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Authors: Linda Lael Miller

The Marriage Pact (Hqn)

BOOK: The Marriage Pact (Hqn)
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The women of Bliss County are ready to meet the men of their dreams! See how it all begins in this enthralling new series by #1
New York Times
bestselling author Linda Lael Miller

Ten years ago, Hadleigh Stevens was eighteen and this close to saying “I do,” when Tripp Galloway interrupted her walk down the aisle. Now that she’s recovered from her youthful mistake and Tripp’s interference, Hadleigh and her single friends form a marriage pact. She doesn’t expect Tripp to meddle with her new plan to find Mr. Right—or to discover that she’s more attracted to him than ever!

Divorced and eager to reconnect with his cowboy roots, Tripp returns to Bliss County to save his ailing father’s ranch. He’s not looking for another wife—certainly not his best friend’s little sister. But he’s never been able to forget Hadleigh. And this time, if she ends up in his arms, he won’t be walking away!

Praise for #1
New York Times
bestselling author Linda Lael Miller

“Miller tugs at the heartstrings as few
authors can.”

Publishers Weekly

“[Miller] is one of the finest American
writers in the genre.”

RT Book
Reviews

“All three titles should appeal to readers
who like their contemporary romances Western, slightly dangerous and graced
with enlightened (more or less) bad-boy heroes.”

Library Journal
on the
Montana Creeds series

“A real page-turner. With vibrant prose,
fully realized characters, an engrossing plot…Miller has hit another
bull’s-eye.”

LoveWesternRomances.com,
5-Spur Review,
on
The Rustler

“Miller seems to understand her characters’
thoughts
and state of mind while fulfilling her reader’s
expectations.
She doesn’t disappoint.”

Armchair Interviews
on
The Rustler

“Linda Lael Miller has crafted a tale that
has the perfect balance of passion, compelling characters and a rich
setting,
proving once again that she is a master of her
craft.”

Romance Junkies
on
A Wanted Man

“Miller enthralls, once again, in the
second entry of her new McKettrick Men series (following
McKettrick’s Luck
), an engrossing,
contemporary western romance…Miller’s masterful ability to create living,
breathing characters never flags, even in the case of Echo’s dog, Avalon;
combined with a taut story line and vivid prose, Miller’s romance won’t
disappoint.”

Publishers Weekly
on
McKettrick’s Pride
(starred
review)

“Miller’s name is synonymous with the
finest
in western romance. From the hard realities of life
in an
untamed land to the passionate people
who bring the colorful history to
life, she brings the best
of the West to readers, never failing to
deliver a great read!”

RT Book Reviews
on
McKettrick’s Choice

Also available from
Linda Lael Miller
and Harlequin HQN

The Parable series

Big Sky Secrets
Big Sky Wedding
Big Sky Summer
Big Sky River
Big Sky Mountain
Big Sky Country

McKettricks of Texas

An Outlaw’s Christmas
A Lawman’s Christmas
McKettricks of Texas: Austin
McKettricks of Texas: Garrett
McKettricks of Texas: Tate

The Creed Cowboys

The Creed Legacy
Creed’s Honor
A Creed in Stone Creek

The Stone Creek series

The Bridegroom
The Rustler
A Wanted Man
The Man from Stone Creek

The McKettricks

A McKettrick Christmas
McKettrick’s Heart
McKettrick’s Pride
McKettrick’s Luck
McKettrick’s Choice

The Mojo Sheepshanks series

Deadly Deceptions
Deadly Gamble

The Montana Creeds

A Creed Country Christmas
Montana Creeds: Tyler
Montana Creeds: Dylan
Montana Creeds: Logan

Coming soon

The Marriage Charm

Dear Readers and Friends,

I’m excited to introduce you to an entirely new series of contemporary Western romances, The Brides of Bliss County.

Set in Wyoming in and around a small fictional town called Mustang Creek, the stories come directly from my heart.

The saga begins with
The Marriage Pact,
and the agreement between three close friends—Hadleigh, Melody and Becca (also known as Bex)—to work together to find a Mr. Right for themselves and each other. They’re successful in their chosen careers, and that’s fine with all of them, but they’re also tired of being perennial bridesmaids; they want homes and families of their own, beginning with a husband—preferably perfect.

