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Christine Rimmer New York Time Bestselling Author
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Christine Rimmer - New York Times Bestselling Author

The Maverick's Accidental Bride

Chapter One
by Christine Rimmer

“You remind me of a girl I used to know,” said a way-too-familiar deep voice in Jordyn Leigh Cates’s ear. “She was just a kid, really. Pretty little thing, always following me around…”

Jordyn whirled on the killer handsome cowboy she’d known all her life. “Will Clifton, you liar. I never, ever followed you around.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Did not.”

“Did so.”

She laughed. “You know we sound like a couple of overgrown brats, right?”

“Speak for yourself.” Will gave her the sexy half smile that had broken more than one girl’s heart back home in Thunder Canyon. “Never could resist teasing you.”

Jordyn sipped from her paper cup of delicious wedding punch. “I heard that you were in town.”

“Craig, Jonathan and Rob, too.” Those were his brothers. “We’re staying out at Maverick Manor.” Formerly known as Bledsoe’s Folly, the giant, long-deserted log mansion southeast of town had been transformed the year before into an upscale hotel with a rustic flair.

She gave him a teasing look from under her lashes. “I also heard a rumor that you bought a place right here in Rust Creek Falls…?”

“As a matter of fact, I did.” There was real pride in his voice, and his gorgeous blue eyes shone bright with satisfaction. “Beautiful spread in the Rust Creek Valley, east of town, not far from the Traub ranch. Escrow closes on Tuesday.”

Jordyn was happy for him. It had always been Will’s dream to have his own ranch. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

They grinned at each other. She thought he looked even hunkier than usual in a white dress shirt, a coffee-colored Western-cut vest and a bolo tie. He’d polished his belt buckle to a proud shine, and his black jeans broke just right over his black dress boots.

He reached out a hand and tugged on a blond curl that trailed loose of her updo. “You’re lookin’ good.”

A warm lick of pleasure stole through her. He was five years her senior, and he’d always treated her like a kid. But right now, the way he gazed at her? She didn’t feel like a kid in the least. She dared to flutter her eyelashes at him. “Thank you, Will.”

He tipped his black Stetson. “It’s only the truth. You look great—not to mention, patriotic.”

“Red, white and blue all the way.” She flicked a glance down at her knee-length strapless chiffon bridesmaid’s dress. It was Old-Glory Blue.

Just a couple of hours ago, Braden Traub, second oldest of the Rust Creek Traub boys, had married angelic blonde Jennifer MacCallum, who had moved to town a year before. They’d decided on an outdoor wedding reception—an Independence Day picnic in Rust Creek Falls Park. Red-and white-checked oilcloths covered all the picnic tables. Red, white and blue canopies provided shade from the summer sun.

Plus, they’d set up a portable oak dance floor not far from the punch table, where Jordyn and Will stood. The six-piece band wasn’t half bad. Right then they were rockin’ a great Brad Paisley song. Jordyn’s sparkly blue high heels had a tendency to get stuck in the grass when she wasn’t out on the dance floor, but she refused to let that slow her down. She kept her weight on her toes and had no trouble tapping a foot to the music as a certain tall cowboy in a big white hat two-stepped by with a curvy brunette. That cowboy gave Jordyn a wink.

And Jordyn winked right back at him. “Wahoo, cowboy!” She raised her bridesmaid’s bouquet of red roses in a jaunty wave.

And of course, Will just had to demand, “Who’s that?”

She sent him a glance of serene self-possession. “Just a guy I was dancing with a little while ago…” What she didn’t say was that she intended to be dancing with that cowboy again soon. Very soon. Will could get way too big-brotherly, and she didn’t need that. She lifted her paper cup for another sip—and Will snagged it right out of her hand. “Hey!” She brandished her bouquet at him. “Give me back my punch, Clifton. Or I won’t be responsible for what happens next.”

He smirked at her and sniffed the cup. “What’s in this, anyway?”

“Oh, please. It’s just punch.”

“Spiked?”

She puffed out her cheeks with a disgusted breath. “Hardly. Punch, I said. Fruit juice and mixers—and a small amount of sparkling wine—and don’t give me that look. I asked the bride so I know whereof I speak. It’s a public park, Will. No hard liquor allowed.”

Being Will, he just had to argue the point. “I’ve spotted a hip flask or two in the crowd.”

“Well, yeah. But on the down-low. The punch is harmless, believe me. And if you’re so worried about a teeny bit of sparkling wine, try the kids’ punch table.” With a flourish, she pointed her bouquet at the table several feet away, where the children and teetotalers were served.

Will was watching her, his expression annoyingly suspicious. “You seem to be having a really good time, Jordyn Leigh—maybe too good a time.”

“There is no such thing as too good a time.” She scowled at him. “And do not call me Jordyn Leigh.”

“Why not? It’s your name.”

