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Cathy Gillen Thacker
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The Last Virgin in Texas

Originally published as: THE VIRGIN BRIDE SAID, "WOW!"

Chapter One

"They turned us down again, didn't they?" Brady Anderson guessed, as Kelsey Lockhart strode across the sunny pasture toward him, her cheeks pink with temper, her tousled hair glowing as cinnamon-red as the leaves in the maple trees around them.

Kelsey's long slender legs continued eating up the ground until she reached his side. Tipping her flat-brimmed hat back off her forehead, she met his searching gaze and reported unhappily, "Yep, they sure did. That's the fifteenth bank that's said no to us because we didn't have enough collateral."

Brady grinned, trying, as always, when he was this close to her, not to notice how very pretty Kelsey was in an outdoorsy, lady rancher sort of way. Personally, he'd never been much for redheads. They were a bit too temperamental for his taste. And Kelsey Lockhart, the youngest of the four delectable Lockhart sisters of Laramie, Texas, was that, for sure. But there was something about the pale gold freckles dotting her smooth golden skin, the lusciousness of her full lips that had his gaze returning to her face again and again. Chuckling, he looked into her dark green eyes, which were now flashing with both frustration and impatience, as he commiserated humorously, "You'd think we'd get the hint, wouldn't you?"

Kelsey leaned against the part of the aging wooden fence he hadn't yet treated with wood preservative. Unlike him, she refused to take this latest rejection in stride. She folded her arms in front of her contentiously and glared at him, wanting answers. Now. This instant. "What are we going to do?" Her expressive red brows slammed down over her long-lashed eyes. "We can't buy the rest of the horses and cattle unless we get a loan. And since no bank will give it to us, and we haven't had the resources to make a killing in the stock market again..." Kelsey's voice trailed off in discouragement.

Brady shared Kelsey's frustration about that, since it was a talent for investing that had drawn them together initially and enabled them both to come up with the cash for the down payment on their ranch the previous summer. If they had another six months and enough seed money to get started, maybe they could do it again. Maybe. But they didn't have either the time or the seed money. Which left them fewer options. Brady put down his brush and wiped his hands with the cloth he had looped into his belt. The rest of the painting would have to wait. "Then we look for a venture capitalist to underwrite the rest of our setup expenses," Brady said, having already anticipated just such a move being necessary .He put the lid back on the bucket of wood preservative, picked up his brush and gave Kelsey a confidence-inspiring look. "And I know just the one."

An hour later, Kelsey and Brady were sitting in Wade McCabe's office on the Golden Slipper ranch that he shared with his wife, Josie. A stellar businessman himself, Wade listened patiently to their plans for expanding Kelsey's horse-riding stables and Brady's cattle operation, and reviewed their business plans, which Brady knew full well were solid as a rock. And then Wade zeroed in on the same thing all the bankers had. "Unfortunately, the two of you aren't married," Wade said, with a disapproving frown.

"So?" Kelsey said, spoiling for a fight about that-one of many they'd had with literally everyone who had learned how they'd impulsively pooled their resources so they could make their individual dreams of owning their own ranch come true, sooner rather than later.

"That's true," Brady interrupted coolly, putting up a hand before Kelsey could go all contentious and argumentative on them. He looked Wade straight in the eye.      "But we did buy back the ranch that belonged to her folks. We've been in partnership for four months now. That ought to count for something." Especially since most people in Laramie hadn't thought he an Kelsey would last more than a few weeks together, at most.

Wade sighed and handed back their business plan. "Look, Brady, I know you're and a talented cowboy-otherwise my brother Travis wouldn't have hired you to work on his ranch-but that doesn't mean I approve of what you're doing with Kelsey here."

Brady had an idea what Wade was hinting at-that he was somehow taking advantage of the six-year age difference and Kelsey's youth to get what he wanted. "We're business partners, Wade," Brady told him. "Pure and simple."
Wade nodded. "Yeah, I heard you've been sleeping in the tack room in the stables since you moved out to the ranch, and have even rigged up a little bathroom and outdoor shower for yourself there."

