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From Nicole Helm, the author of the national bestselling Stone Cold, Navy Seal Cowboys, and Big Sky Cowboys series!
As the middle Tyler brother, Gavin doesn’t always have much say in ranch decisions, but when it comes to his heart, he’s the only authority. He’s loved Louisa “Lou” Fairchild for longer than he can remember, even though they’ve never been more than friends. But with Lou stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, Gavin is going to help the way any true friend would—with a proposal of a strictly business-like, in-name-only marriage . . . at least to start.
Lou can’t believe her beloved grandmother has backed her up against the wall. The choice between finding a man to marry and letting her no-good father back into the family to run the ranch isn’t a choice at all! But when her sister counters with an even less savory idea, Lou knows what she must do—say yes to the only man she’s ever trusted. But somehow pretending to be in love with good-natured Gavin suddenly begins to feel alarmingly real—and she downright likes it.
Can a sham marriage become the truest kind of love?
Release date: June 25, 2019
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 326
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The Trouble with Cowboy Weddings
Gavin Tyler parked his truck in front of the barn that acted as headquarters for Lou’s Blooms.
He’d done a lot of the rebuilding of the barn himself, and it looked good. The red paint had gone on last month after a rough winter, and a Colorado spring hinted at green around the barn, the peaks of the snow-capped Rockies in the distance.
Lou’s flower farm was beginning to sprout, and Gavin smiled. Lou didn’t like his help, but she’d been forced to take it over the past year, and that meant he’d had a hand in building something for once.
It felt good.
He grabbed the sandwiches he’d brought over and headed for the entrance. The large barn door was open to the cool spring air, and Lou stood over a long table the length of the wall, measuring and cutting ribbon.
Her good side faced him, which meant her dark blond hair flirted with her chin, though it was tucked behind her ears. Her profile was all sharp angles that reflected her personality better than just about anything else. She wore a long-sleeved T-shirt and baggy jeans, and even though it had been a year since a fire had claimed most of her barn and some of her skin, he wasn’t used to the way her physicality had changed.
She’d never been überfeminine like her sister, Em, but baggy and hidden away had never been her style either. It was hard to watch his friend retreat into this strange shell she was building for herself, and harder still that no one seemed to be able to pull her back out.
Still, he tried, because he wasn’t ready to give up on her. Probably never would be. She’d been a constant in his life since she’d moved in with her grandparents on the Fairchild Ranch, the neighboring ranch to the Tylers.
And since he was a Tyler, he never gave up—not on family, not on friends.
He forced his feet forward and plastered a pleasant smile on his face. “Hungry?”
She didn’t even look up. Likely she’d heard his truck approach and knew exactly who was standing in the entrance of her barn. “Whatcha got?”
“Deb Tyler special. How are the wedding flowers going?”
“Going.” Lou straightened and stretched, and though she tried to do it surreptitiously, Gavin didn’t miss the way she checked to make certain her bandanna was covering the burned side of her face.
She’d had a hell of a year, what with her grandfather dying somewhat unexpectedly only a month before the fire. It was more than half of why he put up with the snarly, angry caricature of herself she’d become since the fire.
Still, it required a certain amount of patience. Patience he wouldn’t have thought he had, but . . .
Well, he’d found some. For her anyway.
She studied him from across the room. She kept her distance these days. Physically, emotionally. He would never have presumed she’d told him everything in her life, but he knew a lot about Lou Fairchild.
Including the fact that she wasn’t herself, and something needed to change.
Gavin raised his eyebrows when she continued to stare at him without speaking. “Everything okay?”
“Gav . . .”
He waited. She rarely shortened his name these days. One of those soft things that had been burned to ash, like her barn and parts of her body.
“I need . . .”
She trailed off, but he waited. And waited. And waited. She held out her hand for the sandwich his mother had made her. He smiled and shook his head.
She grunted irritably. “Grandma isn’t budging. She even called . . .” Lou pulled a face. “My father.”
“Your father the deadbeat?” Gavin didn’t know all the details, but he did know Lou and her sister Em had been moved to their grandparents’ care as kids because their father had neglected them.
“Between losing Grandpa and . . .” Lou swallowed and pointed to her face. “. . . this,” she finally finished. “I don’t know who she is anymore.”
Which sounded all too familiar to Gavin, but he didn’t think he should point that out to her in the moment. “I could talk to her again. Assure her I’d take over as manager and we could work whatever protective clauses she wanted into a contract.” He tried not to let himself hope for that. He had a place on the Tyler Ranch. It was a good place, a solid place. A place within his family’s ranch. Blood rights and the like.
But he hated being second fiddle to his older brother Shane, no matter how much he loved him. He wanted to be in charge of something too. Have something that was his, not just the odd cattle drive but a whole spread. Just him. Running the Fairchild Ranch on the land not used for Lou’s floral business, well, it would be something like a dream come true.
