"Rob? Where the hell are you?" Holt said. "It’s past time for chores." Behind him, cattle lowed and bawled. He must be right among the herd.
"I know. I’m…out of town. Actually I’m out of the country."
"Out of the country? What the hell does that mean?"
"I’m in Canada – with Morgan. I’ve got some news." Rob grinned when Morgan lifted her head and smiled tentatively at him. "Dad, just listen, will you? I’m getting married."
He held his breath. From the look of things, Morgan was holding hers, too.
"That’s right, married," he said. "To Morgan Tate, Ethan and Claire’s half-sister. I’m in Victoria right now. Last night she agreed to be my wife." He flashed her a thumb’s up.
"You’re marrying that whore’s daughter?"
Rob jerked and spun on his heel, striding to the far side of the living room, afraid Morgan might be able to hear his father’s words. "Dad. That’s no way to talk…"
"I’m calling it like I see it. If my wife ran around like Aria Cruz did, she’d see the backside of my hand. I certainly wouldn’t hitch my wagon to a filly whose mare was that kind of wild." Holt was breathing hard, probably walking back to the barn or the house, to get away from the noise of the cattle.
"For God’s sake." After a furtive look in Morgan’s direction, Rob paced to the bedroom and shut the door behind him. "First of all, I never want to hear you speak about my wife or my wife’s family like that again. Second of all, it’s no fault of Morgan’s if her parents’ marriage was less than perfect. My parents’ marriage ain’t all sunshine and roses, either."
"You done?" Holt growled.
"For now," Rob growled right back. "If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know."
"When’s this so-called wedding?"
"Tonight if I can swing it. Tomorrow or the next day if I can’t. We haven’t figured out what it takes to get a civil marriage yet."
"Civil marriage? A civil marriage ain’t going to do you any good. You want the land I told you about, you’ll get married right here on our lawn."
"But what? You afraid if she has to wait a month or two, she’ll lose interest? Or are you paying her to marry you? You get a divorce, I’ll expect that land back, you hear me? Should have known the first thing you’d do is pull off some joke."
Rob’s anger surged. "I’m not joking, and we planned a civil wedding because we were in a hurry. And yeah, part of that hurry is I’m afraid Jake or Ned will beat me to it and grab that land. I don’t trust you to keep your word."
He wondered if he’d gone too far. Holt had many faults, but he considered himself to be an honorable man.
"I won’t go back on my word as long as the marriage is real. You bring back that girl of yours and you stand up before our family and friends and pledge your vows, and I’ll give you the land then and there. But if I think you’re playing a trick, the whole thing’s off."
"Fine." Rob opened the bedroom door and walked out into the living room again in order to consult with Morgan. She was still eating her cereal, and raised her eyebrows at him. "We have to get married on the ranch," he told her. "How about two weeks from Saturday?"
"A week after Claire and Jamie get married?" Morgan asked. "Will they even be back from their honeymoon?"
"Those Cruzes are having a wedding in a week or so," Holt was saying in his ear, echoing Morgan’s words. "Can’t have two weddings in a row. You’d better wait a month." He heard paper shuffling on the other end of the phone. Holt must be consulting one of his many calendars. He got them free from local banks and feed companies each year, and posted one in every barn and outbuilding on the spread. "October eleventh. Might be chilly. We’ll have to prepare for bad weather. I’ll leave that up to your mother to sort out."
"October eleventh? That’s…" He turned a pleading expression on Morgan.
"That’s perfect," she said, and to his surprise she actually seemed happy. Maybe she hadn’t been as thrilled at the prospect of a quick, civil wedding as he was. Women never were. She probably wanted all that dress and flower stuff.
"What if Jake or Ned or Luke decides to get married before I even get home?" he asked his father.
"Nah – you’ve staked your claim," Holt said. "I’ll put you on the phone with your mother next. If you tell her she can start planning that wedding, then I won’t let no one else jump the line ahead of you until after October eleventh. If you call the wedding off, though, the field’s wide open again."
"Okay, well…all right. As long as they can’t pull a fast one on me. I’ll have Morgan home tomorrow night. Wait…she’s trying to tell me something."
"I can’t leave tomorrow – I have to give some notice at work and pack. I’ve already got tickets for September second, the night before Claire and Jamie’s wedding. That’s when we’ll go."
Rob thought about arguing with her, then decided against it. He spoke into the phone again. "Morgan needs time to tie up some loose ends here, so we’ll be home next Friday. Put Mom on. I’ll let Morgan talk to her."
"All right. But don’t expect your mother to waste her time planning a wedding until you and your bride actually roll into town. We know your track record. You don’t have a chance in hell at pulling this off."
"Thanks a lot for that vote of confidence, Dad," he said, his anger finally getting the best of him. "Don’t worry about tracking down Mom. I’ll call her cell directly." He hung up with an oath.
"What did he say?" Morgan, finished with her breakfast, approached him, concern in her gaze.
"He can never let me do things my way," he finally said. "Not even my own damned wedding. He says it doesn’t count unless we get married at the ranch. The whole town has to be present, too, and since Claire and Jamie are getting married on Labor Day we have to wait at least a month afterwards. That means October 11th. That’s six weeks away!"
"That’s not too long." Morgan looked pleased at the chance for a ranch wedding.
"Six weeks for my father to think of other ways to screw with me," Rob said. "Mark my words, he’ll figure out some way to back out of giving me that land."
"Giving us that land, you mean," Morgan said, glancing at her watch and heading toward the bedroom. "You’re not giving up, are you? Do you want to call it off?" She hesitated by the door.
"No." Rob’s quick and vehement answer surprised himself as much as her. "My brothers and mother all heard him say he’d give the land to the first son to get married. There’ll be five of us against one if he pulls something. Almost a fair fight. I’m supposed to call my Mom and let her know what’s going on. She’ll want to start to plan the wedding."