“Yeah, but when you say it, I feel like I’m eight years old. Wearing hand-me-down jeans and a wrinkled plaid shirt, with my hair in pigtails and my two front teeth missing.”

Looking right next door to wistful, Will shook his head. “I really liked that little girl.”

“Well, I’m not her. And I haven’t been for seventeen years.” Right then, that weird old guy, Homer Gilmore, hobbled by on the other side of the punch table. He gave Jordyn a great big snaggle-tooth grin. Homer was as sweet as he was strange, so she responded with a merry wave. “I’m all grown-up now,” she reminded Will.

“Yes, you are.” He toasted her with her own cup and then drank the rest, bold as brass.

She could almost get aggravated that he’d commandeered her punch. But no. Back at the church during the wedding, she’d been feeling a tad low to be a bridesmaid and not a bride for the umpteenth time. But it was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the wide Montana sky. And hadn’t she already shared a dance with a handsome cowboy? Who knew what good things might happen next? Her dark mood had vanished. Will was right. She was having a wonderful time. No way was she letting Will Clifton harsh her lovely mellow.

Instead, she grabbed a fresh flag-printed paper cup and poured herself another full one. When he held out the cup that used to be hers, she good-naturedly served him, as well.

They tapped cups and drank.

(*)

For Jordyn, the rest of that fateful afternoon flashed by in soft-focus snapshots.

She and Will hung out. And it was good. Better than good.

Up until that day, he’d always treated her like a youngster he needed to boss around. But from the first wedding-punch toast they’d shared that day, it was different.

Suddenly, they were equals. She had fun with him. A lot of fun. They ate barbecue and wedding cake together. They visited with his brothers, with the bride and groom and with Jordyn’s Newcomers Club girlfriends, who were also her fellow bridesmaids.

They met a quirky married couple, Elbert and Carmen Lutello. Elbert, small and thin with dark-rimmed glasses, was the county clerk. Carmen, broad-shouldered, commanding and a head taller than her husband, was a district judge. Carmen and Elbert were so cute together, totally dewy-eyed over each other—and the wedding and love and romance in general. Jordyn adored them.

She and Will enjoyed more punch. They danced together. Several dances. Somehow, she never got around to another dance with the cowboy in the white hat. Truth to tell, she forgot all about that guy. It was just her and Will, together in a lovely, misty place. The park, the picnic reception, the music and laughter…all that got pleasantly hazy around the edges, became background to the magic happening between her and Will.

Will kissed her. Right there on the dance floor. Just tipped her chin up with a finger and settled that sexy mouth of his on hers. They swayed to the music and kissed on and on.

Sweet Lord, the man could kiss. He kissed like the prince in a fairy tale, the kind of kiss that could wake a girl up from a hundred years of sleep. It was something of a miracle, the way Will kissed her that day. At last. Just when she’d started to doubt that she would ever be on the receiving end of kisses like his.

And he told her she was beautiful.

Didn’t he?

It seemed he did. But she wasn’t sure…

Not completely, anyway. Because things got hazier and hazier as the afternoon turned to evening.

Once night fell, a few weird things happened. One of the Dalton sisters got thrown in jail for resisting arrest—after dancing in the newly dedicated park fountain.

At some point Jordyn and Will stood hand in hand in the parking lot between Rust Creek Park and Brooks’s Veterinary Clinic. They stared into the lambskin-lined trunk of Elbert Lutello’s pink 1957 convertible Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz. Elbert hauled out a leather briefcase and announced with great solemnity, “You never know when a legal order or some other official form might be needed. I am a public servant, and I like to be prepared…”

And then, in the blink of an eye, Jordyn and Will, still holding hands, were swept magically back to the park with all the party lights twinkling beneath the almost-full moon. People crowded around them, watching. Carmen Lutello stood before them, blessing them with a tender smile.

What happened next?

Jordyn wasn’t sure.

But the party went on. Will gave her more of those beautiful endless kisses; he fed them to her, each one delicious and perfect, filling her up with delight and satisfaction.

Actually, a lot of folks were kissing. You couldn’t walk beneath a tree without having to ease around an embracing couple. And why not? It was only natural for everyone to be feeling happy and affectionate at a wedding. High spirits ruled on this special, joyous, romantic night…

(*)

The next morning, in her bed at Strickland’s Boarding House, Jordyn woke to discover that an army of mean little men with pickaxes had taken up residence in her brain.

For several minutes, she lay very still with her eyes closed, waiting for her stomach to stop lurching and the little men with the axes to knock off attacking the inside of her skull. Finally, breathing slowly and evenly through her nose, she opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling.

The wrong ceiling…

Her pained grimace became a frown.

With great care, she turned her head toward the nightstand at her side. It was rustic, that nightstand, of what appeared to be reclaimed, beautifully worked old wood. It bore no resemblance to the simple pasteboard one she had at the boardinghouse. A clock stood on that nightstand—not her clock.

And wait a minute.  How could it possibly be past noon?

