From Chapter One of How to Marry A Cowboy

“Gabby, come quick! Hot damn, Daddy done got us a new mama!”

The sound of a little girl’s running feet pounded through her head like a longhorn cattle stampede, and her eyes snapped open to see two little blond girls with tangled hair flying out to the sides of their heads as they jumped up and down on the wooden porch, giving Annie Rose the mother of all headaches. The bright morning sun rising above the trees out there on the horizon stung so bad that she frowned and quickly shut them, hoping it was all a bizarre nightmare.

The faint smell of a ranch that wafted to her nose on the morning breeze was one of her favorite scents in the world, but even that wasn’t comforting under the circumstances. She felt the rumbling purr of a big yellow cat who had apparently curled up in the curve of her body sometime during the night. Sudden fear, not of the cat, but because she’d slept past daylight, put her into flight mode, and she pushed the cat to the side and sat up.

The porch posts tilted off to the left, and the little girls went fuzzy. She shut her eyes again and muttered to herself, “Where am I? I’ve got to find an airport or a bus station.”

“More important, who are you?” a deep man’s voice asked, half-gentle, half-suspicious, and Annie Rose opened her eyes again to look into the concerned green eyes of the handsomest man she’d ever seen in her waking moments.

She glanced down at the torn and dirty bridal gown and the suitcase sitting off to one side of the swing, and it all flashed through her mind like a dying woman’s last visions—the terror that gripped her so hard that it nauseated her, the drive across the northern part of Texas, and the last time she checked her rearview to be sure she wasn’t being followed. Looking up to see the tree coming right at her, the impact when her left front bumper hit and bark flew, then the long, greasy slide into the muddy water. It was all there in vivid color, right along with Nicky standing across the room from her with a telephone to his ear.

Maybe if she faked amnesia it would buy her a couple of hours. That’s all she needed to get cleaned up and get out of here. People did get amnesia. She’d seen it a few times when she was working as a nurse. What she’d dealt with lasted only a day or two, but she’d read case files where it had gone on for much longer. If she could buy herself time to change and catch a ride, that would work out perfectly.

“I’m not sure about anything.” She raised her head to look at him and blinked against the light-headedness.

One of the girls sat down beside her on the swing. “It’s okay. We’ll take care of you. I am Gabby, and this is Lily, and you are our new mama. Daddy married you last night.”

“I don’t think I married your daddy, honey,” she said.

Lily locked her arms around her daddy’s waist. “Tell her, Daddy. Tell her that you had a wedding. You must have, Daddy, she’s wearing the prettiest wedding dress ever, but Daddy, she sure did get it messed up. That’s the big problem with dresses, you know, we keep telling you all the time, Daddy. They ain’t jeans, and they don’t stay clean. Come on, Daddy, help her remember. Where did you find her anyway? Why did you leave her on the porch and not bring her in the house?”

“Could you tell me where I am?” she asked, looking at the gorgeous man and wishing she could have met him in some other place, at some other time. He looked like he wasn’t sure whether to put his little girls behind his back and send her packing, or wrap her up in his arms and rock her to sleep as if she was one of his darlings, or a little lost puppy. For a split second she wished she could have some of that strong male comfort, but she shook that thought away, bringing on a stabbing pain at the bridge of her nose. A concussion, along with hunger and tension, could slow her down, but it wouldn’t stop her. It wasn’t a very good moment to develop a crush on a handsome rancher who probably already thought she was insane.

“I’m Mason Harper and you are on my ranch. We need to figure out how you got here, what happened to you, and who you are,” the cowboy said with a deep Texas drawl, still looking at her intently.

His hair was dark brown and still had water droplets hanging from it, so he must have just taken a shower. A snowy white tank top stretched over a ripped abdomen and broad chest, and faded jeans hugged his thighs and butt. Annie Rose judged a person by their eyes when she first met them. Looks were deceiving. Words couldn’t be trusted. Body language could lie. But the eyes told the truth. She’d learned that the hard way.

His eyes were mesmerizing—mossy green, kind, worried, ready to shift into hardness if he had to protect those two precious little girls. His face had that deep tan of a man who spent most of his time outside, with those crow’s-feet at the sides of his eyes that told her he had a sense of humor. The crease between his eyebrows told her he had plenty of worries, and she had the strangest urge to reach up and smooth out that crease and tell him she would be glad to help him carry his burdens. Where the hell did that thought come from? Maybe she really was going insane. A strong chin and positively the most gorgeous mouth Annie Rose had seen outside of a magazine ad finished off the picture, and Annie Rose brought a hand up to her forehead. She really needed to get a grip. This was far more than a concussion; it was dangerous for her to even let such thoughts enter her mind after what she’d already lived through.

Trying to fix everything and everyone was her number one failing and was what put her into nursing a lifetime ago. If there was ever a man who needed fixing, he was standing in front of her, but Annie Rose did not have time to stick around and take care of his problems, no matter how hard her heartstrings tugged. She was on the run for the second time in her life, and she wasn’t dragging anyone into her problems.

