RIDE FOR A BRIDE IN WYOMING
Marriage is the last thing on Annora Lee Bostwick’s mind when she moves to Wyoming to start a new branch of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Her focus is centered solely on saving animals…until blackmail and deceit force her to reconsider.
Buffalo Birch Struthers has no desire to marry, but must if he wants to keep his father’s ranch, and time is running out. His only option is an event scheduled for the upcoming yearly ranch competition called the Ride for a Bride Race, which he’s bound to win if he rides his buffalo, Hezekiah.
Can two strangers who find themselves in an unwanted but unavoidable situation set anger and obstinacy aside long enough to fall in love?
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RIDE FOR A BRIDE IN WYOMING, Book 4 in Rocky Mountain Romances
October 1897, Cheyenne, Wyoming
Birch Struthers chewed a bite of beefsteak, enjoying the rich, juicy flavor while he gazed out the restaurant window.
Despite the early hour, the town hummed with activity. Men and women strolled the walkways. Horses at the hitching rails flicked tails at pesky flies and added grit to the scents floating on the breeze. Dogs and children darted between wagons, horseback riders, and buggies.
Birch witnessed the same scene every day, all day, from his law office across the street.
Often of late, he asked himself why he didn’t go home to Sheridan.
The answer came easy enough—his father, Archibald Struthers.
Not that anyone called him Archibald unless they had a yen for a broken nose. Shank Struthers—his preferred moniker—detested his given name. Hell, he detested everything.
A ranch hand with manure on his boots rode up to the hitching rail at Birch’s office across the way. That the manure existed was a given, seeing as how Chance Brownell owned those boots. Birch and Chance grew up together in Sheridan. A better friend couldn’t be had.
For the man to show up here in Cheyenne meant one thing.
Birch swallowed his bite of beef, rose, tossed money on the table, and headed for the door. When he reached his office, he found Chance rattling the door knob and cursing.
Birch didn’t bother with the usual greeting. The food in his belly didn’t sit right. Worry did that to a man. “What are you doing here, Chance?”
The man turned. “Shit, Birch. I was just thinking I was going to have to hit the saloons to hunt you down.”
“You have news for me, or you wouldn’t be here. What is it?”
Chance lowered his head and doffed his hat while chewing on his mustache. “Let’s go inside, shall we, old friend? This ain’t gonna be pleasant for either of us.”
Birch unlocked the door. Inside, he leaned against his desk. Too antsy to sit. Judging from Chance’s rumpled appearance, the man rode through the night to reach Cheyenne. “All right, give it to me. Is it my father?”
Turning his hat round and round in his scarred and tough-as-rawhide hands, Chance nodded. “He’s gone, Birch. I know there was little love lost between the two of you, but I’m right sorry to bring news like this. He died late yesterday afternoon.”
Birch shook his head. “Impossible. That old man will still be going strong when I’m pushing up daisies. Hell, he’s too ornery to die this young.”
“Regardless, Birch, he’s gone.”
Now, he sat. The chair at his desk squeaked under his weight. He rubbed his brow. “How did it happen?”
Chance lowered his big body onto a chair across from him and set his hat on his knee. “Al and Stubby Joe were breaking a bronc. A mustang stallion. Shank got impatient with the way they went about it. He decided to take care of the matter himself. The horse threw him against a corral post. Broke his neck. He died on impact.”
Birch swallowed, surprised by the emotions stirring inside him. Regret, for the most part. “When’s the funeral?”
“Tomorrow. Charley Hawks sent me to fetch you. Said you needed to hear him read the will.”
“Why didn’t he send a telegram?” Birch asked.
“Wanted to bring the news myself.”
Birch nodded. He’d have done the same were circumstances reversed. He had no reason not to go. Business had slowed lately. The only case on his desk now was a dispute over the ownership of a chestnut horse. He would turn the matter over to one of the other lawyers in town. “You heading straight back?”
“Yep. Come morning. You joining me?”
