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Cathy Gillen Thacker
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The Maverick Marriage

Chapter One

Susannah Hart turned away from the open cargo doors of her navy blue Suburban, her arms full of cookbooks, a hopelessly stubborn look on her pretty face. It was clear she had seen him coming, Trace McKendrick thought, as they had arrived at the Silver Spur Ranch logging camp at precisely the same time, and parked side by side in the camp-kitchen parking lot. Trace knew, even before the beautiful dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who had once been his bride lifted a dark, querying eyebrow, that she did not welcome his presence. But then, he thought grimly, that was no surprise. They had not exactly ended their short, unhappy marriage seventeen years ago on a pleasant note.

“What are you doing here?” Susannah demanded hotly as their eyes locked in that fiery way he remembered all too well.

Trace planted his legs firmly apart. Silently he pushed back the edges of his dark suit-coat and braced his hands on his waist. And then said, “I could ask the same of you.”

“Your uncle Max told me that you were so busy with your own lumber company in the northern part of the state, that I didn’t have to worry about running into you here, on his property.”

“Normally, that’s true,” Trace drawled.

“Because if I had thought there was even a remote chance I’d run into you again,” Susannah continued, “I never would have accepted this consulting job.”

Taken aback, Trace paused. He had assumed Susannah, who had reportedly been living in California ever since she had walked out on him, was back in Montana because she knew about the terms of his eccentric uncle Max’s will. Obviously, that was not the case.

Curious about what else his uncle Max had been up to, besides matchmaking, he asked cautiously, “What consulting job?”

Susannah shifted the stack of cookbooks to her other arm and smoothed a strand of her short coffee-colored hair back into place. Her sable brown eyes still fastened on his as she replied, “Your uncle Max hired me to revamp the menus for the logging-camp kitchen so the same meal isn’t served more than once a month. He also asked me to find a new head chef for the camp, since the old chef, Biscuits, quit on such short notice, which I have already done. Her name is Gillian Taylor and she starts tomorrow morning with the breakfast shift. I’ve already promised to be here to help her get acclimated. This evening, the food will be catered by Pearl’s Diner, as it has been for the last couple of weeks. Now, if you don’t mind, Trace,” Susannah continued in a crisp, professional tone, “I have a lot of work to do.”

Trace sighed inwardly as he speculated on what her reaction to his uncle Max’s will was going to be. Ten to one, she wouldn’t appreciate the gauntlet they were going to have to run to get to their inheritances any more than he did. Nevertheless, she had to be told. “We have to talk.”

Susannah’s slender spine stiffened militantly as she regarded him. “I can’t imagine what about,” she replied dryly.

Trace folded his arms in front of him. “You don’t know?”

Susannah shut both cargo doors and swung back around to face him. “Know what?”

“About Uncle Max,” Trace said quietly, wishing like hell he did not have to personally deliver the news to her. Unlike he and Susannah, Max and Susannah had always gotten along rather well.

Susannah blinked at Trace in obvious confusion. “What about Max? I just spoke to him a few days ago.”

There was no other way to say it. “Max is dead, Susannah.”

Without warning, Susannah’s flawless golden skin lost it’s sun-kissed glow. Her soft full lips trembled. “Dead,” she echoed, clearly stunned. Tears glistened in her eyes as she laid a hand across her heart, as if that would somehow stem the hurt.

Trace swallowed around the knot of grief in his own throat and forced himself to continue gruffly with a recitation of the facts. “He died a couple of days ago. He had a heart attack in his attorney, Cisco Kidd’s law office.”

“Oh, no. Oh, Trace. I’m so sorry.”

Her compassionate words were heartfelt. He was not sure why since so many of the expressions of sympathy he had heard the past few days had left him cold, but hers did him a world of good. “We all are,” he concurred huskily.

“Max was a good man.”

“Yes. He was.” Trace fell silent.

“So why are you here?” she asked warily after a moment. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, as she once again assumed the worst of him. “To tell me my services as consultant are no longer needed?”

