A Rancher of Convenience
September 1, 2016 (ISBN 978-0-373-28374-3, Love Inspired Historical)
Sweet mail-order bride Nancy Bennett can't believe it when her husband is exposed as a cattle rustler-and killed. And when the banker holding the ranch's mortgage questions whether she can run the ranch on her own, the pregnant widow has nowhere to turn. Until steady foreman Hank Snowden proposes marriage.
Racked with grief about his role in Lucas Bennett's death, Hank resolves to do right by the man's wife and child. So it's natural for him to step in as Nancy's newly minted husband. But the marriage of convenience may become more than a mere obligation…if only Hank and his bride can brave the first steps toward elusive true love.
Third book in the Lone Star Cowboy League: The Founding Years, following Stand-In Rancher Daddy (Renee Ryan, July 2016) and A Family for the Rancher (Louise M. Gouge, August 2016).
"A smartly crafted, emotionally engaging love story that also admirably celebrates the inner grit and outer gumption needed by the women who settled the West." -- John Charles, Booklist
"Just a wonderful story, filled with a variety of likable characters, and dealing with real issues of life. Brava!" -- Detra Fitch, Huntress Reviews
5 Stars! "I definitely recommend A Rancher of Convenience to those who enjoy books set in the old west, as well as marriage of convenience fans." -- Britt Reads Fiction
"Regina Scott is a splendid storyteller, and I loved her fresh twist on this marriage of convenience story! Humorous and heartwarming, A Rancher of Convenience charmed me from beginning to end!" Buzzing About Books
"Family. One of life’s treasures. A Rancher of Convenience is another." Hott Books
Windy Diamond Ranch, Little Horn, Texas, July 1895
She was a widow.
Nancy Bennett shook her head as she stood on the wide front porch, looking out at the ranch her husband had built. Across the dusty ground in front of the house, a horse corral clung to a weathered, single-story barn. Beyond them, scrub oak and cottonwood dotted windblown grass where longhorns roamed, content.
She could not find such contentment. One hand clutched the letter that could spell the end of her dream. The other hand rested on her belly where it was just beginning to swell inside her black skirts.
She and Lucas had been married only ten months. She was still learning how to be a wife, hadn't yet accustomed herself to the idea that she would one day be a mother. Now Lucas was dead, killed because he had rustled from their friends and neighbors. And her whole world had been upended like a tumbleweed turning in the wind.
Sherriff Fuller had tried to be kind when he'd brought her the news two weeks ago. She'd been pressing the pedal of the wrought iron sewing machine Lucas had ordered for her, finishing the seam on a new shirt for him, when she'd heard the sound of a horse coming in fast.
Such antics would have been so like Lucas, particularly since he'd bought that paint from her friend Lula May Barlow. Having been raised on a prosperous horse ranch in Alabama, Lucas liked fast horses, fine clothes. She'd never understood why he'd advertised for a mail-order bride, or why he'd chosen her. Perhaps he hadn't been satisfied with his options here in Little Horn. Lucas, she'd learned, wasn't satisfied with much.
Still, she'd risen to go greet him, like the dutiful wife she had tried so hard to be. She'd known everything was exactly the way he liked it-stew simmering on the stove with just the right amount of rosemary to spice it, parlor swept clean of the dust he perpetually brought in on his expensive tooled-leather boots and horsehair-covered chairs at precise angles facing each other in front of the limestone fireplace. She'd taken a peek at herself in the brass-framed mirror near the front door to make sure her long brown hair was carefully bound up at the top of her head with tendrils framing her oval face. She'd even pinched color into her cheeks, which had recently been far too pale, according to him. Surely there was nothing to set him on edge this time.
Smile pasted firmly on her face, she'd opened the door and stepped out on the porch. But instead of her husband, Jeb Fuller was climbing the steps.
The sheriff immediately removed his broad-brimmed hat and ducked his head in respect. The damp dark blond hair across his brow told as much of the warm summer air as his hard ride.
"Mrs. Bennett, ma'am," he said, voice low. "I'm sorry to bring you bad news. Your husband was shot."
Nancy felt as if the solid planks of the porch were bucking like one of Lucas's feisty horses. She must have swayed on her feet, because the sheriff's arm reached out to steady her as he drew level with her.
"Where?" she asked, panic and fear tangling inside her. "When? How bad is? Please would you take me to him?"
"I'm afraid it's not so simple, ma'am," he drawled, brown eyes sad. "Your husband was caught with other men's cattle in his possession, and when he was confronted he drew down on his neighbors. He was stopped before he could harm anyone."
Nancy stared at him, mouth drier than the Texas plains. "Stopped? You mean he's dead?"
The sheriff nodded. "I'm afraid so. I took the liberty of having the body sent to Mr. Agen, the undertaker."