In
The Marriage Pact,
you’ll read about cowboy/businessman Tripp Galloway, who has just sold a very successful charter-jet company and come home to the family ranch, along with his dog, Ridley, to help his widowed stepfather and maybe—just maybe—come to terms with his own past. Hadleigh Stevens, local quilt-shop owner and quilt designer, is a big part of that past, and not just because Tripp “rescued” her from marrying the wrong man a decade before—by carrying her bodily out of the church before the “I dos” could be said. Hadleigh’s known her share of tragedy, losing both parents and then her beloved older brother, Will, who just happened to be Tripp’s closest friend. He’d made a solemn promise to look after Will’s kid sister, to step in and be her big brother.

Promises have consequences, though, don’t they?

What happens when time and trouble have mellowed both Hadleigh and Tripp, and fate has brought them together again?

And what happens when Hadleigh decides to let go of her childhood crush on Tripp and get on with her life, just when Tripp is finally realizing she’s all grown-up and he wants to be her partner,
not
her honorary big brother?

Read on, my friends…

With love,

For Buck and Goldie Taylor,
cherished friends and true Westerners, with love.

Prologue

One Saturday in
September,
Ten years ago...

B
OTH
SIDES
OF
the shady street were jammed with cars and trucks for what seemed like a mile in both directions, and time was running out—fast. So Tripp Galloway double-parked his stepdad’s ancient truck alongside the bride and groom’s waiting limo, shifted into Neutral, set the emergency brake and jumped out, leaving the engine running and the door gaping.

The limo driver, probably rented along with the car, was killing time on the sidewalk, cell phone pressed to one ear.
A clock-watcher,
Tripp decided distractedly. The chauffeur was obviously waiting for the shindig to end so he could collect his money and beat it. His jowly face was florid.

Seeing that Tripp meant to leave the rig unattended, the man broke off his ongoing conversation to protest, “Hey, buddy, you can’t park there—”

Tripp went right past him without a word, through the open arbor-style gateway and up the flagstone walk.

The doors of Mustang Creek’s small and venerable redbrick church, one of the oldest buildings in the county, were wide-open, despite the faint chill of the autumn afternoon, and the place was ominously quiet.

And that might—or might not—be a good sign.

Tripp didn’t know all that much about wedding protocol, especially these days, when a lot of couples got hitched freestyle, but if the thing was over—if he was too late to stop what amounted to a matrimonial train wreck—there would be rivers of triumphant organ music swelling out into that sunny afternoon. Wouldn’t there?

On the other hand, the silence
could
mean that Hadleigh Stevens was just now saying, “I do.” That the deed was done.

Tripp drew an anxious breath and hurried inside.

Three ushers occupied the tiny vestibule, watching the proceedings up by the altar and nervously adjusting their spiffy black bow ties. Hoping there wouldn’t be a tussle, Tripp shouldered his way between them, bold as a brass bowling ball, and strode into the sanctuary.

Fortunately, no one tried to stop him.

This incident was bound to be hard enough on Hadleigh as it was, without a knock-down, drag-out brawl to ratchet up the drama a notch or two.

Not to mention, Tripp reflected grimly, that this was a church, not a cowboy bar.

He kept walking, only peripherally aware of the guests crowding the pews, packing the choir loft, lining the walls.

Clearly, this wedding was the main event of the season. Except in July, when the rodeo was on, there wasn’t much to do in Mustang Creek, and it would have been plenty talked about, even without the impending interruption. Now, Tripp thought, the day would spawn legends.

Time slowed to a crawl, it seemed to him, as he moved steadily forward.

Hadleigh was up ahead, a vision in white, beautiful even facing in the other direction, her veil sparkling with tiny rhinestones, tumbling down her slender—and mostly bare—back, iridescent as a waterfall reflecting flashes of light. She and the bridegroom stood facing the minister, who spotted Tripp’s approach before the happy couple did, of course. The old man raised his eyebrows, sighed heavily and closed the small book he’d been reading the ceremony from with a snap that echoed through the gathering like a bullet ricocheting off cold steel.

The guests, briefly dumbstruck, soon began to murmur among themselves.

Tripp prepared himself for a row but, once again, no one interfered.

Hadleigh, turning her head to follow the preacher’s gaze, started when she saw Tripp, standing just a few feet away from her now, his boots splotched with the pink-and-white rose petals strewn along the aisle.

She didn’t make a sound, not then at least, but even through the layers of chiffon comprising her veil, Tripp saw Hadleigh’s luminous brown eyes widen in surprise. Over the course of the next few seconds, which passed with all the speed of a glacier carving out a new canyon, however, the bride’s astonishment gave way to pure feminine fury.