“I’ve asked her to sell. I’ve asked her to hire you or anyone. I’ve asked her for every reasonable alternative, and she insists only a Fairchild or a man married to a Fairchild can take over the ranch. So if Em and I aren’t going to go find ourselves some husbands, she’s going to make my father come here. He’d run it to the ground, Gavin. Into the damn ground.”
“What did Em say about that?”
Lou pressed her lips together and turned away from him. He wasn’t sure he’d ever understand why she’d decided she had to be solitary and strong when she had so many people who wanted to help her.
“You have to tell her,” Gavin said, trying for the same mix of firm and gentle his mother often employed to get her way.
“I can’t tell her. Our father is . . . I can’t tell her Grandma’s contacting him.”
“I can’t tell her. I’m her older sister. I’ve protected her this long and what’s more . . . She’s got nothing to do with the ranch. She loves running the bakery in town. Cattle and flowers aren’t her problem. I’ve had a hard enough time convincing her of that. I’m not going to add another layer. She’s separate.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“It’s true enough. And it’s final.” She turned back to face him. “Sandwich.” She held out her hand, a demand she didn’t expect him to refuse.
He was starting to think she needed a little refusal in her life. He held on to the sandwich his mother had made for her. “What if I had an idea?”
Everything about her expression went wary. For the past year, she’d been accepting his help because he hadn’t given her a choice. She complained bitterly, and withdrew from asking him for any favors—not that she’d ever been keen on asking for help.
Still, he helped, and because he’d been there when her grandmother had refused to hire Gavin as ranch overseer, and had seen Lou’s own stubbornness dug into Mrs. Fairchild’s face, he’d mulled over this problem for a few weeks.
He had a solution. One he knew she’d refuse and hate, but maybe if things were this bad . . . Hell, it was worth a shot. What was there to lose?
He shoved that thought away and grinned at her.
“I hate your ideas,” she said.
“And you’ll undoubtedly hate this one, but I don’t see you coming up with better.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Fine, what is it?”
“You could marry me.”
She laughed, and it was nearly foreign for as little as he’d heard that sound from her lately. “Yeah, sure, Gav. We’ll get married. Have, what, eight kids? Maybe ten. I always wanted to be a brood mare.”
He didn’t laugh along with her, nor did he let himself get bent out of shape. He focused on being calm. “I’m not joking.”
“Then you should have gotten your head checked when that horse bucked you.”
Irritation simmered through him. “I was not bucked, and that is so incredibly beside the point.” He pushed out a breath. He wasn’t calm in most areas of his life. In fact, he was known around Gracely as the Tyler with the short temper. But he’d hold his temper for Lou. “Your grandma wants you taken care of, and maybe she’s . . . Look, maybe she’s still reeling over your grandpa, or whatever it is, but if we get married, it won’t take too long to get all the land and business moved into your name, and then we’ll get divorced.”
She shook her head, taking a few steps away from him. “You can’t . . . I can’t . . .”
“What are friends for?”
“Not marriages that are legally real and emotionally fabricated!”
“You’re putting a lot of limits on friendship. Remember the time I wrecked my truck so you could blame me for the dent in your grandfather’s? That was a much, much larger sacrifice than marriage.”
“I loved that truck,” he said, placing a hand over his heart. But she wasn’t swayed and she didn’t smile. “What would we have to do for it to work?” he asked gently.
“Lose our minds.”
“Lou, come on. It’s the easiest solution you’ve got. Why not take it?”
“Maybe I’m tired of you cleaning up my messes, Gavin.”
“Have I ever complained?” Not once. He’d clean up a million of her messes without one complaint. “I’m going to bring Em in if you don’t agree. I’ll tell her about your grandmother contacting your father.”
The steps she’d retreated she immediately retraced, violence all over her expression. “I’ll kill you first.”
“You really think she’s not going to find out? That your grandma won’t tell her, or that you’ll be able to keep it bottled up? Lou, come on. Be reasonable.”
Lou whirled away and slapped her hands on the long worktable. Then she simply stood there, her ragged breathing the only sound in the barn.
He wanted to ease this for her, but if he told her that, with the bald emotion coursing through him, she’d only shut down further. Unfortunately, when it came to Lou, sometimes retreat was the only viable option.
He didn’t touch her, though that was what he wanted to do. Instead, he slid the sandwich in front of her. “Think about it.”
“Fine. Lose the ranch and your life’s work.” He had to focus to make sure his voice was even and casual and didn’t include the hint of temper that was beginning to light. “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”
With that, he forced himself to leave the barn and head back to the Tyler Ranch, where he’d take orders from his mother and older brother and feel about as useful as a legless horse.
You could marry me.
The words haunted Lou for two days. Two long, obnoxious, frustrating days. Worse, so much worse, Gavin didn’t show. She spent two days waiting for his usual daily check-in, so she could give him a piece of her mind, and he didn’t come.