She choked, the breakfast she'd shared with Lucas threatening to claw its way back up her throat. "It must be some kind of mistake. Lucas would never steal. He already has a ranch full of cattle."
"And we'll need to have your hands round them up," the sheriff said. "Just to make sure there aren't others that should be sent back to their rightful owners."
"No," Nancy said. As his brows jerked up, she took a shuddering step back from him. "No. Lucas can't be dead. He can't be a thief. He's my husband!"
Sheriff Fuller ducked his head again. "Yes, ma'am. And I expect I'll need to ask you some questions about where he was on certain occasions, so we'll know if he had any accomplices."
Accomplices? She'd swallowed hard. Surely none of their hands had helped Lucas steal. Did the sheriff think she'd helped? She hadn't even known!
But she should have.
The look on Sheriff Fuller's face and the voice crying in her heart both said the same thing. She was Lucas Bennett's wife. She woke with him in the morning, fed him, kept his house and garden and went to church services and civic functions on his arm. She'd thought him overly exacting, yes, moody certainly, especially in the last few months. But how could she have missed downright evil? Was she no judge of character? Had she lost the sense God had given her?
What kind of wife knew so little about the man she'd married?
Ever since, she hadn't been able to face the townsfolk of Little Horn, staying in the shelter of the house and relying on her husband's foreman, Hank Snowden, to return Lucas's body and arrange the burial on a hill behind the house. Her friend Lula May had spent the first night with her, but Nancy had only felt guilty taking the widowed rancher away from her family. Nancy hadn't bothered to alert anyone to the ceremony, certain that few would want to attend after what Lucas had done. As it was, only her boys had stood by her side while Preacher Stillwater had read over Lucas's grave.
How Lucas had laughed when she called his hands her boys.
"They're grown men more used to steers than civilized society," he'd told her. "I wouldn't get attached."
At first, she'd believed him. When she'd moved to the dry Texas Hill Country from the lush Ozark woods, everything had seemed so big, so vast. The massive cattle and the laconic men who tended them gave her a shiver. She'd stayed safely in the house, to Lucas's encouragement and approval.
But as his warmth cooled, his approval had become impossible to earn, and she'd gradually realized something about the three men who lived in the bunkroom at the back of the barn. They might be rough, but they treated her better than her husband did.
Isaiah Upkins was the veteran, his short-cropped hair iron gray, his blue eyes pale, as if the color had leached after years of watching cattle in the sun. Billy Jenks was the youngest, with hair as red as the nose he habitually burned despite her admonition to wear the broad-brimmed hat she'd urged Lucas to buy for him. She wasn't sure Billy was even eighteen yet. He seemed to be trying to shave, if the plaster sticking to his chin on occasion was any indication.
Then there was Hank Snowden. Raven haired and blue eyed, he had all of Billy's boyish energy and little of Mr. Upkins's pessimism. She knew by the times she'd seen Mr. Snowden with her husband that Lucas had come to rely on him. Lucas had even appointed the cowboy their representative in the Lone Star Cowboy League, a cattle association that had started in the area. But the three hands seemed all alone in the world. She knew that feeling. So, she baked them cakes on their birthdays and special occasions. They brought her wildflowers for the table, eggs from prairie chickens. She nursed them with honey and mustard plasters when they were ailing. They sang songs outside her window when she was worn out from weeping.
Now none of them knew what to do with her, and she didn't know how to direct them. Lucas had never explained his business. She had no idea how to run a ranch. But she was trying.
Then the letter had come, and once again her world threatened to upend. This time she refused to sway, refused to hide, refused to give up. She could not lose this ranch. And she needed Hank Snowden to help her keep it.
She could see him now, examining a horse by the barn. Like all her husband's hands, he was tall and rangy, but he moved with a languid grace that reminded her of a mountain lion she'd seen leaping a hill once. His attention at the moment was all for the horse. Perhaps the sandy-haired creature had been ailing. Mr. Snowden seemed to know when things were hurting. He'd certainly kept close to the house the last two weeks, as if he realized she might need him.
Likely he was planning to leave after the roundup. What reason could he have for staying? A boss who didn't know anything about cattle except they were big and had impossibly long pointy horns? Any of their neighbors would be glad to hire someone of his experience.
But Mr. Upkins hadn't the temperament to teach her. And Billy was too young to know everything she needed to learn. As poorly as she'd understood her husband, she didn't trust herself to hire someone new. It had to be Hank Snowden.
Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she raised her hand. "Mr. Snowden! I must speak with you. It's about your future at the Windy Diamond."
At her call, Hank looked up from examining the mare's hoof. Mrs. Bennett was standing on the porch, one hand pressed against her middle. He could hear the tension in her voice. Had the gossip reached her despite all his efforts? Did she know the truth?
