Their Texas Christmas Match
We’re talking about an arranged marriage,” Travis Lockhart said gruffly. He stared at Skye McPherson, barely able to believe she would even entertain such a crazy notion. A lively spark appeared in the stunning brunette’s dark brown eyes. To his consternation, she seemed as unaffected by the unconventional terms of Willa and Walter Braeloch’s bequest as he was utterly dumbfounded.
“Oh, I’m aware, cowboy,” she drawled right back.
The late-afternoon sun bathed the front porch of the Winding Creek ranch house, catching the golden blond highlights that framed her face, providing what little warmth there was on that mid-November day in Laramie, Texas. She had suggested they take this meeting outside, and he and the attorney delivering the news had readily agreed. They all wanted the will-reading over with as quickly as possible.
Like Travis, Skye was unable to sit still. “But it’s not as if it has to be a real marriage.” She straightened her slender shoulders, drawing herself up to her full five-foot-eight-inch height. Still in her nurse’s scrubs, her hair drawn into a sophisticated knot on the back of her head, she turned to Travis’s brother-in-law, Griffith Montgomery, who had drawn up the late couple’s unconventional wills. He was sitting in one of the cushioned chairs on the covered front porch, briefcase opened on the table next to him.
Skye peered at Griff expectantly, then stopped pacing and sat down next to the lawyer. “Does it?”
He cleared his throat and looked distinctly uncomfortable. “That is correct. There’s nothing in the terms that says your union must be consummated…”
She turned back to Travis with a triumphant smile. “See?”
“But,” the attorney continued, “there is a provision that says no annulment will be possible if you want to inherit. At the end of the 120-day marriage, you will either have to continue your relationship as husband and wife or divorce.”
Still feeling a little shell-shocked, Travis lounged against one of the pillars that supported the one-story porch extending all the way across the front of the three-story Victorian and down one side. “And if we decide not to marry at all, then what?”
“The same thing that happens if you get hitched and then split up before the 120 days are up,” Griff explained. “The property will be sold to the highest bidder, which in this case is a custom home builder who will turn the Winding Creek’s two thousand acres into a luxury-home subdivision. The profits from the sale will then be put in a general welfare trust, paid out for both of you, only as needed, for a maximum of fifty thousand per person, per year.”
Travis and Skye both took a moment to absorb all that. Already not liking the way this was shaking out, he asked casually, “Who administers the trust?”
“Joe Carson, one of the founding members of my law firm,” Griff replied.
Travis studied his sister Mackenzie’s husband, whose own convenient marriage had, against all odds, turned into an epic love story. “I’m guessing this boss of yours is a stickler for the rules?”
“You better believe it.”
Sighing, he squinted at the gloomy clouds building up along the horizon, theorizing. “If the property has sold and the money’s in trust, and I wanted a new truck for my business…”
Griff saw where this was going. “Joe Carson’d probably consider it.” He leaned forward, warning, “But if you wanted a fancy sports car when you already have a vehicle that runs just fine, he probably would not. Because that item would not be considered necessary for your general welfare.”
Clearly weary of this conversation, Skye stood and began to pace once again, her long legs moving effortlessly and slender hips swaying gently beneath the black cotton scrub pants. “That’s all fine with me,” she interrupted, making her own feelings clear. “I wouldn’t want to spend any of the money we inherited, anyway. I’d just feel safer knowing it was there, in case of an emergency…”
Travis’s gaze clashed with Skye’s. It was easy to see she still thought the worst of him—assuming she thought about him at all. She likely didn’t. Whereas he dreamed about her nearly every night since they’d recklessly hooked up out of grief over Walter’s and Willa’s deaths.
Noting the way the breeze plastered her sweater against her delectable breasts, he turned his gaze back to her face. “That’s not really the point,” he said, ignoring the hardening of his body.
Griff interjected, working to get them back on track, “Actually, having an executor or administrator in charge is precisely the point of a general welfare trust.”
Travis blew out a frustrated breath. “It’s someone else having control over any part of my life that I don’t like.”
“So you’re saying, what?” Skye countered, completely misreading him, as usual. “If you were to inherit a million dollars, you’d run right out and spend it all?”
He met her testy glare with one of his own. “No. I’d probably just put it in the bank or a very safe investment like more land. But I’d get to decide. I wouldn’t be relying on anyone else to agree with my decision of what to do.”
She propped her hands on her hips, squinting right back at him. “Well, with that attitude, you’re going to be a very difficult beneficiary.”
Maybe. Or maybe not, since he didn’t really intend to touch the money, whether it was legally his or not.
“Not to mention,” she continued emotionally, “a very difficult husband.”
Travis agreed. He wasn’t cut out for marriage. Not at all. Which was exactly why this bequest was such a bad idea. Not that it could be changed now.
He just wished Walter and Willa hadn’t played matchmaker...
Skye seemed surprised that he hadn’t responded to her insult. She trod closer, inundating him with her sunny citrus scent. “What? You got nothing?” she challenged, planting her sneaker-clad feet on the wooden porch floor.