She whirled, took a step toward him and nearly tripped on the hem of that over-the-top dress. This, of course, did nothing to improve her general outlook.

Always undaunted, a combat veteran and a man who flew commercial airliners for a living, Tripp realized his heart was hammering, and he felt heat climb up his neck, pulse behind his ears.

Say something,
commanded a voice in his head—the voice of his dead best friend, Hadleigh’s older brother, Will.

Tripp cleared his throat and asked benevolently, “Did I miss the part where the preacher asks if anybody here can give just cause why these two should not be joined together in holy matrimony?”

More gasps sounded behind him, followed by a lot of whispering and a few nervous chuckles, but, for the time being, these were the least of his concerns.

He merely looked straight at the preacher and waited for an answer to his question.

Hadleigh’s face went apricot-pink behind that veil; her mouth opened and then closed again. It was as if her vocal chords had been tied up in a knot.

The reverend, a balding, rotund man named John Deever, who raised hogs when he wasn’t preaching the Gospel, conducting weddings or teaching shop at Mustang Creek High School nine months out of the year, had been known to wear bib overalls under his stately ministerial robes during busy times so he could get right back to his farmwork without having to change his clothes.

“This,” Deever announced, ponderous as a judge, “is highly irregular.”

Tripp could have sworn he saw a brief twinkle dance in the man’s eyes, for all his outward show of disapproval.

Oakley Smyth, the bridegroom, finally turned around, looking faintly shocked to find himself where he was, in a church, surrounded by people, confronted with opposition. He resembled a man who’d been cruelly jolted out of a sound sleep—or a coma. As he registered Tripp’s presence and what it meant, Oakley’s eyes narrowed and a flush appeared on his smooth-shaven face.

“What the—” he muttered, then bit back the rest of whatever he’d been about to say.

“Because,” Tripp went on, in that forceful way people use when they intend to override any argument, operating on the theory that they might all be standing there glowering at each other for the rest of the day if he didn’t get things rolling, “it just so happens that
I
know a reason, and it’s a damned good one.”

Hadleigh, clenching her bridal bouquet in white-knuckled hands, closed the short distance between Tripp and herself in a few purposeful steps, cheeks glowing like neon, eyes flashing whiskey-colored outrage.
“What,”
she demanded, looking as though she’d gladly have swapped that delicate cluster of pink-and-white flowers for a loaded pistol, “do you think you’re
doing,
Tripp Galloway?”

“I’m stopping this wedding,” Tripp said, deciding Hadleigh’s question must have been rhetorical, since the answer was so obvious.

A short silence throbbed between them.

“Why?”
Hadleigh whispered, ending that silence, sounding stricken now as well as furious. At eighteen, she was a budding beauty, but not yet a full-grown woman, not in Tripp’s estimation, anyway. No, she was still his late best friend’s kid sister, the one he’d promised to protect, still too young and naive to know what was good for her, let alone guess that she’d been dancing on the razor’s edge.

Instead of offering a reply, Tripp locked eyes with Smyth and asked, quietly and evenly, “Shall I tell Hadleigh why she shouldn’t marry you, Oakley, or would you rather do that yourself?”

The groom hadn’t moved, except for a few reflexive twitches here and there, but the look in his eyes would have scorched two layers of olive-drab paint off an army jeep.

In Oakley’s place, Tripp reckoned, he would’ve done more than just glare—he’d have decked any man with the gall to barge in at the last possible second and wreck his wedding. Oh, yeah. He’d have thrown a punch, all right, church or no church.

An ironic insight for sure, considering what he was there to do, but, damn it all, it was the
principle
of the thing.

Oakley gulped visibly and shook his head once, very slowly.

The best man, standing at Oakley’s right side, studied the ceiling as though he’d developed a sudden fascination with the rough-hewn rafters.

None of the ushers stepped in, nor did any of the guests, for that matter.

It was as if the entire group was standing on the outside of some giant impenetrable bubble, looking in at Hadleigh and the bridegroom and Tripp as if they were figures in a snow globe.

Hadleigh was still glaring at him, still trembling with the effort of subduing her anger, but tears stood in her eyes, too, and her full lower lip wobbled.

Don’t cry,
Tripp pleaded silently.
Anything but that.

She was hurt and confused, and when Hadleigh was in pain, he was, too. It was a law of the universe.

“How could you?” she whispered, and the misery in her voice cracked open Tripp Galloway’s heart like the shell on a walnut.