You know it was an accident, Lord. I only meant to disarm Lucas Bennett, not kill him. Why won't my conscience let it go?
He lowered the mare's hoof and gave the tied horse a pat before moving toward the house. Dread made his boot heels drag as if the dust of the ground pulled at his spurs. But he could see as he approached that she looked more concerned than angry, teeth worrying her lower lip.
He'd always thought Lucas Bennett had everything a man could want-nice spread over sparsely wooded hills with good, reliable water. Big ranch house just waiting to be filled with a family. Lovely young wife who doted on him. Even now, after two weeks of mourning and in those heavy black skirts and fitted bodice, she was still one of the prettiest gals in Little Horn. How could he not admire the warm brown hair that looked softer than silk? Those eyes that could seem the color of loam or oak leaves in turn?
But it wasn't just her looks he admired. Nancy Bennett had a kind heart. That had been evident within weeks of her coming to the Windy Diamond to marry. Hank still remembered the day she'd come running to help him.
He'd been out mending a fence, the sky overcast and heavy with the threat of a storm. The cattle seemed to prefer his company, for a number were milling around the area. When that first clap of thunder broke, they moved, fast. He was down before he could think to mount his horse. As it was, he'd barely made it back to the barn and slid to the ground, arm hanging uselessly at his side. Mr. Bennett had immediately ridden for the doctor, while Upkins and Jenks surrounded Hank.
And then, all at once, Nancy Bennett had appeared beside him, brows furrowed and mouth turned down in compassion. She'd gathered her skirts and knelt. "What happened?"
No need to worry the lady. Hank managed a game smile. "I thought to myself when I woke up this morning, 'Seems like a good day to break your arm, Hank.' Guess I was right. But don't you worry. Mr. Bennett's gone for the doctor."
She glanced up toward the drive, then back at Hank. They both knew it might take her husband an hour to get to town, locate the doctor and bring him back. Hank tried to ignore the throbbing ache in his arm.
"I know a little about doctoring," she assured him, voice as soft as the notes of a favorite hymn. "Will you let me look at it?"
Upkins and Jenks shifted around him, and Hank could feel their doubts. She was the newcomer, the outsider. And ladies generally did not concern themselves with cowhands.
"I wouldn't want to put you out, ma'am," Hank said.
Still she refused to move, watching him. He sighed in resignation and lowered his hand. The elbow hung at an odd angle. His stomach bucked at the sight of it.
"It's not bad," she said. "But we need to hold your arm still until the doctor gets here so we don't do more damage." She glanced up at his friends. In short order, and with the sweetest of phrasing, she had Jenks heading for the house for material to use as a splint and helped Upkins lift Hank to his feet. But as she reached for Hank's arm, he couldn't help flinching.
"How did you come to know doctoring, ma'am?" he asked as she accepted the things Jenks had returned with and began to wind a length of cotton material around two of her wooden mixing spoons to hold the bone immobile.
"My mother was a midwife," she explained. "She taught me."
Upkins barked a laugh. "Midwife, eh? Well, it's right good to know Hank's arm might be expecting. We could sure use another cowpoke of his skills."
They'd all laughed, and Hank had thanked her profusely for her efforts. The doctor had been even more complimentary when he'd arrived with Mr. Bennett, claiming her quick thinking had likely saved Hank's gun hand.
And look how he'd repaid her. That gun hand had robbed her of a husband.
He stopped at the foot of the steps now and removed his hat. He could feel his hair tumbling onto his forehead, but he knew pushing the coal-black mop back in place would only make him feel more foolish standing here like the penitent he was. "Something wrong, ma'am?"
She clasped both hands before her, prim and proper. He could see her chest rise and fall as she drew in a breath. "First, I want to thank you, Mr. Snowden, for everything you've done since Mr. Bennett passed on."
She was trying to be businesslike, but that gentle voice and those wide hazel eyes made it nearly impossible for her to seem so serious. Still, he nodded. Even if he hadn't felt so guilty over her loss, he would have stepped in. The Good Book said that a husband and wife were partners in life, but it had become clear that Lucas Bennett hadn't shared a bit about ranching with his mail-order bride. Hank had had to help her make decisions as if he were the boss. Still, if it hadn't been for Nancy Bennett, he would likely have been making plans to ride away after roundup.
Since he'd shaken the dust of Waco off his boots five years ago, he'd never worked on any ranch long. Moving on was the best way not to get attached to folks who would only end up expecting more from him than he was able to give. He'd never found a way to please his family, had lost the one woman he'd thought to marry. What made him think others would be any more willing to take him as he was?
"From what you told me," she continued, "this ranch has every chance of succeeding. Unfortunately, the bank thinks otherwise."