Her stomach did a forward roll. She swallowed down a spurt of acid and carefully, tortuously, rolled her head the other way.

Dear, sweet Mary and baby Jesus. Will.

She blinked, looked away—and looked back again.

He was still there, still sound asleep beside her, lying on his stomach with his face turned away from her, his hair night-black against the white pillow. His strong arms and broad, muscular shoulders were bare. So was his powerful back tapering down to his tight waist. Below that, she couldn’t be sure. The sheet covered the rest of him.

The sight of Will Clifton possibly naked right next to her in the bed that was not her bed was the final straw. Her stomach rebelled.

With a cry of abject wretchedness and total mortification, she threw back the covers and raced for the open door that led to the bathroom.

(*)

The slamming of the bathroom door woke Will.

With a loud “Huh?” he flipped to his back and bolted to a sitting position. “What the…?” He pressed both hands to his aching head and groaned.

But then he heard the painful sounds coming from the bathroom.

“Huh?” he said again. Apparently, he wasn’t alone. There was someone in the bathroom. Someone being sick.

“Ugh.” Still only half-awake, he raked the sleep-scrambled hair off his forehead. His gaze skimmed past the bedside chair—and then homed right back in on it.

His clothes from last night were tossed in a wad across that chair. On top of them, the hem drooping toward the floor, lay a pretty blue dress topped by a woman’s small, sparkly purse and a wilted red bouquet. Will shut his eyes as the heaving noises continued in the other room.

But then, well, keeping his eyes shut wouldn’t make the sounds from the bathroom go away. So he opened them again—opened them and let them track lower, to the foot of the chair and the pair of sexy, sparkly, red-soled blue bridesmaid’s shoes that had toppled sideways beneath the filmy hem of the blue dress.

Will knew that dress, those shoes, that bouquet…

Jordyn?

Jordyn Leigh Cates, in the bathroom? Sweet Jordyn Leigh, in his hotel room without her dress on? Little Jordyn Leigh…had spent the night in his bed?

He clapped his hands to his head again and tried to think it through.

Okay, he remembered spending the afternoon and evening with her yesterday. They’d had a great time.

But what happened later? How did they get here to his hotel room together?

Damned if he could remember.

He threw back the covers and saw he was wearing only boxer briefs. Did that mean…?

Damn it all to hell. He had no idea what it meant.

And poor Jordyn. The sounds coming from the bathroom were not good.

He jumped to his feet and whipped his black jeans out from under her pretty blue dress. He was pulling them on as he hopped to the bathroom door. Zipping up fast, he gave the door a cautious tap. “Jordyn, are you—?”

She let out a low groan, a sound of purest misery. “Leave me alone, Will. Don’t you dare come in here.”

“Let me—”

“No! Stay there. I’ll be out in a minute.”

His head drooped forward until his forehead met the door. Jordyn Leigh? He’d had sex with little Jordyn Leigh? He wanted to beat the crap out of himself. Her younger brother, Brody, probably would beat the crap out of him—and he would deserve every punch. And what about her parents, who were good friends with his parents? Dear God, he should be tied down spread-eagled in the noonday sun for the buzzards to peck to a million pieces. “Jordyn, I’m so sor—”

“Go away, Will!”

He raised his knuckles to knock again—but then just let them drop. “Uh. Just call. If you need me…”

She didn’t bother to answer him that time. The heaving sounds continued.

He stood there, undecided, wanting to help, not knowing how. And that made him feel even more like a low-down dirty dog, because he couldn’t help and he knew it.

And he had no business just standing there, his head against the door, listening to her being sick.

So he dragged his sorry ass back to his side of the tangled bed and sat on the edge of it. He braced his elbows on his spread knees and let his head hang low in shame.

And that was when he spotted the document on the floor.

“Huh?” He picked it up.

Then, for a long time, several minutes at least, he just stared at the damn thing in stunned disbelief.

But it didn’t matter how long he stared, the document didn’t magically become something else. Uh-uh. No matter how long he stared, it was still a marriage license, complete with the embossed seal of the county clerk declaring it a true certified copy.

The county clerk

Last night there was a guy, wasn’t there? A little guy in black-rimmed glasses. Yeah. Elton or Eldred, something like that. And the little guy was married to that big woman, the judge…

Will blinked hard and shook his head. It didn’t seem possible. He had zero recollection of any actual ceremony. But still. He was reasonably sure the county clerk had been there last night, the county clerk and his wife, the judge.

So it could have happened. It was possible…

More than possible.

Because he held the proof right there in his two hands.

Around about then, he spotted the gleam of gold on the third finger of his left hand. Or maybe that gleam was brass. He couldn’t be sure.

But gold or brass, the ring looked a hell of a lot like a wedding band. And that signature on the marriage license? Definitely his own. His—and Jordyn’s, too.

It wasn’t possible. But it had happened.

Somehow, he and Jordyn Leigh had gotten married last night.

 

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