Trace had to admit, had it been up to him, had he even known about it, he would not have hired Susannah to be anywhere near the Silver Spur Ranch. And not just because the renowned chef was pretty enough to cause riots in the all-male logging camp. At thirty-eight, her slender figure was as reed-slim as it had been at twenty-one, the curves on her five-foot-six-inch frame just as subtle and enticing. But there the similarities stopped. Where her thick and silky sable hair had once been long and flowing, it was now cut in the sleek chin-length bob that flattered the oval lines of her face. Her sable brown eyes were still wide and glimmering with intelligence, but there was a soul-deep wariness in them now—and a determination to hold him firmly at bay that had not been there before.

She was dressed in a short blue denim skirt, white T-shirt and matching blue denim vest. She wore trim white sneakers and crew socks on her feet that, while still plain in that suburban-mom way, also drew attention to the sensational sexiness of her legs.

Trace sighed. He had always loved her legs.

Hell. He had loved all of her, every sweet soft sexy inch...

“Well?” Clearly irritated with his brief perusal and lapse down memory lane, Susannah opened the Suburban’s cargo door and set her cookbooks inside next to a laptop computer and compact portable printer. Propping her ringless left hand on her hip, she lifted her face to his. “What’s it going to be, Trace? Am I out of here or not?”

He knew immediately what his answer was going to be. Wise or not, it didn’t seem to matter. “I’m not going to fire you,” Trace told her gruffly. I just might haul you into my arms and kiss you just for the hell of it, if you keep glaring at me like that, though. It would be interesting, he thought, to gauge her reaction. To see if she still melted in his arms the way she always had...

“What a relief.”

“You expected me to, though?”

“That was the trouble with us, Trace. I never knew what to expect from you. Stifi don’t,” Susannah said as another car pulled into the lot. Trace recognized Cisco Kidd, his uncle’s attorney. Dressed in his Western-cut suit, he looked every bit the successful Montana lawyer he had become, and nothing of the streetwise kid Max had rescued years ago off the mean streets of Butte, and patiently taken under his wing.

It had taken a while, but Cisco was now as much a part of Max McKendrick’s “family” as the two nephews and niece he had raised. Trace wondered why Max had left nothing in his will for Cisco. Or had he? Trace decided that was something he needed to find out, when he had the time.

“Trace. Susannah.” Cisco tipped his bone-colored Stetson in greeting. “I’m glad I caught up with you.” As Cisco strode toward them, Trace noticed that the man had a portable television with built-in videocassette recorder in one hand, a black videocassette in the other.

“Max wanted you to have this.” Cisco handed over both the television and the videocassette marked Last Will and Testament of Max McKendrick, Part IV, with the cautioning words, “It has pretty specific instructions in it. I think you and Susannah better watch it together.”

Susannah turned to Trace in what had to be genuine astonishment. “I’m in Max’s will?”

Trace nodded, already having witnessed some—but knowing Max, probably not all—of what was in store for them. “It’s all explained on the tape.”

“Then I’ll be taking off,” Cisco said with a wave. He opened his suit coat to reveal the cell phone he had stored in his pocket. “I’ll be stopping by again later to make sure everything is going all right. In the meantime, call me if you need anything, Trace.”

“Will do.” Trace waved at Cisco as the attorney headed out once again.

“Why would you and I need anything from Cisco?” Susannah turned to Trace in amazement as the man drove off.

Trace sighed wearily. With a nod toward the logging-camp kitchen door, he placed his palm on the small of Susannah’s back to steer her across the parking lot. “I think we had better go inside, watch the tape in private and let Max explain to us what he has in mind.”

MOMENTS LATER, they hooked up the small television in the manager’s office, behind the dining room. Trace and Susannah pulled up two wooden chairs. As soon as they were settled, Trace switched on the set and VCR and popped in the tape.

Within seconds, Uncle Max, clad in his trademark fringed buckskin jacket, mustard-yellow chaps and silver spurs, appeared on the screen. Though Trace knew his uncle had died within minutes of making his videotaped will, there was no sign on the tape of Max’s impending departure from this world. His skin was a deep leathery tan beneath his long lone-star mustache, his white shoulder-length hair thick and shiny-clean. Nearly as old as the hills, the wildly successful Montana rancher and self-made man was still as energetic as the day was long.

