The Cowboy Lassos a Bride(6)

By: Cora Seton

Ned’s head and shoulders appeared through the trap door as his father paced across the loft to check the leak. “Told you we should move the cattle.”

Jake knew the origin of his father’s blustery temper. He understood why the man acted as if there were threats to his authority everywhere, why he was quick to challenge anyone who set himself up as an equal. He knew why Ned followed so closely in his father’s path when it came to temperament. Knowing what he knew, he should have been able to keep his own emotions in check. Should have been able to keep his mouth shut.

But he couldn’t.

Which is why he said, “I know the weather is going to hold. I read the forecast.”

Which is why his father decided to ruin his life.

It was still dark when Hannah Ashton pulled into the dirt lane that led to the Double-Bar-K ranch, but lights blazed at Holt and Lisa Matheson’s stately home and at each of the smaller cabins strung out at intervals beyond it where their four grown sons lived. Hannah knew that Holt and his sons would all be hard at work at their various chores around the ranch. Lisa would be in her large kitchen cooking for any of them who felt like stopping in for a hot morning meal, and preparing for a busy day of her own.

Hannah had begun to understand the rhythms of life on the Double-Bar-K. Owned by Mathesons for over a hundred and fifty years, it meant the world to the family, and it was beginning to have meaning for her, too. She loved the way the land spread in every direction, and the far off mountains that gave texture to the valley. She loved how the stars still winked high above her when she arrived in the morning, fading away during her short visit. She loved the air of expectation as the ranch came to life.

She parked next to Holt’s pickup and got out into the chilly late November air. The sky toward the east was just beginning to brighten, but sunup was still a ways off. She walked quickly toward the pasture nearest to the house, anticipation building within her. She was excited to see Gladys again—the bison she rescued just weeks ago.

She was excited to see Jake Matheson, too. As foolish as that was.

Rounding a barn, the split rail fence of the pasture came into view, along with the unmistakably large, dark shape of Gladys grazing on grass not far off. Her heart warmed. She wasn’t sure why she loved the large, shaggy beast so much. She’d only seen her for the first time a few weeks back. Something about the animal called to her—Gladys was so prehistoric looking, so different from your run-of-the-mill cow. Maybe she was special because she stood for something in Hannah’s mind. The need to stand up for herself. The need to be true to herself—to do something more than hitch her wagon to someone else’s life. The day she saved Gladys was the day she proclaimed to the world she would do whatever it took to live authentically. Each time she visited Gladys, it reminded her that her dream to be a vet was important. It was worth the trouble to make it happen. It warmed her heart that Jake was just as interested in the bison as she was. More even, since he wanted to start a herd.

Speaking of Jake… Hannah scanned the area as she made her way to the pasture fence, but Jake was nowhere to be seen. She checked her watch. She had a few minutes. Maybe if she lingered for a while, the handsome cowboy would show up.

She knew she shouldn’t wait for him. Knew she shouldn’t encourage him if he was interested. She’d made some important decisions since dumping Cody. She’d set her life in a whole new direction—one that didn’t allow time for a serious relationship. Her acceptance to Montana State University had come. In two months she’d be starting classes, and if all went well she’d head off to veterinary school in Colorado next fall. But in the past few weeks Jake had been very attentive to her, and she’d begun to wonder if she’d misinterpreted his exchange with Tracey at the wedding. In fact, she’d heard the other day Tracey was seeing a cowboy from out near Bozeman, so whatever little flirtation the two of them had must not have worked out.

Would Jake have acted differently if she’d been available when they’d hooked up at Bella’s wedding? She thought the answer might be yes. Now that her relationship with Cody was over and she’d moved into the Cruz ranch Big House, a sort of charged friendship had arisen between her and Jake. He hadn’t tried to kiss her again, but every morning when she came to see Gladys, he was there, waiting for her. Each day they stood at her fence and talked. About Gladys, about the ranch in general, about sustainable ranching, a subject he seemed passionately interested in. Hannah liked that he asked her opinion about things, as if she had any knowledge of the subject. She didn’t. She could ride a horse, but that was it. She’d grown up in a little house in town.

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