She was furious with him. If only that fury didn’t feel a lot like wanting to cry. But she didn’t cry. No, she’d learned young not to show that kind of weakness.
She looked down at the pictures she’d arranged on her inspiration board. She had to admit she didn’t care for the bride’s taste, but that was part of the fun of doing wedding flowers. The challenge of making something she could be proud of that a picky bride would like too.
This one was certainly going to be a challenge. She’d had to close the door against the chill of an early spring afternoon, so when it slid open with a quiet screech of metal against metal, she glanced up.
Her sister slid inside the space she’d opened, then closed the door behind her. “Jeez, it’s freezing in here. You need to talk to Gavin about getting some sort of heating system.”
The mention of Gavin killed the smile at seeing her sister. Gavin was her closest friend aside from Em, but having to take help from him over and over again this year had made that relationship far more complicated. She didn’t like feeling beholden to him, worse when he never tried to make her feel so.
“He might be handy, but I don’t think he’s heating system handy. Besides, the flowers need the cool temperatures.”
Em walked over and put her hand on top of Lou’s. “You’re ice.”
“I’m used to it,” she replied. “So, what brings you out? Has your nagging-Lou quota run low?”
“Desperately low,” Em returned, straight-faced, as she plopped herself on the stool Lou rarely used. She preferred to stand when she worked.
Em pulled her coat collar closer around her face. “So, give me the Grandma update.”
“Give me the Grandma update,” Em repeated firmly.
“There is no update because I’m handling this.” She looked at Em, trying to perfect a big-sister, don’t-you-dare-question-me glare.
“This isn’t a you problem, Lou. Grandma making unreasonable demands is our problem. We’re in this together. Always.”
It was nice Em thought so, but Lou didn’t want this bleeding over into her sister’s life. “I’m going to handle it. The flower farm and keeping it is my problem. Don’t you have the same bridezilla I do? You should be working on your cake design. She’ll have you change it five more times.”
“I’m not letting you change the subject to work. I came over to discuss a few ideas I’ve come up with to deal with Grandma’s current bout of insanity.”
“We’ve exhausted every idea. It’s been, what? Four months since she made this proclamation?” Lou wasn’t a big fan of feeling hopeless, but four months of beating their heads against this impossible situation hadn’t changed anything. And Grandma was starting to talk to Dad. Lou had overheard a phone conversation just last night. Grandma didn’t seem to be mentioning the ranch to him yet, but she was talking to him, and that was bad, bad news.
They were running out of time. It felt inevitable she would have to face that man again, and she wasn’t sure how she was going to do it. But she sure knew it fit in with the year she’d been having. Losing Grandpa. The fire. Dad seemed the only natural next step in the year of horror.
“I’m not giving up, Lou. I know she’s been talking to Dad. She made sure I knew.”
Lou winced. She’d been so sure she’d be able to keep it from Em, but Gavin had been right. Of course he’d been right.
“Dad is not getting his hands on this. He’s not coming here.”
Lou looked at Em, trying to find some semblance of her big-sister control. But Em stood there looking like Instagram come to life in her floral dress and bright knit tights and a purse in the shape of a cupcake.
She had her own problems, her adorable little sister. It wasn’t easy to make a bakery successful in a small town, even with the strides Gracely had made to lure businesses and citizens alike.
Em didn’t need to be worrying about this. She needed to be worrying about her business and her bottom line.
“If Dad comes—”
“Dad isn’t coming,” Em said firmly. “Look, I know we tried the Gavin-as-manager route and that didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean Gavin isn’t the answer to our problems.”
Gavin Tyler. Why did everything always have to come back to him these days? “Gavin is not the answer to our problems.” The very thought made her itchy from the inside out.
“She wants one of us married. Married to a man who will ranch the land and take care of it like Grandpa did. So, I can ask Gavin to marry me for a bit.”
She couldn’t believe her sister had come up with almost the exact same plan Gavin had. “Did Gavin say something to you?”
Em’s brow furrowed. “About what?”
Because her sister wasn’t much of a liar, Lou could only believe her sister was as brain damaged as Gavin. “You can’t be serious. You can’t marry Gavin. Not for a bit, and not . . . at all.” An ugly burn of something settled in her gut. Something she wouldn’t analyze too closely, though the idea of Gavin and Em getting married . . .
“Grandma might buy it. We dated in high school, and Gavin’s a good guy. It wouldn’t be the first time he helped me out. He could take over the manager role, and we could get the ownership thing sorted. Then he and I could get divorced and deed everything to you.”
“No.” Lou clutched the table in front of her and squeezed her eyes shut. It was out of the question because it wasn’t Em’s problem to solve, and the acrid burn of whatever it was twisting in her gut was just worry. Fear.
