The plan he and Cisco Kidd had executed hadn’t been perfect, Montana multimillionaire Max McKendrick decided as he stroked the long Lone Star handles of his snowy white mustache. But the act of faking his own death and puffing out an eccentric videotaped will had worked in reuniting his three heirs with the loves of their lives. And now five hundred of the most influential people in the West were here to celebrate the triple nuptials right along with him and the rest of the Silver Spur Ranch cowboys.
There were only two things wrong with this picture, Max decided as he surveyed the guests whooping, hollering and kicking up their heels in the festively decorated meadow. Pearl Pendergraph, the owner of the local diner and his lady friend from way back, was still ticked off as heck at him for not confiding his grand matchmaking plans in her, too. And Cisco Kidd, his unofficial “son,” was still alone.
Max figured Pearl would get around to forgiving him in time, ‘cause he sure as shootin’ couldn’t imagine his life without her. As for the protégé he had picked up off the mean streets of Butte years ago, brought to the ranch and taken under his wing...well, that was going to be a far sight trickier, Max thought as he downed a shot of whiskey and studied the smart, capable Montana attorney from a distance. Although equally at home in a courtroom or on the ranch, Cisco Kidd had lived a solitary and pricey bachelor’s life in town for far too long now. Whether he realized it or not, Cisco needed a woman in his life, ASAP. And, Max thought, grinning, as he began to put part two of his carefully conceived plan into action, he knew— even if Cisco didn’t yet—just who that woman should be.
“HONEY, I HATE TO BE the one to tell you, but your dress is buttoned wrong in the back.”
A self-conscious flush heated Gillian Taylor’s cheeks. “You’re kidding,” she murmured as Trace and Susannah McKendrick’s four rowdy boys went streaking past, shouting hello as they went. She’d baby-sat two of Susannah’s boys for years, the whole passel last night during one of the worst storms the area had seen in ages, then spent the day preparing food for the hired hands who’d cleaned up after the storm. She’d been so busy, she’d barely made it to the triple wedding on time, and now, after everyone had said their “I Do’s,” was still trying to catch her breath. “Honey, I wish I was joshing you,” the owner of Fort Benton’s most popular diner said as she motioned Gillian around.
The flush in Gillian’s cheeks deepened as she edged around as directed, practically knocking a vase of long-stemmed yellow roses off a table in the process. “How far off is it?” she asked, juggling a glass of champagne in one hand, and righting the cut-glass vase with the other.
“Well, lift up that gorgeous auburn hair of yours and let me see,” Pearl said, pausing to put her own glass aside. “You missed the buttonhole... one...two...three down from the top, and then it continues off all the way down past your waist. I’d say there are about, oh...fifteen or eighteen of those little buttons matched up wrong.”
Gillian moaned softly in distress, knowing her dress had been that way through the entire ceremony. “I knew I shouldn’t have dressed in such a hurry,” Gillian said, still cradling the weight of her wildly curly hair at the nape of her neck.
“Well, never mind that now. Just stand still and let me fix it for you. It’ll just take a minute for me to set these buttons to right.”
“Thanks, Pearl.” Gillian Taylor harnessed her considerable energy as she waited impatiently for Pearl to finish.
Sensing someone watching her, Gillian glanced up, then frowned all the more. That darn Cisco Kidd was staring at her again. She had to get out of here before he tried to talk to her. Fortunately there was a wealth of wedding guests between them, dressed in everything from buckskins and jeans to suits and ties. And all of them, it appeared, wanted to say hi to Cisco before he passed.
“Got dressed in a hurry this evening, hmm?” Pearl continued conversationally as she efficiently unbuttoned and rebuttoned her way down Gillian’s spine.
Becoming more impatient, Gillian blew out an exasperated breath. “Pearl, you would not believe the kind of day I’ve had.” And considering the way Max McKendrick’s attorney kept trying to approach her, Gillian thought as Cisco continued to close the distance between them, her evening did not look to get any better.
As soon as Gillian’s buttons were adjusted, she would say goodbye to the McKendricks and leave.
Anything to avoid matching wits and words with Cisco Kidd.
Not that Cisco was bad to look at, especially this evening, with the Montana sun dropping slowly in the sky, giving everything a nice warm glow. Every time she had seen him before, he had been wearing one of his tailored Western business suits and string ties, his trademark bone-colored Stetson and his finely polished hand-crafted boots. Tonight’s suit was a dark midnight blue, the shirt a soft complementary medium blue. With the string tie held by a silver clasp around his neck, his cowboy hat tipped back on his head, the six-foot-one-inch, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped lawyer looked as brawny, handsome and rough around the edges as ever.
But as far as trusting him went.. .Never mind talking to him—that was out of the question, Gillian thought. For one thing, even his name sounded made up. For another, he was too darn nosy. And, worse yet, he was reputed to have as many secrets in his past as she did. Secrets no one but the wily old Max McKendrick had managed to unearth. No, Cisco was not the kind of man she wanted to get involved with, not on any level, Gillian decided firmly.
“Honey, your day can’t be any worse than mine,” Pearl lamented with an indignant sniff.
