DUDE RANCH BRIDE
She saw the sunset in his eyes...
Sexy Native American Ethan Stormwalker vowed never again to speak to his ex-flame, Cindy Wagner. But when she showed up at his dude ranch wearing a wedding gown - without a groom - all promises were off. Gone was the girl who had broken his heart, and in her place...an utterly irresistible woman.
Runaway bride Cindy Wagner forever longed for past love Ethan Stormwalker. And with one look into his untamed gaze, the years of silence that hung between them melted away. But loving Ethan came with a price. Could Cindy turn her back on the life her family wanted for her to live for the man she was born to love?
Cindy Wagner clutched her father’s arm in a death grip as they walked down the aisle toward the altar. She couldn’t go through with this. Why had she let it go this far?
Her father reached over and patted her hand. “Relax,” he whispered.
Relax? How on earth could she relax? She glanced at the long white runner that stretched ahead of her, at the pretty white satin bows at the end of the pews, the tall white wicker holders filled with fresh pink and white rosebuds and baby’s breath. Her maid of honor and five bridesmaids, all dressed in shades of mauve and carrying bouquets of pink carnations, stood there looking far happier than she felt, no doubt remembering their own weddings or dreaming of ones to come. Cindy’s two brothers, Lance and Joe, stood beside Paul, together with Paul’s two brothers and his cousin.
Why had she let her father talk her into this marriage?
From the corner of her eye, she saw her mother sitting in the front row looking proud and sad at the same time.
Her father winced as she dug her fingernails into his arm. Another few steps and they were at the altar. The scent of roses filled the air.
Her father leaned over and kissed her cheek and then placed her hand, her cold trembling hand, into Paul’s. Feeling abandoned, Cindy sent a mute appeal to her father who smiled reassuringly and took a step backward. With a sigh of resignation, she turned to face the minister.
“Marriage is an honorable estate,” the pastor began, “and not to be entered into lightly…”
She slid a furtive glance toward Paul. He was tall and blond and handsome with light brown eyes and a fine straight nose. He was ambitious, even-tempered, and even richer than her father. But did she want to spend the rest of her life with him? Cindy tried to tell herself that her doubts were caused by nothing more than last minute jitters - very last minute jitters, to be sure. But she knew her uncertainty went far deeper than just a case of nerves. Paul wanted to be in the limelight. He had high ambitions and saw himself running for public office in a year or two, but it wasn’t the kind of life she wanted. All she wanted to do was get married and raise three or four happy, healthy children with a man who would put his wife and children first.
Paul had made her forget that for awhile. He had swept her off her feet, wined her and dined her in all the best restaurants in town, showered her with flowers and candy. Caught up in the whirlwind that was Paul VanDerHyde, she had let him convince her that she loved him.
Why hadn’t she listened to her mother?
“He’ll never make you happy, honey,” Claire Wagner had told her not twenty minutes ago. “It’s not too late to change your mind.”
“Mom, are you crazy?” Cindy had met her mother’s gaze in the mirror as her mother pinned her veil in place.
Not too late? There was a mountain of wedding gifts back at the house, a stretch limo waiting to take them to the airport. The bridal suite at The Plaza in New York City was reserved for them. She sighed. She hadn’t wanted to go to New York on her honeymoon, but Paul had swept away her objections, saying they would have a wonderful time, assuring her that his business there would only take one day, two at the most. They could go to Hawaii some other time.
The minister’s voice brought her back to the here and now. “And do you, Cynthia Elizabeth Wagner, take Paul Raymond VanDerHyde…”
Her mouth was dry, her palms damp. She heard her mother’s voice in the back of her mind: Do you love him so much you can’t imagine life without him? And Cindy knew the answer was no.
She looked at Paul and for one wild moment, it was another face she saw. A strong masculine face framed by long black hair. And that, she thought, was the real reason she couldn’t go through with this wedding. Not now. Not ever. There was only one man she couldn’t imagine living without and it wasn’t Paul VanDerHyde.
Overcome by a sudden sense of panic, she tugged on Paul's hand to get his attention. “I can't do this,” she whispered, “I'm sorry.”