“Yes. I’ll go pack my bag. You riding back or taking the train with me? We should be able to catch the 10:15.”
Chance nodded. “That’ll do.”
Both men stood. Chance settled his hat on his head. The two shook hands.
“While you pack, I’ll buy the tickets before making my horse ready to load while you pack. See you at the depot,” Chance said as he left.
Thoughts chased around Birch’s head while he locked up the office. What had his father done with the ranch? When Birch left three years ago, Shank swore he’d leave everything he owned to his closest friend and neighbor, John-B Angstrom. The B separated him from the many other Johns in town. Shank knew nothing would burn Birch more than to know Shank handed his heritage to a man Birch hated.
Would Charley Hawks ask him to come home just to tell him he’d inherited nothing? Somehow, Birch didn’t believe that. But he reckoned he needed to make sure.
Birch Struthers was going home.
Nine Months Later, July 1898, New York City
Annora Lee Bostwick barreled into the house and kicked the door shut while wrestling with the three squirming, squealing piglets in her arms. “Mother?”
The voice came from the sitting room. Annora didn’t try to remove her coat, hat, or gloves. She swept into the room, quivering with excitement. A piglet wriggled free and darted under the sofa. “Mother, guess what? The ASPCA has awarded me my own territory to establish a new branch. Isn’t it marvelous?”
Eleanore Bostwick kept her gaze on her needlework frame while her delicate hands plied her needle in and out of the canvas. “Is that the new club you joined, dear? Do call Helga to take care of those pigs.”
The maid ran into the room and tried to corner the escaped piglet. It evaded her grasp to hide behind Eleanore’s long skirts.
With a sigh, Eleanore rose, lifted her skirts, and stepped onto a footstool to evade the piglet.
“No, it’s not a club.” Annora tried to help Helga catch the pig and lost a second one in the process. “I told you about it months ago when I joined. It’s the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.” The third pig squealed and struggled against her hold. “Oh, and Mother, guess where my new territory will be? Sheridan, Wyoming!”
“Isn’t that where your second cousin, Lissette, and her new husband live?” Still standing on the footstool, Eleanore continued to ply her needle.
Helga rushed past, chasing a baby pig.
Annora rolled her eyes. Didn’t her mother ever listen to her? She couldn’t wait to be on her own, in her own home. “Yes, that’s why I chose Sheridan. I’ll be leaving on tomorrow’s train.”
“Do sit down, dear. I make errors in my stitching when you distract me.”
“I don’t have time to sit. I have to pack.” She rushed out through the open double-doorway while shoving the third piglet into the frantic maid’s arms. “I do apologize, Helga. Put the pigs in the pen in the back yard.”
“The pen is full, Miss. Three dogs, a goat, and a rabbit are there already.”
“Pack?” Eleanore’s voice called after her. “Do not tell me you’re planning to move to this Wyoming place, Annora Lee.”
“Oh, dear. Have Thomas build another pen,” Annora told the maid. “I promise to find homes for them before I leave.”
Ignoring her mother’s words, she raced to her room upstairs. She opened a small trunk at the foot of her four-poster bed and began throwing garments from her dresser inside. Within five minutes, her mother, with her father in tow, marched in, both in high color.
“Annora, what is this your mother tells me about you moving to some godforsaken village in the middle of the wilderness?” her father demanded, his mutton-chop whiskers trembling with the movement of his prominent jaw.
On her knees in front of the trunk, Annora folded and arranged the clothes inside. “It’s not a godforsaken village, Father. It has a population of fifteen hundred and sits on the east side of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. Before you say I can’t live in a strange place all by myself, Cousin Lissette lives there. Her husband is the foreman for one of the largest ranchers in the area. I’ll be in good company.”
An orange cat jumped up on the bed and nudged Annora’s arm with its head, begging for attention. She petted its sleek fur before she returned to packing.
Eleanore snatched a skirt from her daughter’s hands. “Stop that. You are not going anywhere.”
“Listen to your mother,” her father said. “You’re only twenty-four-years-old. Wyoming is a long distance away and in an isolated territory. I’ve no doubt there are still Indians there.”