“Lou, the only other option is . . .” Em trailed off. “Lou,” she said gravely, resting her hand on Lou’s shoulder. “I’ve been doing some research on getting someone declared . . . incompetent.”
Lou gasped. It might have been an overreaction, but she couldn’t imagine her sweet-hearted sister even thinking such a thing, let alone researching it. She stepped away from Em’s hand.
“We’d need a lawyer,” Em said, clasping her hands together. “Some money to pay a lawyer, but we both know she isn’t right.”
“She saved us,” Lou replied, because what else was there to say? They couldn’t hurt Grandma that way, the woman who’d given them a life when theirs had fallen apart.
“I know she did. Now she’s threatening to bring Dad here. So, maybe we need to get her help.”
“Not like that.”
“No, you can’t. You can’t do that to her. She’s lost Grandpa and . . . You couldn’t. I couldn’t. We can try to get her to see she needs help, but I will not use some scummy lawyer to get around her. I couldn’t live with myself. Could you?” Her breathing was labored, but she watched her sister. Forced herself to stay in the moment.
“If it helped you,” Em said solemnly.
Lou wanted to throw up, or cry, or just give up, but she’d come too far in life to do any of those things. “We won’t do that to her. It isn’t right.”
“Then I’ll talk to Gavin about marrying me.”
“No. No, not you.” She squeezed her eyes shut again. It couldn’t be Em. It just couldn’t.
“I don’t have to listen to you. I can do whatever I need to do to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
“You’re not going to marry Gavin.” Lou let out a sigh and opened her eyes and stared at her sister. She couldn’t believe this was her life, but that had been a pretty common feeling since the fire. “I will.”
Gavin kicked his feet up onto the porch railing of the Tyler house. Something he could only do because his mother was with Ben at their bizarre square dancing club. Deb Tyler did not like boots on her railing.
But Deb Tyler wasn’t home.
His younger brother, Boone, mimicked his pose, sipping on a bottle of beer. Something that also would not be allowed if Mom was within a hundred or so yards.
“What must it be like to live like this on an everyday basis? Being thirty and not having to follow my mother’s rules?”
“But then you wouldn’t be eating your mother’s cooking, and that is quite the tradeoff,” Boone said with some uncharacteristic goodwill toward home.
Gavin shrugged. “I’d have a pretty wife to cook for me.”
Boone snorted. “What’s stopping you? Oh right. That ugly mug.”
Gavin raised his middle finger at his brother, but mostly he sat back and enjoyed the sound of spring peepers on a pretty spring evening.
“Didn’t go see Lou again today,” Boone offered casually.
“And here I thought only Shane kept tabs on me.”
“Don’t have to keep tabs on you to notice your obnoxious mouth is around more than usual.”
Gavin chose not to say anything to that and sipped his beer instead.
“What happened? You two have a little tiff?”
Gavin raised his eyebrow at his brother. “Did you want to gossip? You’ll have to call up Lindsay. She’d be happy to giggle over boys with you even if she and Cal are all but living together now.” Quite the thing, his oldest and youngest siblings happily attached. He couldn’t quite work out the emotion that lodged inside his chest. Not exactly bad, not exactly good.
Boone snorted and pulled his hat lower on his head. “Hell no I don’t want to gossip. Just making conversation.”
“Watch out. I hear that’s catching. The next thing you know, you’ll be meddling in everyone else’s life like Mom.”
It was Boone’s turn to flip Gavin off, but instead of a retort, the sound of a car engine broke through the quiet evening. Both brothers moved up their hats and squinted down the dusky drive, ready to jump out of their chairs and hide evidence of beers on the porch if Mom was home early.
“Is that Lou?” Boone asked.
Gavin relaxed back into his chair, being careful not to smile or let an ounce of his triumph show. Boone would jump all over triumph, no matter what he claimed about not wanting to gossip. Bad enough he’d noticed Gavin hadn’t made his usual trip over to the Fairchild Ranch the past few days.
But deep, deep down, he was grinning because the only reason Lou was driving up the Tyler drive was to take him up on his offer.
Probably something a little warped in being happy about a woman agreeing to fake-marry him, but he wanted to help. A bone-deep need he couldn’t ignore.
This would help. Both of them.
“Appears to be,” Gavin offered casually.
“Something going on there?”
Gavin shrugged. Until he knew how Lou wanted to play this, he figured he’d let Boone draw his own conclusions. If they suited his purposes later, he’d use them, and if they didn’t, he’d tell his little brother he was an idiot.
“What’s that mean?”
“It means go find something else to do,” Gavin replied, getting to his feet as Lou stopped her truck and hopped out.
She looked pissed. Which was another sign she was going to accept his help. He was under no illusions Lou Fairchild would ever take help gracefully or gratefully. Why he liked that about her, he’d never fully understand.
She stomped up the stairs, all thunder and lightn. . .
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