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DUDE RANCH BRIDE/WEST TEXAS BRIDE

Cover by Cynthia Lucas

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?

Prologue

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.”


She'd come to Texas for a little R and R, but after meeting her sexy riding instructor, sophisticated Carly Kirkwood began experiencing sleepless nights filled with vivid dreams. For Zane Roan Eagle was like no man she'd ever met, and his chiseled Lakota features made Carly wild with anticipation every time he was in her presence.

 

Before long, their days were filled with longing looks and their nights with yearning. And although Carly always believed she belong in Los Angeles, the thought of leaving Zane created an ache deep in her heart. Could this die-hard city girl conceive a future as a WEST TEXAS BRIDE?

Chapter 1

"What on earth did I get myself into?"  The words echoed in Carly Kirkwood's mind as she hurried out of the smelly restroom at the Twisted River Fairgrounds and made her way across a dusty stretch of ground toward the grandstand. The air was filled with the smell of dust, hot dogs, cotton candy, popcorn, beer, and a thoroughly disgusting odor that was the result of a lot of sweaty men, cows, and horses all crammed together in a small area.

Everywhere she looked she saw men, women, children, and even babies dressed in jeans, colorful cowboy shirts and boots. Well, what had she expected? Armani suits and Gucchi loafers?

 

She was  in the middle of Texas, after all. Come up to the ranch for your vacation, her best friend, Brenda Clark had begged. You'll love it. And you'll love Texas. Carly had been looking forward to having some time off from work. Not that her job as a web designer was particularly hard or stressful, but hey, she was entitled to a vacation and she intended to take it. Originally, she had planned to go to Yosemite or maybe Sequoia but she had jumped at the chance to spend some time with Brenda. Three weeks of wide-open spaces had sounded like a wonderful break from web layouts and html code.

 

The Circle C Ranch was nice, Carly had to admit that. The main part of the house had been built in the late 1800's. The original structure had been added to and modernized through the years, but the Clarks had managed to keep the Old West feel to the place. Brenda's family raised and trained Quarter horses and also ran a few thousand head of beef cattle. But, as nice as the ranch was, she didn't love it. Her idea of a vacation was a four-star hotel with room service, a heated pool, and a mall within walking distance.Even though the ranch house was comfortable and the surrounding countryside pretty, the weather was hot and sticky and there were horses, cows, and chickens, everywhere and, even worse, the droppings, large and small, that they left behind. A rooster that sounded as if it had a bad case of bronchitis woke her every morning long before she was ready to get up, and Brenda and her husband, Jerry, kept the same hours as the sun. Carly wasn't used to going to bed so early. She had tried to adjust her hours to Brenda's the firsttwo days she had been at the ranch, but all she had done was lie awake looking up at the ceiling and listening to the clock downstairs chime the hours.


They had driven into Twisted River and gone to lunch and a movie last weekend.Twisted River was a small town. It reminded Carly of a Western movie set, complete with cowboys in hats and chaps. She had seen a couple of Indian girls with long black braids walking down the street. There had even been a horse tied up in front of one of the stores.

After the movie, Brenda had taken her to the local ice cream parlor and they had spent an hour getting caught up on what had happened since Brenda moved to Twisted River three years ago. Brenda hadn't wanted to leave Los Angeles; she had been as much a city girl as Carly, but Brenda's father-in-law had died suddenly and her mother-in-law had needed help in running the ranch. Jerry had insisted on going back home. He had reminded Brenda that he had been in L.A. on business when they met and that he hadn't intended to stay three weeks, let alone three years. Brenda's leaving had been a blow to Carly. Brenda was her best friend; they had been practically inseparable since kindergarten. People had often assumed they were sisters, they spent so much time together. They had bought their first bras together, discovered boys together, consoled each other over broken hearts. Carly had been at Brenda's side, offering comfort, when Brenda's brother was killed in a car accident four years earlier; Brenda had been there to help Carly when she dumped her long-time boyfriend the year after that.

 

Carly let out a sigh of exasperation as she barely missed stepping in a large pile of manure that was still steaming. Honestly, she thought, these people needed a law about picking up after horses like the one they had in L.A. about picking up after your dog!

 

She had almost reached the grandstand when she barreled into what felt like a stone wall. Looking up, she found herself staring into a pair of deep black eyes set beneath a pair of equally black brows that were drawn together in a frown.

 

"Whoa, there, gal, you'd best watch where you're going." His voice was as deep and dark as his eyes and evoked a shiver from somewhere deep inside her.

 

"I was watching," she muttered.

 

If she hadn't been watching where she put her feet, she never would have run into him! She took a step back, intimated by his height and the breadth of his shoulders. His skin was the color of old copper; there were fine lines around his eyes, a faint white scar just above his left eyebrow. He wore a pair of black jeans, a pale blue shirt, and a black cowboy hat with a snakeskin band. A red kerchief was loosely knotted at his throat.

 

"Yeah?" he asked skeptically. "Just what were you watching?"