"Nothing untoward has gone on between us," Kelsey interrupted, beginning to look very ticked off that anyone could even suspect there had been. "Not that it would be any business of yours or anyone else's if there had been!" she finished angrily.

Wade lifted a brow in a way that said, "The lady doth protest too much."
Brady knew how Wade felt. If he didn't know better, he'd think by Kelsey's defensive reaction and the blush in her cheeks that there was something going on between them. Not that it would have been surprising if there had been, from a strictly physical perspective. Kelsey was one very sexy woman. She was half a foot shorter than Brady, with a slender, athletic body that curved in all the right places. Very much a tomboy. Notoriously fickle. But somehow very innocent, nevertheless. She had a way about her that somehow made her everybody's kid sister. And yet there was nothing sibling like about the increasingly lustful feelings he was beginning to have for her, Brady knew.

Was that what Wade McCabe was picking up on? Was that what had Wade, and everyone else who knew them, concerned about the partnership between him and the black sheep of the Lockhart family? Brady wondered, his glance taking in Kelsey's snug-fitting jeans and red cowgirl boots. The man's denim work shirt she wore knotted at her hips was loose enough to conceal the abundant curves of her breasts and her slender waist-the figure-hugging tank top she wore beneath was not.

"Kelsey," Brady finally said, before Kelsey could make the two of them look even guiltier with her hot-tempered protests, "Wade is not interested in our love life or lack thereof. Not that there is one, you understand," Brady finished firmly, looking at Wade. Regardless of how much he desired Kelsey, he had never once so much as tried to kiss her. For one thing, he didn't want to be another notch on Kelsey's belt. He figured to date and then be dumped by her, as she apparently dumped every man sooner or later, would be the kiss of death for their partnership. Because he doubted he could ever get over that. For another, he didn't think he should get involved with her when he still had some very sticky problems of his own to deal with-a secret debt of his own that was coming due in two weeks. A debt that could change the way she felt about him, permanently, once she realized all he had been keeping from her and everyone else in Laramie. She might understand him not telling everyone about the rash promises he had made and the debt he owed. A debt he still had no way to effectively settle, without a loan from a venture capitalist like Wade McCabe. But she wouldn't understand him not telling her. Not when his earlier actions could leave her partnerless in another two weeks.

"That's good to hear," Wade continued with a warning look at Brady, picking up their conversation where Brady had left off, "because Kelsey is like a kid sister to me and I wouldn't want to think you or anyone else had taken advantage of her."
"Wade, could you please just forget about my personal life and concentrate on business. I'm trying to get a loan from you here-not advice to the not necessarily lovelorn."

Brady grinned at her cute play on words.

Wade was amused, but he didn't grin. "Kelsey, I am a businessman, pure and simple," he told her firmly, standing to signal the meeting was over. "I don't make bad investments. If I had I never would have been a millionaire by the time I was thirty. And the bottom line is, this partnership of yours and Brady's does not look like something that is going to stand the test of time to me."

"Thanks, anyway." Brady stood, too, and held out his hand, to let Wade know there were no hard feelings. Maybe the trick here was to go to a venture capitalist who didn't know them personally. Someone who didn't feel so protective of Kelsey.
Ignoring Brady's hint that they cut the meeting short and make a dignified exit, Kelsey glared at Brady, who was still shaking hands Wade McCabe. She slipped her hands in her pockets of her jeans. "Oh, really, and how do you figure that, Wade?" She lifted her chin, the look she gave Wade as contentious as the rising tenor of her voice. "Do you have some sort of businessman's crystal ball?"

"No," Wade returned evenly, abruptly looking as if he were an exasperated father talking to a wayward child. He clamped his lips together. "But I do know your history with men and jobs, Kelsey."

Oh, man, Brady thought, having heard this same spiel or something like it from everyone in Laramie County.

"And you never stay with either very long," Wade continued flatly, not about to back down from his stance any more than Kelsey was. "The bottom line? The only way I'd loan you and Brady money is if you were married."

The Virgin Bride Said, "Wow!"

The McCabes American Romance Book Series by Cathy Gillen Thacker

The Lockharts of Texas American Romance Book Series by Cathy Gillen Thacker

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.