Annora grabbed her skirt back and replaced it in the trunk. Time to put the strategy she’d planned out into action. “At my age, Father, a woman is on the shelf. Wyoming may have three times as many men as women, but I’ve no need for a husband. And the Indians live on reservations.”
Surging to her feet, she forestalled her father from finishing. “I’m going, and that’s that! It’s my calling, don’t you understand that? The mistreated animals of Sheridan need me.”
Mother and father looked at each other. His shoulders slumped, but Annora detected the new light in her mama’s eyes.
Eleanora restrained her husband with a hand on his sleeve and shook her head. “It’s no use, Osgood. You know how she is about animals. She brought three pigs home today, and they tore the house to shreds before Helga caught them all.”
Annora had won.
July 1898, Sheridan, Wyoming
She had made it. Despite the smoke and soot from the locomotive blowing in through open windows to soil her clothes. Despite the constant clackety-clack of iron wheels on steel tracks. Despite the noise, the hard, wooden seat, and the poor food, Annora Lee Bostwick had arrived safe and sound in Sheridan, Wyoming. Her new home.
Her parents would expect a wire. Eleanore Bostwick loved nothing more than to fret over her daughter. Well, and her needlework. Her father tended to take matters as they came with calm and efficiency. But he, too, would be eager to learn Annora reached her destination in one piece. Drawing in a deep breath of air, she savored her first taste of freedom. Now, her adventure would begin.
Cradling the calico kitten she had stopped the train conductor from throwing off the moving train, she turned in a circle to take in the view.
“Mountains!” she whispered to the kitten. “Oh, look at them.”
Massive peaks, such as she’d never seen before, growing up in New York. Streaked with white, the mountains rose in the distance beneath a forever sky, beautiful and majestic.
She grinned while she stepped from the train onto the depot’s wooden platform. People bustled around her, jostling, cursing, banging their luggage into her. Annora didn’t care. Mesmerized by the mountains, she stayed put. Lower down, lush green surrounded the town, made up of wooden, false-fronted buildings, boardwalks, and muddy streets.
A small, gloved hand waved above the sea of passengers and families clogging the depot. Annora waved in return.
When the crowd parted, she spotted Lissette Brownell. A feathered hat perched on blond hair, topping a petite face, hurried her direction—her cousin, daughter of a second cousin to Annora’s mother.
“I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve missed you so much.” The young woman, close to her own age, leaned toward her, arms outheld, saw the kitten, and kissed her instead of the intended hug. Her husband claimed Annora’s luggage. “How was your trip?” Lissette asked. “Oh, I love your dress. You look wonderful in that shade of blue.”
“Thank you. This is Buttons.” Annora indicated the kitten named for its button-like eyes, one surrounded by black, the other by white.
“Oh, she’s beautiful. I adore cats.” Lissette took the arm of the man next to her. “Annora, you remember my husband, Chance.”
“Of course.” On impulse, she kissed them both on their cheeks. Public demonstrations of emotion were not her style.
Chance chuckled. “It’s good to see you again too,” he said. Deciding he was a friend, Buttons climbed onto his shoulder. Annora reached for her, but he shook his head. “She’s fine. Leave her.”
“Thank you.” To answer her cousin’s questions, she said, “New York to Wyoming is a long, gruesome journey, but also wonderful. So much country. Amazing. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here. Wyoming is huge and empty. I love it.”
Laughing, arms locked together, Lissette guided Annora from the platform. Chance followed, loaded down with luggage, along with a calico kitten on his shoulders. He seemed a pleasant man with kind brown eyes, a high brow, and a nice smile. Annora found him charming.
“I’m sure you’re exhausted,” Lissette rattled on. “Our wagon is over in front of the mercantile. We did some shopping while waiting for the train. But we’ll take you straight home where you can have a hot bath and rest up.”
“I would like that, but first, may I see the store you rented for my office ?”