Tripp had intended to explain, but later, someplace quiet, without half of Bliss County there watching, so he just put out one hand and waited for Hadleigh to take it, the way she’d done so many times as a kid, when she was scared or uncertain and Will was elsewhere or too distracted to notice.

Instead of accepting Tripp’s help, though, Hadleigh raised the bouquet, gripping it with both fists, and whacked him hard across the knuckles. The blow stung as if she’d wielded a bullwhip instead of a bunch of fragile flowers, rendering a low and somewhat affronted “Owww!” from Tripp.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Hadleigh informed him once she’d calmed down a little, breathing hard, squaring her slender shoulders and jutting out her chin. “I came here to get married, and that’s
exactly
what I’m going to do, because I love Oakley and he loves me, so I’ll thank you to
get out of this church
before God goes all Old Testament and sights in on you with a lightning bolt!”

Tripp sighed, shaking his still-smarting hand in an attempt to restore the circulation. Clearly, everybody in the place—with the notable exception of the bride—understood that the party was over.

There wasn’t going to be any wedding, not today, anyhow.

No reception, no tiered cake, no honeymoon.

Tripp tried to reason with Hadleigh, an admittedly ambitious endeavor under the circumstances, given that he was dead certain all she really wanted to do was kill him where he stood.

“Hadleigh,” he began, “if you’ll just—”

She took another swing at him with the bouquet, this time going for his face, putting so much energy behind it that she nearly threw herself off-balance and took a header. Tripp dodged the blow, hoisted her off the floor and slung her over his right shoulder, fireman-style.

“Well,
damn
if you aren’t as contrary as you ever were,” Tripp muttered. She was heavier than she looked, too, although pointing that out would definitely be a tactical error. Besides, he was swamped, all of a sudden, by great billows of silky white fabric and rhinestone-studded lace, so that he could barely see or even breathe.

And Hadleigh, a Wyoming cowgirl born and bred, struggled wildly all the while, yelling and banging away at Tripp’s back with what remained of the bridal bouquet as he carried her down the aisle, treading on the bruised rose petals, striding past all the guests without looking to the left or right, on through the vestibule and then outside, into the crisp sunshine.

Still, nobody said a word, let alone made a move to intercede, even with Hadleigh ranting and raving that she was being
abducted,
damn it, and this was
wrong.
It was a
crime,
and she needed
help.
Why didn’t somebody
do
something?

Tripp’s strides were long as he headed toward the waiting truck, its oft-rebuilt engine chortling loudly, the dented, primer-spotted chassis fairly vibrating with the need for speed. The limo driver was still standing on the sidewalk, chain-smoking and blabbing into his cell phone, but when Tripp emerged from the redbrick church, lugging a squirming, squealing bride, he shut up and gaped.

By then, the bouquet must have finally fallen apart, because Hadleigh was slugging away at Tripp with her fists, evidently out to pound one or both of his kidneys into a bloody pulp.

Reaching the truck, at long last, Tripp allowed himself a sigh of relief and wrestled Hadleigh and her bride getup until he could yank open the passenger-side door and thrust her into the cab, then stuff the voluminous skirts of her wedding dress in after her and shut the door hard. He figured she’d try to make a break for it, but by the time she’d managed to burrow through all that frothy lace to get hold of the door handle, Tripp was in the driver’s seat and they were rolling.

It seemed a safe enough bet that Hadleigh was half-again too smart to jump from a moving vehicle—though her taste in men, Tripp had to concede, belied her famously high IQ—and he took a firm grip on her left arm just in case he was giving her too much credit for brainpower.

She settled down a bit, although she was still generating enough steam to run an old-time locomotive up a steep incline.

“I can’t
believe
you just did that!” she finally sputtered when he let go of her. By then, they were doing forty, so she wasn’t likely to make a leap, but there was another problem. That damn wedding dress of hers practically filled the whole inside of the truck, creating a variety of hazards. Tripp was reminded of the time he and Will, young enough then that they were still waiting for their permanent front teeth to grow in, somehow got hold of a box of powdered laundry soap and dumped it in the big fountain in front of the courthouse over in Bliss River. In two shakes, the suds had been over their heads.

“Believe it,” Tripp said flatly.

Hadleigh shoved the veil back, revealing a splotchy, mascara-streaked face and fiery eyes as she did her best to glare a scorching hole in Tripp’s hide. One of her stick-on eyelashes had come loose, clinging to the middle of her eyelid like a bug to a windshield—and he laughed.

BOOK: The Marriage Pact (Hqn)
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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