“You did what?” Ethan Cruz turned his back on the slate and glass entrance to Chance Creek, Montana’s Regional Airport, and jiggled the door handle of Rob Matheson’s battered red Chevy truck. Locked. It figured – Rob had to know he’d want to turn tail and head back to town the minute he found out what his friends had done. “Open the damned door, Rob.”
“Not a chance. You’ve got to come in – we’re picking up your bride.”
“I don’t have a bride and no one getting off that plane concerns me. You’ve had your fun, now open up the door or I’m grabbing a taxi.” He faced his friends. Rob, who’d lived on the ranch next door to his their entire lives. Cab Johnson, county sheriff, who was far too level-headed to be part of this mess. And Jamie Lassiter, the best horse trainer west of the Mississippi as long as you could pry him away from the ladies. The four of them had gone to school together, played football together, and spent more Saturday nights at the bar than he could count. How many times had he gotten them out of trouble, drove them home when they’d had one beer to many, listened to them bellyache about their girlfriends or lack thereof when all he really wanted to do was knock back a cold one and play a game of pool? What the hell had he ever done to deserve this?
Unfortunately, he knew exactly what he’d done. He’d played a spectacularly brilliant prank a month or so ago on Rob – a prank that still had the town buzzing – and Rob concocted this nightmare as payback. Rob got him drunk one night and egged him on about his ex-fiancee until he spilled his guts about how much it still bothered him that Lacey Taylor had given him the boot in favor of that rich sonofabitch Carl Whitfield. The name made him want to spit. Dressed like a cowboy when everyone knew he couldn’t ride to save his life.
Lacey bailed on him just as life had delivered a walloping one-two punch. First his parents died in a car accident. Then he discovered the ranch was mortgaged to the hilt. As soon as Lacey learned there would be some hard times ahead, she took off like a runaway horse. Didn’t even have the decency to break up with him face to face. Before he knew it Carl was flying Lacey all over creation in his private plane. Las Vegas. San Francisco. Houston. He never had a chance to get her back.
He should have kept his thoughts bottled up where they belonged – would have kept them bottled up if Rob hadn’t kept putting those shots into his hand – but no, after he got done swearing and railing at Lacey’s bad taste in men, he apparently decided to lecture his friends on the merits of a real woman. The kind of woman a cowboy should marry.
And Rob – good ol’ Rob – captured the whole thing with his cell phone.
When he showed it to him the following day, Ethan made short work of the asinine gadget, but it was too late. Rob had already emailed the video to Cab and Jamie, and the three of them spent the next several days making his life damn miserable over it.
If only they’d left it there.
The other two would have, but Rob was still sore about that old practical joke, so he took things even further. He decided there must be a woman out there somewhere who met all of the requirements Ethan expounded on during his drunken rant. To find her, he did what any rational man would do. He edited Ethan’s rant into a video advertisement for a damned mail order bride.
And posted it on YouTube.
Rob showed him the video on the ride over to the airport. There he was for all the world to see, sounding like a jack-ass – hell, looking like one, too. Rob’s fancy editing made his rant sound like a proposition. “What I want,” he heard himself say, “is a traditional bride. A bride for a cowboy. 18 – 25 years old, willing to work hard, beautiful, quiet, sweet, good cook, ready for children. I’m willing to give her a trial. One month’ll tell me all I need to know.” Then the image cut out to a screen full of text, telling women how to submit their video applications.
Unbelievable. This was low – real low – even for Rob.
Ready for children?
“You all are cracked in the head. I’m not going in there.”
“Come on, Ethan,” Cab said. The big man stood with his legs spread, his arms folded over his barrel chest, ready to stop him if he tried to run. “The girl’s come all the way from New York. You’re not even going to say hello? What kind of a fiancé are you?”
He clenched his fists. “No kind at all. And there isn’t any girl in there. You know it. I know it. So stop wasting my time. There isn’t any girl dumb enough to answer something like that!”
The other men exchanged a look.
“Actually,” Jamie said, leaning against the Chevy and rubbing the stubble on his chin with the back of his hand. “We got nearly 200 answers to that video. Took us hours to get through them all.” He grinned. “Who can resist a cowboy, right?”
As far as Ethan was concerned, plenty of women could. Lacey certainly had resisted him. Hence his bachelor status. “So you picked the ugliest, dumbest girl and tricked her into buying a plane ticket. Terrific.”
Rob looked pained. “No, we found one that’s both hot and smart. And we chipped in and bought the ticket – round trip, because we figured you wouldn’t know a good thing when it kicked you in the butt, so we’d have to send her back. Have a little faith in your friends. You think we’d steer you wrong?”
Hell, yes. Ethan took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. The guys wouldn’t admit they were joking until he’d gone into the airport and hung around the gate looking foolish for a suitable amount of time. And if they were stupid enough to actually fly a girl out here, he couldn’t trust them to put her back on a plane home. So now instead of finishing his chores before supper, he’d lose the rest of the afternoon sorting out this mess.
“Fine. Let’s get this over with,” he said, striding toward the front door. Inside, he didn’t bother to look at the television screen which showed incoming and outgoing flights. Chance Creek Regional had all of four gates. He’d just follow the hall as far as homeland security allowed him and wait until some lost soul deplaned.
“Look – it’s on time.” Rob grabbed his arm and tried to hurry him along. Ethan dug in the heels of his well worn boots and proceeded at his own pace.
Jamie pulled a cardboard sign out from under his jacket and flashed it at Ethan before holding it up above his head. It read, Autumn Leeds. Jamie shrugged at Ethan’s expression. “I know – the name’s brutal.”