“Of course.” Relating some of the town’s history as they walked, Lissette led her along a block of Grinnell Street to the corner of Gould Street. “Here it is. But we didn’t rent it. Your mother bought it for you.”
“Bought it?” Annora’s gaze took in the two-story, wooden building. Four-foot wide windows faced both Grinnell and Gould. A vacant lot stood on the far side, which Annora considered perfect for a yard to keep animals in once she could arrange the purchase. “How wonderful.”
To think that her mother had done this for her after their argument over Annora moving away filled her with a sudden pang of homesickness. She shook it off. This would be her home now. Her life. No one constantly trying to control her. No rules. Only glorious freedom.
Besides, Eleanore Bostwick had other reasons for making the purchase. She always had some scheme up her sleeve. This time it no doubt had to do with finding Annora a husband.
“This is the private entrance to the apartment overhead.” Lissette indicated an unmarked door between the office and a haberdashery shop. Annora would have preferred a location on the main thoroughfare, but this one appeared suitable.
What she could see through the dirty glass panes gave sparse encouragement. Broken chairs, piles of litter and dirt. So much for her hope of moving in right away. This would take some work. She didn’t care. It belonged to her. Her own office and home. No worrying about meeting the rent each month. She must write to her mother today to thank her.
“It needs some work,” Chance said, handing her the kitten. “But I can help with that.” The depth of his voice surprised her, though she had no idea why. She’d heard it before. But it was quieter here than at the train depot. A large muscular man, he wore a sack coat over a plain chambray shirt without collar or tie, plus denim trousers, boots, and a wide-brimmed hat.
“That would be grand. Do we have time to go inside?”
After a glance toward Main Street, he shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I need to help my boss load some stock before we leave town.”
“Very well. I assume I will be staying with you tonight?”
“And for as long as you like,” Lissette assured her, linking arms and tugging her toward Main.
The kitten climbed onto Annora’s shoulder and then her hat. “Oh, my, isn’t she adorable? I do believe she likes heights.”
Lissette laughed. She plucked Buttons from the nest of tulle and feathers. With the cat restored to Annora’s arms, they returned to Main Street. Annora found the town quaint, though dirty, with trash piles here and there.
They crossed over to a wagon Chance indicated belonged to them. Before she could climb aboard, the ground trembled beneath Annora’s thin-soled shoes. A rumbling sound grew louder. Closer. People cast worried looks back and forth along the road, while others scurried to the boardwalks. Drivers did their best to move wagons to the side.
“What on earth?” Lissette muttered as she studied the broad expanse of roadway.
A herd of mounted horses galloped around a corner onto Main, a huge brown beast at their center. Mud flew from under their hooves, peppering everyone within reach. Ladies grabbed for hankies to cover their noses.
“It’s the race,” Chance muttered. “Thunderation. Must be later than I thought.”
The riders drew near.
Annora clutched the frightened kitten close, staring at a huge, shaggy, brown animal at the front of the herd with a man on its back.
A buffalo bull, the first she’d seen. A bison. His narrow, shaggy face had a forlorn expression, his tongue lolling out over a lower lip. Why would anyone force a wild animal to carry a man on its back like a horse? She reached a hand toward him, wishing to rescue him. The buffalo’s sad eyes met hers. He slowed, and she thought he meant to come to her—until the man jabbed him with vicious, spiked spurs and yelled for the bull to speed up. Within seconds, they had passed by, but more horses and riders followed, almost concealed in a cloud of dust.
“A horse race on a crowded thoroughfare?” she said, waving her hand to banish the dust. “Have they no care—?”
She halted mid-sentence when a boy darted past her into the road. Annora sucked in a breath. The adults blocked the child’s view of the animals thundering toward him. He had no idea of the danger he was facing. Those sharp hooves would trample him. She had to stop it.
Could she reach him on time? Or would she too be trampled? In one movement, Annora thrust Buttons at Lissette and threw herself at the child, a prayer on her lips.