Remembering this very spot was where they had first kissed, he pushed away the renewed burst of desire and rolled his eyes at her deliberately haughty tone. “Only because I agree with you, darlin’. I would indeed make a lousy spouse. Which is exactly why I’m the only one of my siblings who has never gotten hitched.” Although once, he had foolishly come close…only to have his heart stomped all to pieces.
Griff impatiently glanced at his watch. “As amusing as all this repartee is, can we get back to the situation at hand?”
“Gladly,” Travis said, eager to get this over with so he could get back to his solo life. “So, if we want full control of the money—”
Griff laid it out flatly: “You have to follow the terms of the will and embark on a 120-day marriage.”
Skye bit her lip, for the first time seeming to consider another option than the one just set out for them by Willa and Walter’s attorney. “And if we were to accept the developer’s bid as is, without marrying. What would happen to the ranch house?”
Where she currently lived.
“And the dogtrot cabin?” she continued. Where he lived.
“And the barn where I currently house the workshop for my handyman business,” Travis jumped in. He had assumed—wrongly, it appeared—that he and Skye would be able to carve out the ten acres or so of land around the buildings and remain in the residences they’d called home for the last couple of years.
Griff grimaced. “The developer’s clear. He’ll tear everything down. Nothing of the Winding Creek ranch will be left. But if the two of you want to eventually live on one of the ten-acre estates in one of his luxury custom-built homes, he said he will give you first pick of the lots.”
Travis waved off the offer. “Not interested,” he said, knowing the subdivision life was not for him.
He needed wide-open spaces. Beautiful sunsets and sunrises. The peace and quiet only country life could bring.
Skye pressed her soft lips together. “Me either.” She turned to look Travis in the eye, her protective attitude toward the late couple clear. “Because there is no way that I am going to consent to a sale or let Willa and Walter’s entire life’s legacy be torn down.”
I may as well have announced my intention to have an alien baby, Skye thought as the two men stared at her skeptically.
“I don’t see that we have any other choice but to sell,” Travis said finally.
“Sure, we do,” Skye pressed on. “We could get married for four months. Just like Willa and Walter stipulated. And use that time to figure out how to keep their ranch going in the way they envisioned—with a happy family living here.”
He scoffed. “Yeah, well, that definitely won’t be us,” he countered in a low, gravelly tone that brought back unwanted sensual memories, electrifying every nerve in her body.
“No joke, Sherlock,” Skye retorted, frustrated that once again, Travis Lockhart had jumped to the wrong conclusion about her. Which wasn’t all that uncommon. He had spent the initial two years they had lived on the ranch steadfastly going the other way and avoiding interaction with her.
Except for the night of the joint memorial for the ninety-year-old couple, who had passed within days of each other. When she and Travis had both opened up their hearts and let their guards down, to disastrous results…
Ever since, they had gone back to the safety of avoiding each other as much as humanly possible. Keeping their communication to texting and email only. Limiting even that to business matters of the ranch, most of which were currently being handled by the Fort Worth law firm where Griff worked.
She forced herself to go back to the unusual bequest. “But I feel sure, if we highlight all the improvements Willa and Walter had us start two years ago and turn the marketing of the property over to a high-end Realtor from Dallas or Houston, that they would be able to find a very wealthy family, with kids, looking for a country spread, who could outbid the developer.”
Travis paused. He ran his hand through his thick and rumpled walnut brown hair. Cut short and casual, it seemed to go every which way in a style she found completely natural and unbearably sexy. He, too, had come straight from work, knocking off a bit early, just as she had. Travis was dressed in worn jeans and a plaid flannel shirt that made the most of the taut abs, muscular chest and broad shoulders on his six-foot-two-inch frame. His boots were scuffed, his square jaw clean-shaven. Lips masculine and as perfect in that rough-hewn way as the rest of him. But it was his kind yet perceptive whiskey-colored eyes that turned her on the most.
But her attraction to him only went so far. His determination to live life solo, and go his own way in his own time, was a total turnoff.
Which was kind of ironic, given she had decided on the same path for herself.
One broken heart had been enough.
Picking up the threads of her argument, she met his considering glance and continued lobbying for what she knew was best. “And then the Winding Creek ranch would be the lively family home Willa and Walter always envisioned it being one day.”
Exhaling, Travis folded his arms. “That’s a good point,” he said quietly. “Walter and Willa always dreamed of having children living here. Especially since they were never able to have any kids of their own. The Braeloch line ended with the two of them. And they wanted Winding Creek to be passed from one generation to the next.”
And family, she knew, was Travis’s one weak spot. Just as it was hers. In different ways, of course.
He was one of eight tragically orphaned kids who had been adopted by Robert and Carol Lockhart. Whereas she was an only child, who had been raised by her great-aunt after her parents perished in a freak accident when she was very young. When she was sixteen, her aunt had died, turning her life upside down once again.
So unlike the taciturn cowboy in front of her, who had more family than he could count, she was still all alone in the world.