On-screen, Max slapped his knee and began to speak. “Hello, Trace and Susannah. I reckon you two have had your first meeting by now, which—unless I miss my guess, considering the past—probably did not go too well. Not to worry. You two have plenty of time to iron things out between you before the wedding— forty-eight hours, as a matter of fact.”

“Wait a minute. What wedding?” Susannah interrupted. “Who’s getting married?”

“He’s getting to that,” Trace said.

“Knowing Trace, he hasn’t explained much to you, Susannah. He’s more than likely too busy taking charge of the situation and giving orders.”

Susannah glared at Trace before turning back to the screen. “You’re right as usual, Max,” she murmured.

“But before I quit jawin’ and cut to the chase,” Max continued with the down-home directness for which he was known far and wide, “I’ve got something of a personal nature to say.” Briefly, Max’s ocean-blue eyes glimmered with sadness. “Trace, I think you know that for a long time now I’ve blamed myself for the demise of your brief marriage to Susannah. Many a time I’ve thought that if I hadn’t given you that financial stake so you could start your own company right off and prove yourself to the world the way I knew you were just itching to do, you would not have ignored your young bride the way you did.

“And maybe—” Max frowned “—if I hadn’t agreed to your mutual request to handle your quickie divorce for you, and instead had made you two young’uns wait and think about it, the way I’d made you think about getting married in the first place, the two of you would still be happily married to each other and bringing up a passel of kids.”

“But we aren’t married,” Susannah protested passionately at the on-screen Max. “And we haven’t been for some time.”

“Amen to that,” Trace muttered, glad Susannah was as upset as he was about Max’s unexpected no-holdsbarred examination of his and Susannah’s romantic history.

“Now I know the two of you went on to get married to others and have two great kids each,” Uncle Max continued affably. “Fate was no kinder to you there. Illness hit both families, and in the last five years, you both lost your spouses. And that sad twist of fate got me to thinking. Trace’s two boys need a mama, and Susannah’s two boys need a daddy.”

“Oh. no” Susannah moaned, cradling her head in her hands as she apparently saw where this was going.

“My feelings exactly when I first heard about it,” Trace muttered.

“So why not combine the two households and give your prematurely ended marriage another shot?” Max proposed cheerfully.

As if the two of them marrying again was the solution to everything, Trace fumed.

“So here’s the deal,” Max went on frankly, leaning in close and once again energetically slapping his buckskin-clad knee.

“Trace, I know how stubborn you are, and needless to say, that goes double when you’ve been hurt the way you were when Susannah walked out on you seventeen years ago. But you will never find a woman as fine as her if you look the whole world over. So it’s time you gave the love of your life a ration of forgiveness and another chance to make you as happy as you deserve to be.

“And Susannah,” Max said in a stern but loving voice, “the same goes for you. I know Trace was more absent than present the first time around, but you need to give him another shot at this marriage business and let him show you what kind of husband he could be to you when he is around.

“Which is why, I am leaving Susannah the hunting lodge in the woods, where the two of you lived when you were first married. As well as a chance to publish that series of cookbooks and instructional videotapes she’s been a’wanting to make. Naturally, my publishing company, McKendrick Books for a Lifetime, will handle the deal, and by the time they are finished promoting and publishing your recipe collections, Susannah, you will be the Martha Stewart of the West”

“Oh, Max, that is so sweet of you, to help me get published,” Susannah murmured, clearly pleased.

Unfortunately, Trace thought, not only was she willfully overlooking Max’s suggestion that they rekindle their earlier romance and remarry, she hadn’t heard half of what his eccentric uncle had in store for them. “There’s more,” Trace told Susannah grimly, having already heard part I of the will. And the second, more specific part of the will, he thought, Susannah was guaranteed not to like.

On-screen, Max continued seriously, “Trace, I am giving you the Silver Spur lumber operation and all the land it is situated on, which includes roughly one-third, or a quarter-million acres, of my Silver Spur Ranch. That, in conjunction with your own McKendrick Logging, Incorporated, will give you the largest lumber outfit in the West, bar none. I am also giving you the new state-of-the-art ranch house I built up on Silver Spur Lake. It is large enough to house both your boys and Susannah’s, and the two of you, and I hope you will be very happy there.”