She almost tripped on the hem of her dress as she freed her hand from his, then turned and ran down the aisle as fast as her high heels would permit, her veil billowing behind her. How could she have let Paul's money, his romantic endearments, the large engagement ring, outweigh her doubts and cloud her judgement? How had she ever thought to find happiness with Paul when she was marrying him more to please her father than herself?
She ran faster, her eyes blurred by her tears, a sob building in her throat as she rounded the corner, pushed through the big double doors, and hurried down the stairs toward the waiting limo.
The driver opened the rear door for her. Holding her veil with one hand, she ducked into the back seat.
“Go!” she said. “Now. Go. Hurry!”
The driver nodded, as if runaway brides were an everyday occurrence in his line of work. Sliding behind the wheel, he turned the key in the ignition just as Paul and the members of the wedding party burst through the doorway.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“I don’t know.” She sank back against the butter-soft leather seat. “Just drive.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and pulled out of the parking lot.
She stared out the window, watching the scenery pass by in a blur of tears. Where did runaway brides go? Where could she hide where no one would find her? Some place where she wouldn’t have to explain what she’d done or why. Some place where no one would know who she was.
They had been driving for several hours when she saw the billboard on the side of the road. Leaning forward, she read:
Elk Valley Dude Ranch 15 miles ahead.
Hunting. Fishing. Horseback riding
Cabins with or without cooking facilities
Available by the Day, Week, or Month
Elk Valley Dude Ranch. Just reading the words sent unwanted frissons of excitement running through her.
Cindy closed her eyes, wondering if going there would be wise. She knew no one would look for her at a dude ranch in Elk Valley, but there was always a chance he might show up there. For the last five years, every time she had seen a tall, broad-shouldered man with long black hair, her heart had skipped a beat in anticipation.
She hoped he would be there. Seeing him again might be a good thing, she decided, wiping the last of her tears from her eyes, maybe confronting him again would banish him from her heart once and for all.
Ethan Stormwalker swore under his breath as a long white limo pulled up in front of the ranch office. Man, Dorothea must be expecting some mighty rich greenhorns this time, he mused with a shake of his head. Most guests arrived at the ranch in dusty vans or SUV’s or driving old station wagons.
The limo driver exited the vehicle, straightened his jacket, and opened the back door. Ethan nearly fell down the stairs as a woman clad in a long white wedding gown stepped out of the car. He couldn’t help staring. Her hair, piled in thick curls atop her head, was as black as his own. She had lovely clear skin, generous curves in all the right places, and a waist so small he could span it with his hands. At this distance, he couldn’t see her eyes but he knew they were as clear and blue as the Montana sky overhead.
He whistled softly. He hadn’t seen her in five years but he had carried her image in his mind and in his heart every day of those five years. She had always been a knockout and he swore again, envying the guy that had been lucky enough to marry her. Ethan waited, curious to see what kind of man Cynthia Elizabeth Wagner had picked.
Cindy spoke to the driver, then lifted her skirts to keep them out of the dirt as she walked toward the office, her veil blowing lightly in the breeze.
Ethan quickly turned his back, pretending to study the notices thumb tacked to the bulletin board. What the hell was she doing here, and how was he going to avoid her? He glanced back at the limo, wondering where the groom was. He couldn’t see anything or anyone through the tinted windows.
The bell above the door chimed softly as she opened it and stepped inside. He told himself to get out of there before she came back out, but he didn’t move, only stood there like some nerdy high school kid hoping to catch a glimpse of the prom queen.
She emerged from the office a few moments later. From the corner of his eye, Ethan watched her descend the stairs. She spoke to the driver, who went around the back of the limo, opened the trunk, and lifted out a small overnight case and a black handbag. He handed both to Cindy, smiled at her, then slid behind the wheel of the limo and drove off.
She stood there a moment, staring after the limo, a wistful expression on her face, and then marched across the yard and back into the office.
No groom? Consumed with curiosity, Ethan was tempted to follow her inside, but he’d just got back from a long trail ride with eleven city kids and he needed a hot shower and a cold beer, in that order. And he had vowed never to speak to Cindy Wagner again, not in this life, and not in the next.
With a shake of his head, he shoved her out of his mind and headed for the corral.