The Cowboy Earns a Bride (Page 1)

The Cowboy Earns a Bride (Cowboys of Chance Creek #8)
Author: Cora Seton

Chapter One

“That’s close enough.”

Mia Start lifted the shotgun and sighted down its length, her fingers trembling not from fear, but from the bitter cold of the early morning air. In the field of brightness created by her truck’s headlights, her form-fitting, quilted, pink winter coat was the only splash of color in a quarter mile. Beyond her, the snow-covered fields and forests that lined the icy, back-country road were as black as a Montana midnight, even though it was half-past five in the morning.

“For God’s sake, Mia—put down the gun.” Ellis Scranton wore a formal gray wool coat over his customary suit and lifted a hand to screen his face from the truck’s high beams. His Mercedes’ lights were on, too, but weren’t nearly as bright.

He didn’t look armed.

She still didn’t trust him.

“Why’d you want to meet me?” She’d been more than a little surprised to get his text late the night before and barely slept in the intervening hours. Today was Valentine’s Day—hardly the time to meet with your ex. In her fantasies she’d imagined spending the day in bed with Luke Matheson, the cowboy whose spare room she currently rented.

The cowboy she’d never get to be with—because of Ellis.

She and Ellis had broken off their relationship nearly four months ago when she announced her pregnancy and he announced he’d been lying all along; he didn’t love her, didn’t intend to divorce his wife and didn’t intend to help raise their child, either.

“We need to talk.” Ellis took a step closer. Mia raised the gun half an inch.

No, they didn’t. She’d moved on. It hadn’t taken her long to realize she’d been nothing more than a mid-life crisis to the forty-two-year-old man. The difference in their ages had once excited her. Now it disgusted her. She didn’t want him in her life—or in her baby’s either.

She was struggling with the consequences of their affair. She’d moved out of her parents’ home before they could learn their twenty-one-year-old daughter was dating a middle-aged man—a middle-aged married man. The room she rented from Luke in his cabin on the Double-Bar-K ate most of her earnings from her job at the local hardware store. Soon she’d work for her friends Fila and Camila at their brand-new restaurant, but that wouldn’t involve a wage increase. She knew she should force Ellis to pay child support, but that meant keeping him involved in her baby’s life. She didn’t want that. She just didn’t know how else she could possibly raise this child.

The worst part of the whole mess, though, was the ache of knowing she’d caused pain to another woman—another mother. She’d been so swept away by the older man’s attentions, she hadn’t thought about his wife’s feelings at all. Ellis had told her he and Elaine were practically separated—that they didn’t talk, didn’t share a bed, certainly didn’t make love. He’d told her he’d divorce Elaine as soon as he could. All lies. And she’d been stupid enough to believe them.

“Say what you have to say.”

He lifted his hands. “Are you going to shoot me?”

She took in his tired, lined face, his thinning hair and felt a wave of revulsion, but not over his looks. It was his deception that killed her—the fact he’d even pretended to love her. If only he’d been honest, she wouldn’t be in this fix.

If only she’d met Luke first.

“You’re the one who asked me to meet you on a deserted road at the crack of dawn. Maybe you’re the one planning to shoot me.”

“Fair enough. I deserve that.”

Mia narrowed her eyes. This was new. Ellis never admitted he was to blame for anything.

“I’m here to say good-bye, Mia.”

She lowered the shotgun an inch. “Where are you going?”

“Wyoming. Elaine has family there.” He took a deep breath. “She and I, we’re going to try to make a go of it. We’ll start over somewhere new, somewhere no one knows about the way I screwed up. I owe it to her. I owe it to my children. None of them can hold their heads up in this town.”

“You think I can?” She couldn’t keep her resentment out of her voice. She was over him. Long over him. Yet it hurt to be the one used and discarded.

“No one knows that’s my baby.”

“It won’t be hard for them to put two and two together. Everyone’s gossiping about us seeing each other.”

“All the more reason I’ve got to go. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change the story once I’m gone. Tell them what you want—you had a one-night stand with a stranger. Someone from out of town. Just don’t bring me into it. I’ll deny it all the way.” He took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry, Mia. I’ve been an ass from start to finish. You’re right to hate me. When I think about how I came in and ruined your life, I just want to… Well, I think my leaving is the best thing I can do.”

A chill ran through her that had nothing to do with the weather. “Just like that? You’ll leave me pregnant? Alone? I have no money, Ellis! What about the cost of the birth?”

“This should help.” He held out a small white envelope.

“A couple of fifties won’t get it done!” She didn’t recognize her own voice. She sounded desperate, as if she wasn’t over him at all. It wasn’t Ellis’s desire to leave that had her tied up in knots, however. It was fear. Of being destitute. Of having to give up her child. Of failing…

“It’s not a couple fifties. I wouldn’t do that to you, no matter how big an ass you think I am.” For one moment the old Ellis was back. The confident man who’d swept her off her feet. “Just don’t go and blow it all on pretty clothes and a vacation to Hawaii. Go to Matt Underwood, the accountant—you know him, right? Ask him for help when you make your decisions. It takes a lot of cash to raise a kid right. More than you know.”

Anger surged through her. He was speaking to her as if she was some dumb child herself. “And this is it? I’ll never see you again?”

He studied her, as if trying to decide whether she was happy or sad about that. “That’s right. Never again. But you won’t be alone for long. That Luke Matheson will have you married in no time and you can bank on that family. You’ve lived with him since December, right? With a little luck you can pass that baby off as his.”

“I would never do that. I’m not a liar, like—” She stopped mid-sentence. What was the use? Ellis was leaving. She let the shotgun drop. He stepped toward her.