Susannah lifted her eyes heavenward in what appeared to be a silent request for patience. “Now he’s dreaming,” she said.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Trace announced stiffly.

Max leaned in closer to the camera. His blue eyes held a warning glint as he advised, “Should you Trace refuse to marry Susannah, you will lose all rights to the land and the lumber operation, maintaining only the new state- of-the-art ranch house on Silver Spur Lake.”

“That’s not fair!” Susannah interjected, upset.

Trace squared his shoulders. “I couldn’t agree more,” he repeated. It was unfair. Unfortunately, that did not change anything. So the two of them would have to play the hand they had been dealt, not the hand they wanted...

“Should you, Susannah, refuse to marry Trace, there will be no cookbook and videotape deal with my publishing company. Mind you, Susannah, I don’t think you will turn down this opportunity. I’ve done some checking and I know you are every bit as ambitious as Trace is these days, and that for some time now you have been yearning to get out of the restaurant-chef and consulting business and into creating cookbooks. I also know you’ve always had a soft spot for the hunting lodge in the woods—”

“Which up until now was supposed to go to me,” Trace interjected unhappily.

“—so that goes to you, too, even if you don’t choose to marry Trace again. I think you ought to have a place on the Silver Spur for you and your boys that will be yours and theirs in perpetuity. And in any case, Trace will have a place here for his sons, too. Same deal. Neither property can be sold, traded or otherwise for the rest of your lives. And the fact that the two homes are more or less adjacent to each other will make it easier for your boys to socialize.”

“He’s assuming an awful lot,” Susannah muttered, sounding distressed.

“He always has,” Trace agreed mildly, feeling no more excited about the possibility of being neighbors. It had taken him years to get Susannah out of his heart and mind. And now to have her thrust at him again, so unexpectedly. It was going to bring up a lot of memories, good and bad.

“Naturally, I put a few strings on these gifts of mine,” Max continued from the screen. “One, you two must stick to each other like glue and stay under the same roof for the next forty-eight hours, with only three thirty-minute breaks apart. You break the rules, and the deal is off.

“Should you agree to the terms of my will, however, which will, I might add, insure the financial security of your four kids for the rest of their lives, too, which is something important to think about,” Max said practically, “I will expect you to show up at the triple wedding ceremony on the bull’s-eye property, forty-eight hours from now, and get married right alongside Cody and his new bride, and Patience and her groom. As I said previously, in part I of my last will and testament, I’ve taken care of all the details, including the guest list, so all you need to do is get yourselves there.”

Max smiled warmly at them both from the screen. “Either way, the two of you will be stuck together, living and maybe even working side by side, as long as you adhere to the terms of the will and remain on this ranch. So you might as well make the best of it.

“And that being the case, I’ve got some advice for the two of you. There’s no use crying over spilt milk, ‘cause what’s done is done, ain’t no changing it. That means, Susannah, that you are going to have to forget about what kind of neglectful husband Trace was in the past, and start thinking about what kind of husband he could be, with a little loving guidance from you. And Trace, I know Susannah hurt you something fierce, walking out on you and your marriage after only three months, but there’s no way she can go back in time and fix that, either. So all you can do—all anyone can do is move on, the best way you know how.” Max raised his palm in a silencing gesture. “I know picking up where the two of you left off might seem an impossible task at the outset.” His blue glance turned serious as he continued, “It’s going to be a lot of work bringing those two young families of yours together and blending them into one. But I am confident that you two mavericks can do it. All you gotta do is listen to your hearts. ‘Cause if you do, you’ll know what to do when the time comes.” Max tipped his hat at them. “Adios,” he said softly. “And remember, I love you.” The screen went blank.

48:00 hours and counting...

THE ROOM VIBRATED with a poignant silence. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” Susannah murmured after a moment, her eyes full of tears. “Watching him on the videotape...Oh, Trace, he seemed so full of life.”

“I know,” Trace said thickly.

She wiped her eyes with a tissue. “Not that I agree with the terms of his will are in any way laudable—”

Wild West Weddings

Cathy Gillen Thacker is the bestselling author of witty romantic comedies and warm, family stories whose books are published in 17 languages and 35 countries.