Lily left her father’s side and snuggled up against Annie Rose. “You are our new mama. Daddy got you for us for our birthday that is today. And we’re having a party this afternoon, and is that your suitcase? Can I look in it? Maybe we can find you something else to wear. That wedding gown sure is pretty, but it’s kind of messed up.”

Mason[G1]  propped a hip on the porch railing and crossed his arms over his chest, making those amazing biceps flex and Annie’s mouth go dry. “Phone? ID? Anything?”

Gabby crossed her arms over her chest and stuck out her lower lip. “Daddy, this is not funny, so stop teasing us.”

Lily held up both palms. “Joke is over right now. We want a mama like the other kids have. We’re not taking to no nannies anymore. Why did you get her for us if you aren’t going to let us keep her? That’s not nice, Daddy.”

Mason pointed at Lily. “Don’t you threaten me, young lady, or there won’t be any party or presents this afternoon.” He turned toward Annie Rose. “Before we can help you, we need to know your name.”

“Just tell me where I am, and I’ll figure a way out of here.”

“We live between Whitewright and Savoy, and we go to school in Whitewright. You are in Texas on the Bois D’Arc Bend Ranch,” Gabby answered.

Mason combed his dark hair back with his fingertips. She’d seen Nicky do that when he was really angry, just before he doubled up his fists.

“If you could call a taxi, I’ll go to the nearest hotel. I’m very sorry for all this trouble and that I trespassed onto your property,” she said.

Lily giggled. “You mean a taxi like on the television in the big places like New York City? And hotels like that, too?”

Annie Rose nodded and kept a close watch on Mason’s hands. They were strong and beautiful in that way that a man’s work-roughened, muscular hands can give a girl shivers all the way down to her toes. So far he hadn’t doubled them up into fists, and his daughters argued with him like they weren’t afraid. Annie wasn’t feeling any fear either, but even that was ridiculous for a woman in her position. She almost wished she had real amnesia, so she could lie down, close her eyes, and stay here forever.

Gabby patted her on the arm. “Whitewright ain’t got that kind of thing. Have you lived somewhere that did? Will you tell me and Lily all about it?”

What in the hell did they mean, no taxis or hotels? Just how far back in the sticks had she driven before the accident happened? She had to get back on the road to Texarkana, where she had another car waiting. She started to stand up, and everything whipped around so fast that she sat back down with a thud that put the yellow cat on the run.

“Did your car break down on the side of the road? Think hard, what can you remember?” Mason urged her. At least she could give him her name, she thought. She’d been Annie the first twenty-six years of her life in Thicket, a little bitty community near Beaumont, Texas. She’d used her middle name, Rose, when she’d started all over in a city of more than a hundred thousand people in Odessa, Texas, two years ago. Now she was in God only knew where in the backwoods of North Texas, and she would be Annie Rose.

“Annie Rose. I remember, my name is Annie Rose,” she whispered.

“Well, that’s a start. Do you have any idea where you came from? And is Rose your last name or middle name?” Mason asked.

“Annie Rose Boudreau.” She touched her aching head. “Ouch! It was nighttime, and I was tired. I broke the heels off my shoes, so I kicked them off, and my feet hurt. I remember the stars and the moon, so it had to be late night. And then I saw your house and the swing. I only meant to rest for a few minutes.”

Mason pulled his phone from his hip pocket. “I’m calling Doc Emerson.”

Lily and Gabby threw their hands over their cheeks, fell back on the swing, and said in unison, “Oh, no!”

Annie Rose felt a new rush of pure fear. “Listen, I don’t need a doctor. I promise I’ll be fine as soon as I clean up and find a café or even a convenience store to buy some food.”

“He smells awful and he gives shots and he’s our doctor and me and Gabby like him in church, but we don’t like him to give us shots and make us open our mouths and say, ‘ahhh.’ His breath stinks,” Lily whispered.

“Our new mama is not getting a shot today,” Gabby declared.

“Girls, he’s going to check her out. It looks like she’s been in an accident, and she can hardly stand up, she’s so dizzy. We need to make sure she is all right, and figure out where she came from, so we know where to send her. Someone is probably looking for her,” Mason explained.

“I’m sorry about all this. If you’ll let me use your bathroom, I’ll change out of this and be on my way. I’ve got clothes in the suitcase, and honestly, girls, I really did not marry your daddy last night.”

Mason pushed a single button on the phone and said, “Girls, take Annie Rose to the bathroom. The one downstairs—not upstairs. I’ll bring her suitcase, Lily, so let go of the handle. And put her purse down, Gabby… oh, hello, Doc. We’ve got a problem out here at the ranch. No, not one of the girls. A lady with amnesia has shown up on my porch. I know, but could you please come out and check it.”

A pause and then he chuckled. “Could be, but you’ll know for sure.”

“Is he coming?” Gabby asked.

“Yes, he is, and while we are waiting, we’re going to let Miz Boudreau clean up,” he said.



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