He frowned. "Bank, ma'am? I was under the impression Mr. Bennett owned this spread outright. You shouldn't have to worry about a mortgage."
Were those tears brimming in her eyes? Something inside him twisted even as his hands tightened on the brim of his hat.
"I didn't think I had anything to worry about," she said, peach-colored lips turning down. "Lucas told me he originally came here to build this ranch on property his family owned. His father gave it to him after Lucas married me. But apparently Lucas thought we needed money." She opened her fingers to show Hank a crumpled piece of paper there. "Billy brought back the mail from town. We had a letter from the Empire Bank in Burnet. Lucas took out a loan from there a month ago."
A month ago? But that made no sense. Sometimes ranchers had to take loans right before roundup if a well went dry or a tornado tore down a barn. They knew they'd soon have money from the sale of their cattle to pay what they owed. There'd been no such disaster on the Windy Diamond. And Lucas Bennett had been thieving. Surely he'd had money enough. Why take out a loan?
"What are their terms?" he asked. "Might be enough in the ranch account to pay it off."
She shook her head. "I sent word to the clerk in Little Horn after Mr. Bennett left us. There's little money in the ranch account, barely enough to pay wages this quarter. Small wonder Lucas took out a loan."
She was giving the fellow credit Hank refused to allow. If her husband had drawn money from the bank, it hadn't been for anyone's benefit but his own.
"Best we ask for time to pay it off," he advised.
"We had time," she said. "Lucas had six months to repay the loan, but the bank is calling it in now. It seems they have no faith in my ability to run a ranch. See?"
Hank stepped up to her side then and took the note from her, fighting the urge to take her in his arms as well. If ever a woman needed comforting, it was her. Come all this way to marry, try to make a life with a stranger, and then discover the fellow was a no-account rustler. What had Lucas Bennett been thinking to jeopardize not only his spread but his marriage?
He glanced at the note. It was politely worded, expressing condolences on her loss, explaining the bank's policy, the bankers' need to be fiscally responsible. What about responsibility for neighbors, kindness to widows and orphans? With this sort of threat hanging over her head, what choice did she have?
He handed her back the letter, careful not to touch her fingers in the process. "Maybe it's for the best, ma'am," he said, throat unaccountably tight. "You weren't always happy here."
"I was becoming happy," she said, gaze going off toward the hills. "I was trying. And then everything changed."
She bit her lip again, to hold back harsh words or tears for the husband who had left her in such a bad way, he wasn't sure. He couldn't help reaching out and touching her hand. It felt so small, so fragile. Yet when he'd been hurting, her hands had cradled his broken arm even as she'd taken away his pain.
"You could do what cowboys generally do," he suggested. "Move on, start fresh. If you sell the place, you could pay the bank and still have money to live elsewhere."
er hand returned to her belly. "No, I need to stay here, keep the ranch, for…for the future."
He stiffened, staring at her hand, at the gentle swell beneath it. The other cowpokes might tease him about his ability to read a heifer-when one was content, when one was yearning, when one was ailing. A feeling would come over him, and he'd know. Call it intuition, experience or the Lord's leading. He'd only been wrong once.
And right now, a feeling was coming over him about Nancy Bennett. Unless his senses didn't work as well when applied to females-and he had cause to know they'd failed spectacularly with a certain lady back in Waco-Nancy Bennett had a reason for wanting to keep the ranch.
She was pregnant. He'd not only cost her a husband, but he'd cost her unborn child a father.
She turned her gaze on him. "I thought if I could convince the bank I can care for this ranch, they might give me more time to pay. I need your help, Mr. Snowden. I want you to stay on as foreman. I won't be able to pay you what you're worth, not at first, but if we can get our cattle to market, that will change. And I need you to do something even more challenging: I need to you teach me everything you know."
If he was any kind of smart he'd refuse. He could feel her expectations, her hope, hemming him in more surely than a barbed wire fence. And he wasn't sure teaching her to run a ranch was such a good idea. Ranching was tough, hard work, work he'd just as soon spare this kind, gentle lady.
Yep, if Hank was smart, he'd thank her kindly for her faith in him, refuse her proposal, fetch his gear and his horse Belle and ride on out of here.
But he'd never claimed to be smart. And how could he turn away from an innocent woman and her babe who needed his help?
"Glad to be of assistance, ma'am," he said. "I'll stay as long as you need me, do whatever you want."
And hope his efforts would finally put his conscience to rest.
While A Rancher of Convenience stands on its own, you might enjoy it more if you read the first two books in the series ahead of time.
Stand-In Rancher Daddy by Renee Ryan
A Family for the Rancher by Louise M. Gouge.
For a taste of the three stories and recipes from the books, try the Lone Star Cowboy League: The Founding Years Sampler, which is free!