t have to, man.” He reached down and tugged the JUST MARRIED sign off the back of his car, bent it over one knee and broke it in half. He tossed the pieces to the curb.

“Stop hiding behind him,” Theo shouted at Isabella. “I can’t talk to you like this.”

“Go talk to Gina. I have nothing to say to you.”

“Maybe you should just give her some space,” the driver suggested, taking one step closer to Theo as he ripped a long string of tin cans from the car’s bumper and tossed them aside with, it seemed to her, more than ample force. They rolled musically across the parking lot.

“Maybe you should know your place,” Theo told him. “You work for me! I’m paying you.”

“My place?” He snorted. “Yeah. I don’t work for you anymore.” Walking Isabella behind him toward the far door, he opened it, and she dove inside. He shoved the bottom of her wedding gown in after her.

Theo tugged at the opposite door, but the driver had locked him out. Instead, Theo slammed his palms on the window. “It happened a long time ago with Gina. And the kid’s not mine. Probably not mine. It’s you I love, Isabella.”

They’d been exclusively together for twenty-eight months, two weeks and four days. Exactly how did he define a long time ago when that woman still hadn’t given birth to the child he was denying? And while we’re at it, how many others have there been?

She couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t look at any of them, even though she knew her mother had joined Theo at the side of the limo and was calling her name.

“Isabella, sweetheart! Please! Let’s talk this out. Isabella!”

“Drive,” she told the driver as he slammed his door shut and started up the car. “Please, go now!”

He nodded. “You got it.” He pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires, leaving the crowd and their whispers and all the humiliation behind.

And for once in her life, she did not look back.

End of Excerpt

The Cowboy’s Bride is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-962707-07-7

May 30, 2024

→ As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. We also may use affiliate links elsewhere in our site.