Gillian knew Pearl had reason to be upset. Max McKendrick, the eccentric millionaire rancher and Pearl’s longtime love, had been thought to be dead until just a little while ago. For nearly a week, Pearl had been in the dark along with everyone else, including Max’s niece and two nephews. To Pearl’s obvious chagrin, the only person who had known Max was still alive was his attorney, Cisco Kidd. And Cisco had not been talking.
Gillian sighed as Cisco abruptly said something to someone else and headed off in another direction, away from her. “At least we both made it to the wedding,” Gillian murmured to Pearl, thinking how glad she was to see the three couples united. Cody and Callie, and Josh and Patience, had married first. Susannah and Trace had arrived late, thinking they’d missed their deadline, imposed by Max McKendrick’s will, only to find out they’d never really been divorced! After everyone rejoiced, their four boys had stood up for them as they said their vows again.
Pearl sighed contentedly as she worked on the buttons. “It was pretty romantic, wasn’t it, seeing all three of Max’s heirs get hitched at one time?”
“That it was,” Gillian agreed softly. In fact it had been so romantic, it had made her wistful for a man— and an enduring love—of her own.
Abruptly Cisco reappeared at the edge of the crowd. He had a cool, determined look on his face and he was headed her way.
“Listen, Pearl.” Gillian tried to wrest free. “I think you’ve rebuttoned enough.”
“Nonsense, honey.” Pearl kept a firm grip on Gillian’s dress as she buttoned her way down Gillian’s spine. “I’m almost finished here—”
“I know, and thank you.” Gillian stepped sideways and tripped over the corner of a white folding chair as Cisco disappeared in the crowd of champagne-sipping revelers once again. “But really, I’ve got to go—” Quickly! Before Cisco could catch up with her and pester her with the questions she knew he’d been wanting to ask.
“Sure about that?” Cisco interjected, popping out around the corner of the party tent to join them.
“After all, I wouldn’t want you to go around halfbuttoned on my account,” he drawled with a merry twinkle in his eyes.
Gillian flushed self-consciously. “You needn’t worry about that,” she said as she hitched in a tremulous breath.
“Good.” Cisco appreciatively eyed her long chiffon dress, with the femininely fitted bodice and demure lace collar, before languidly returning his gaze to her face. “Cause I’d hate to think of you catching cold.”
Not likely, with a hot-blooded man like Cisco around. “I don’t think we have to worry about that in this June heat,” Gillian said dryly. In fact, maybe it was the tiny bit of champagne she’d imbibed before Cisco caught up with her, but she was beginning to feel warm all over.
“Maybe not now, but when the sun goes down, you may need something—”
Or was it someone? Gillian wondered, reading the intense look of masculine interest in his boldly assessing silver-gray eyes.
“—to warm you.”
Irritated by the licentious direction of her thoughts—since when did she think of cuddling with a man she barely knew! — Gillian stiffened and folded her arms in front of her. “Thank you. I’ll manage.”
“I’m sure you will,” he agreed.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me—” Gillian continued in a low, harried voice.
“You know, Ms. Gillian, you keep this up and I’m going to get the idea you’re avoiding me.”
Gillian smiled at him sweetly. No doubt about it, this was one impossible man she was dealing with. “Why would you think that?” she asked.
Cisco shrugged his broad shoulders, but did not take his eyes from her face. “I don’t know,” he replied, his expression deadpan as he stroked his ruggedly handsome jaw. “Maybe it has something to do with the fact you never return my calls and always seem to disappear the instant you see me coming your way.”
So her elusiveness hadn’t been lost on him, she realized uncomfortably. “I’ve been busy,” she fibbed, knowing that wasn’t what had kept them apart at all.
“Hmm.” He studied her with a look that said he suspected she was in trouble, though he could not yet identify what kind.
It was all she could do not to fidget under his knowing look. Cisco was the kind of strong, quietly gallant man she’d always yearned to love. Allowing him to disarm and eventually protect her would be like falling into a thick down mattress at the end of a long day, and having been on the run for nigh on ten years now, the vulnerable part of Gillian longed to surrender herself accordingly. And had she not still had so much to hide, she might’ve thrown caution to the wind and done just that. But she did have a lot to hide, Gillian realized with a troubled sigh, not only from Cisco but from everyone on the ranch. So all she could do—for now, and for forever—was discourage him.
“You know, sooner or later you’re going to have to fess up,” Cisco taunted her in a low voice laced with the silky confidence of a man who always, always got his way. “So you might as well just tell me what’s got you running scared right now. ‘Cause it’s highly likely I can use my talents to help you find a legal way out of this jam you seem to be in.”
If only that were true, Gillian thought wistfully. But harsh experience had told her this was not so. This situation she was in could only be handled by puffing it firmly behind her and forgetting about it, and that was just what she intended to do!
“You know, Cisco—” Gillian changed the subject stubbornly “—if I have been avoiding you, maybe there’s a message there.”
He grinned at her impudent manner. “One that cuts both ways?”
“Meaning?” Gillian goaded as their eyes clashed.