And, she was beginning to think, probably always would be. But that wouldn’t stop her from doing what was right.
Travis looked at Skye for a long moment, then turned back to Griff, who was still sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs, legal papers strewn out in front of him. “Are you sure there is no other way to preserve the Winding Creek as a family ranch?”
“Willa and Walter were quite clear in what they wanted.”
Travis sighed, exactly the way she had months ago, when the outlandish idea had first been floated as a possibility. Not that she had ever imagined the hopelessly romantic couple would actually go through with rewriting their last wills and testaments…
He frowned, continuing, “And what they wanted was for Skye and me to give marriage a try.”
“How long do we have to decide?” she asked.
Griff stood and handed them both their copies of the wills. “As long as you need. But I would advise you to make a decision quickly so that the will can be filed with the court and go through probate. In the meantime—” he handed them a thumb drive “—Willa and Walter recorded a message for the two of you to watch together.”
After Griff left, Travis turned to Skye. “Your place or mine?” he joked wryly.
She gave him a look that let him know clowning around was not welcome. Unfortunately, lame jokes were what got him through the toughest moments in life. So he cocked a brow and waited.
“I won’t put the moves on you again, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said.
She rolled her eyes at him, deftly avoiding any further talk about their Big Mistake—the night of the dual memorial services, nearly three months ago—or the frigid silence that had existed between them ever since. “Believe me, I’m not the least bit worried about that.”
“Good. Because one wrong turn was enough, as far as I’m concerned,” he couldn’t resist adding.
She nodded stiffly. “For both of us.” Then she turned on her heel and led the way into the ranch house. Most of it had been updated and refreshed over the last few years. While she had been living there as the Braelochs’ private duty nurse slash companion, he had served as the ranch caretaker in addition to his full-time work as a handyman. Hence, the two had been so busy, they rarely even crossed paths, which suited them both.
She walked through the high-ceilinged hallway, past the sweeping staircase and formal living and dining rooms, to the rear of the home, where a large country kitchen, mudroom and small sitting room were located.
Her laptop was open on the kitchen table.
After sitting down and powering it on, she motioned for him to take a chair, too.
He grabbed a kitchen chair, turned it around backward and straddled it. Arms folded across the padded back, he watched as she plugged in the thumb drive and opened up the file.
Walter and Willa Braeloch appeared on screen. They were sitting in this very kitchen, their chairs pulled together.
Willa was wearing one of the denim ranch dresses she favored. Her short, curly white hair was freshly permed; her soft cheeks were rosy; and her faded blue eyes beamed with a mix of determination and excitement.
Walter was wearing a denim shirt open at the throat. His full silver hair was neatly combed, his face cleanly shaven. The old man’s gray eyes were serious yet somehow loving and accepting.
At ninety, each had suffered health challenges but managed to live life fully just the same. Travis had never been able to do anything but admire them.
“Well…” Willa reached over and took Walter’s hand. “Skye and Travis… I guess if you two are watching this, it means we have moved on to our next great adventure. Which means the Winding Creek ranch is in need of new stewardship. Our attorney, Griff Montgomery, told you of our request that our beloved ranch pass permanently to the two of you. But only if you two are married and plan a future here. Hopefully, one with the children we were never able to have.”
“It probably sounds like a crazy bequest,” her husband cut in. “But Willa and I have seen the sparks between the two of you. We know how much you have in common. And we truly believe that, given the chance, you could bring out the absolute best in each other the way Willa and I have.”
Willa added, “We know how much Skye loves living in the country—and the life Travis could bring to this property.”
“Which is why we have put fifty thousand dollars for interim property management in a trust managed by our law firm. It already has and will continue to pay all the expenses until the property is either sold or reverts permanently to the two of you,” Walter said.
“And while we understand all this is probably coming as something of a shock to you two, we also want to remind you that arranged marriages can work out spectacularly,” Willa said.
Walter added, “Willa and I—and our happy marriage—can attest to that.”
Willa beamed beside him.
“Of course, there are a few stipulations,” Walter continued. “The first is that you spend every night beneath the same roof and enjoy at least one meal together every day. Finances are a big part of every marriage, so you have to agree on how any money is spent and the final disposition of the ranch.”
Walter and Willa exchanged loving glances; then Willa went on, “Basically, we’re asking that you both give your union the honor and due diligence marriage deserves.”
“Then, if it still doesn’t work out the way we think it will,” Walter said, giving his wife another confident look before turning back to the camera, “the two of you’ll be able to move on, all the wiser and more financially secure for the experience.”
“In the meantime,” Willa said, suddenly beginning to choke up, “just know that the two of you are the children we never had and always wanted.”
“And that we will both always love and treasure our time with you,” Walter said in a low rusty-sounding voice.
Willa began to cry in earnest. He took her into his arms. Then the video ended. Eyes filling, Travis turned to Skye. Her eyes were overflowing, too. His heart went out to her, and he did the only thing he knew to do—he reached out and pulled her close. Surprisingly, she did not resist.