As she flew through the dusty air, Annora imagined the feel of those hooves crushing her own body and the damage they could do to a small boy. Fear and heat from the furry forms rushing past sent sweat dripping down forehead and neck. The animals’ grunts and snorts, the shouts of the riders, sounded inches away.
Blinded by dust, she reached out in search of the child. Her hands brushed something woolen.
Her arms closed around him. Together, they tumbled to the ground. Annora rolled at once to avoid the sea of sharp, death-dealing hooves thundering past.
It happened so fast. One moment she’d been standing with Lissette and her husband, the next, she lay on the ground wrapped around a small, squirming body.
Lissette knelt beside her. “Annora! Are you all right?”
Chance lifted her and the little boy to safety.
Annora checked the child for injuries.
“You saved me,” he said, grinning at her.
A woman, her shawl flapping behind her like wings, broke through the throng of onlookers. “Jeremy!” She snatched the boy from Annora. “What were you thinking running away from me like that? You might have been killed.” She gave him a good shaking, then cradled him to her breast.
“I wanted to see what was happening, Mama,” Jeremy said, peering up at her.
“Next time, ask your father to boost you onto his shoulders. Do not run out like that.”
“That lady saved me.” He pointed to Annora.
“Oh, thank you.” She grabbed both Annora’s hands, squeezing them. “Thank you so much. My boy is everything to me.” The father rushed to them, reuniting the family. He escorted them away.
Dazed, bruised and filthy, Annora stared after the departing threesome. What had happened? Dirt streaked her new silk dress and matching slippers. Her skirt showed a ragged tear. Fear, flying horses, and thudding hooves flashed into her mind.
Chance guided her to the boardwalk where the air had cleared. Annora’s head spun. She feared she might faint.
“You’re not hurt? I was so frightened.” Lissette hugged her, then brushed at Annora’s skirts. “Oh, look at your pretty dress.”
“What happened?” Annora asked.
Lissette stared at her. “Don’t you remember? You saved that little boy’s life.”
“You did a brave thing, Miss Bostwick,” Chance said. “You could have both been killed.”
“I don’t… I didn’t think. I just…acted.” Heat rose to her cheeks. She felt more foolish than brave. People stared and pointed at her, creating an urge to hide. She hated being the center of attention.
“I’m sure the parents will be forever grateful,” Lissette said.
Annora’s mind cleared. “Did I see a man riding a bison?” She straightened the hat she’d almost lost when she dove for Jeremy. “Those animals are much larger than I expected.”
Lissette handed her the kitten. “That was Birch riding it. He’s Chance’s boss.”
“Otherwise known as Buffalo Birch.” Chance grinned.
Annora saw that he approved of the man’s odd pastime, but she found it outrageous. Riding a buffalo, of all things. “Bison are wild animals. Were the other riders trying to rescue your employer?”
Chance chuckled. “Birch doesn’t need rescuing. He raised and trained the beast himself. Hezekiah is as tame as your cat. He’s the fastest critter in the county. Folks like to challenge Birch to race him against their horses.”
“Hezekiah?” she inquired.
“The buffalo,” Chance clarified.
“Well, he ought to know better than to race on a public street.” The more Annora thought about it, the angrier she became. Had he given no thought at all for the people he might have injured? What a cruel, selfish person. “The sheriff should arrest him. If not for the insane stunt he pulled, for the cruel treatment of that poor bison.”
“Cruel treatment?” Chance echoed.
“Yes. It’s unnatural to ride a wild creature the way you would a horse. I’m quite sure it would prefer to graze the grasslands where it belongs.”
Lissette put a hand to her husband’s broad chest. “Annora is here to open a branch of the new American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Chance.”
He roared with laughter. “Good luck with that, Miss Bostwick. You have your work cut out for you. Excuse me, ladies, I need to go take care of Hezekiah.” He tipped his wide-brimmed hat and ambled off, still chuckling.
Annora bristled with indignation. Glaring at the departing riders and Chance, she brushed at her skirts. “Now that I’m here,” she muttered, “there will be no further mistreating of animals.”