Cisco smiled and stepped forward so the were standing toe-to-toe. He brushed an errant strand of hair from her cheek and continued to hold her gaze. “That I can be every bit as persistent as you can be elusive. And when I think someone’s in trouble, not to mention too damn proud to ask for help when they need it, I gotta tell you, I hang in there like a dog on a bone.”
“It’s true,” Pearl admitted. “Cisco has quite a reputation—as both a Good Samaritan, and with damsels in distress. I don’t think there’s a woman who’s been hurting hereabouts who hasn’t cried on his big strong shoulders and benefited from his wealth of legal experience and expertise at least once.”
Unfortunately, Gillian could all too easily imagine not only herself, but a whole stable of other women doing just that!
“So if he’s right, honey,” Pearl continued, patting Gillian’s arm gently, “if you do need help—”
Gillian threw up her hands in exasperation. “I do not need help,” she stated unequivocally. Furthermore, she did not want to talk about this any longer!
Embarrassed color flowing hotly in her cheeks, Gillian pivoted away from Cisco and Pearl No sooner had she tried to dart past them, than Max McKendrick stepped into her path. The eccentric multimillionaire cowboy-businessman was larger than life and clad in fringed buckskins. And though he might have been as old as the hills, with a leathery suntanned face, he was still as strong as an ox and as sharp as a Montana hawk.
“Well, now, if it isn’t Gillian Taylor,” Max drawled, his silver spurs jangling as he swept off his Stetson to reveal his mane of snowy white hair and a grin as big as all Montana.
“You are just the woman I wanted to see,” Max announced, taking her gallantly by the arm. “Cause, darlin’, I’d like a word with you.” Max gestured to include his thirty-something attorney. “Cisco, you and Pearl mosey right along with us,” Max ordered implacably as he herded all three of them into a white parachute-silk wedding tent.
“Actually, this isn’t a good time for me,” Gillian said politely as soon as Max had released her.
“Going by past experience, it’s never a good time for you,” Cisco interrupted.
Max looked from one to the other and stroked his mustache. “I see you two have finally said your howdo’s,” Max remarked facetiously.
“Not really,” Gillian replied, beginning to get a very bad feeling about this.
“We’re in the process of getting acquainted,” Cisco offered.
Like heck they were, Gillian thought. In fact, if it hadn’t been for running into Max, her employer, she would already be long gone.
“I’m mighty glad to hear that,” Max said, rubbing his hands together as he regarded them with glee. “Because I have a surprise for each of you.”
Cisco Kidd could not imagine what that would be. Max McKendrick’s surprises were legendary for both their generosity and outrageous quality. “You don’t owe me anything, Max,” he told his friend and mentor meaningfully. Max had already given him more than enough, just by giving him a home and family and taking him under his wing all these many years.
Max’s leathery face broke into a wide grin. “Oh, I think I owe you quite a bit, Cisco,” he remarked with unexpected gentleness. “Without your assistance, I could never’ve managed to marry off all three of my brother’s children to the loves of their lives in one rootin'-tootin' forty-eight-hour period."
“They are happy, aren’t they?” Cisco noted, pleased with the way things had turned out.
Max nodded solemnly. “And you should be happy, too,” Max said.
Cisco did not trust the sudden mischievous twinkle in Max McKendrick’s eyes. It was the same twinkle the rambunctious old cowpoke got in his eyes when he’d talked about his matchmaking plans for Cody, Patience and Trace McKendrick. “What are you talking about?” Cisco demanded impatiently, bracing himself for the worst.
Max slapped his cowboy hat against his knee. “Romance, pure and simple.”
At the hint of matchmaking, Cisco noticed Gillian froze and paled considerably.
“There’s nothing simple about romance, Max,” Gillian interrupted, her thick-lashed emerald green eyes glinting emotionally. “There never has been and never will be.”
Ditto there, Cisco thought, agreeing wholeheartedly with the waif-size firebrand with the long, wildly curling auburn hair.
“Which is exactly why I’ve decided both of you need my help picking out a mate,” Max explained.
“Now hold on there a moment Max,” Cisco interrupted. He didn’t care if the thirty-year-old chef was pretty as could be, with her fair flawless skin, high cheekbones, pert turned-up nose and cover-girl smile. He did not want to be fixed up with anyone via one of Max’s grand plans.
“I found the perfect woman for you, Cisco,” Max continued. “And the perfect man for you, Gillian.”
“I know you may think you have,” Gillian sputtered, obviously incensed, the light dusting of pale auburn freckles across her nose standing out against the creamy porcelain of her skin. “But—”
“All you two have to do is agree to a few terms of mine to collect your inheritances and—”
“Inheritances!” Cisco interrupted disbelievingly. As Max’s attorney, he had drawn up Max’s will. He knew there was nothing in it for him or Gillian. Or at least there hadn’t been. And it hadn’t mattered to him. Not one whit. It wasn’t money or property Cisco wanted from Max. It never had been. He’d thought Max understood that. “Listen to me, Max,” Cisco began, working hard to curtail his exasperation with the old man he loved. “You don’t need to give me anything—never mind pair me with anyone—when a simple thanks every now and again will do.”
“The same goes for me,” Gillian added hastily.
Max grinned wryly. “I’ll be the judge of what’s needed here, you two.”