The Cowboy’s Marriage Mistake

Chapter 1

“You get Rosie to come with you and you can sit beside me.” Cord Stryker shoved his cowboy hat farther down over his head and held the reins of his matched Percherons loosely in his hands.

Rosaleen Bloom barely glanced at the rancher, even though he was her best friend, sitting high on the driver’s seat of the sleigh. She’d had a crush on Cord for years, but now that he and her twin sister had actually set a wedding date, it was time to move on.

Her phone, with its unanswered text from her sister, burned under her layers of heavy winter clothes.

“Will you come? Huh? Huh?” Joseph Bennett asked, jumping up and down beside her, on hand on her arm, almost pushing her into the sleigh.

The sun had long since set and the burning orange and reds had faded into inky blackness in the North Dakota sky on the last day of the Sweet Water Christmas festival. The temps had dropped too.

But Joseph, who wasn’t quite a teenager, was lightly dressed in a sweatshirt and vest. No hat. Or gloves. Rosie wasn’t sure where his parents were, and she was fairly certain they had no idea where their son was. They usually didn’t.

“I’ll come,” she said, pulling off her thick, outer gloves. “But you’re putting these on first.” She held the gloves out with one hand and slid off her beanie hat, which, thankfully was a steel gray color and not a girly pink. “And this.”

Joseph took the gloves and hat without complaint, which, of course, made Rosie think he probably was pretty cold. Irritation at his parents bunched in the back of her neck, but she wouldn’t do anything about it. They might be neglectful, and actually, the man Joseph’s mom was living with wasn’t his father. A phone call to authorities might send Joseph to a home where he wasn’t allowed to run around the dark, frozen North Dakota nights with no winter clothes on, which would be good. However Rosie had to believe that it was better, and less traumatic, for the kid to stay with his parents.

Something waved in her peripheral vision, and she looked up to see Cord holding out the beanie he’d been wearing under his cowboy hat.

“Take it,” he said. “This’ll be the last ride for the night.”

She couldn’t keep from returning his smile, but she didn’t allow herself to hold his gaze, looking instead at the hat as she pulled it from his fingers.

The crowd had dissipated and only a few stragglers remained. A couple was kissing under the mistletoe in the kissing booth.

Rosie turned her face away.

Maybe she’d snuggle up with a romance novel later, once this last ride was over. She had one on her bedside stand that talked about cowboys standing under the mistletoe. She’d put it down last night in frustration because she’d reached the seventy-five percent mark and the story-challenged author hadn’t even gotten around to mentioning mistletoe. How was there supposed to be Christmas kissing if there wasn’t any mistletoe? Definitely false advertising to put that word in the title.

“Why the frown?” Cord asked as Joseph finished putting his gloves on and reached up to pull himself into the seat.

“Just a book I was reading. It’s about as frustrating as real life.” She watched Joseph and didn’t even think about the dark blue eyes of the cowboy above her.

“Maybe you should write a book.” Cord reached a hand out to steady Joseph as he plopped down in the wide seat. They moved over.

“No. I’d be awful at it. Everything would work out in the first chapter and the rest of the book would be boring kissing scenes.”

“If you think kissing is boring, you haven’t found the right guy yet.” Cord’s voice was low and laced with humor and it sent a shiver from her eyebrows the whole way to her toenails. A shiver she ignored.

Instead, she tried to think about the last time she’d painted said toenails and whether or not she should do them again before Christmas.

When he reached around Joseph and held his hand down for her, she thought about eyebrow rings and how painful a piercing might be. Good pain, right?

To think about anything else would be to think about her twin sister’s fiancé in a way that was not appropriate.

She managed to take his hand and land in the seat beside Joseph, her eyes on the matched pair of black Percherons in front of them, the husky scent of horse and deep winter, the chill of the breeze and the heat of the little boy beside her. A little boy who craved nothing more than attention and approval.

“Can I drive?” Joseph asked.

“Sure can, kiddo,” Cord answered easily. “We don’t have any other passengers, so just let me get Sadie and Bill headed out of town and I’ll hand the reins over.”

“All right!” Joseph said. It was the kind of “all right” that might have been punctuated with a fist pump, but, since both of his hands were shoved into the big front pocket of his vest, he just bounced on the seat between them.

They grinned at each other over his head. The kind of grin they’d been sharing since preschool when their mothers took them to play group and Sunday School together. The kind of grin that said everything they needed to say without words. The kind of grin that she never shared with her twin.

And the kind she wasn’t really sure she should be sharing with her future brother-in-law.

He jiggled the reins and Sadie and Bill eased into the well-worn path they’d been travelling all night. It took them down the closest backstreet, that wasn’t plowed, and past the little garage that Rosie had turned into a library. Her tiny efficiency apartment was on the second story.

Sweet Water wasn’t a large town, and just beyond that were open, snow-covered fields.

As the buildings fell away, Sadie and Bill picked up their slow trot, pulling the sleigh along at a faster rate and Cord handed the reins over to Joseph, who took them eagerly.

Rosie shifted, her phone pushing into her rib cage from where it was zipped up in her vest, three layers deep.

She hadn’t opened it, but she had read the first part of the text. The one that started, Rosie, I’m pulling a Twin. Go to the wedding planner’s tomorrow with Cord.

At least Rosie could go as herself. The text before that had told Rosie to pretend to be Rosalin and spend Friday night with Cord. Pulling a Twin.

They’d switched places plenty of times growing up. That wasn’t a big deal. If Cord were really looking he could tell them apart, but why would a man suspect that his fiancée would ask her twin sister to take her place on a date? Even in romance novels, people didn’t do that kind of stuff.

But Rosaleen and Rosalin had made a pact years ago that they could pull a Twin. Which was basically where one of them asked the other to take her place.

They were way too old for those kind of games, now that they were in their mid-twenties, but Rosie couldn’t be the first to back out. Her first allegiance was to her twin. Even if it meant deceiving her best friend.

Rosalin loved Chicago and was having a hard time disentangling herself from everything she had going on there. After all, Cord was expecting her to move to his ranch just outside of Sweet Water after their marriage and live there.

Rosie figured it would be better for everyone involved if Rosalin would just ask her to take her place at whatever was keeping her in Chicago.

Although they both knew she could never do it.

“Miss Rosie?” Joseph said. “Are you gonna answer Mr. Cord?”

Yeah. Like the fact that she was constantly day dreaming.

“Of course. Repeat the question, please,” she said as primly as possible, noticing that Joseph had given the reins back while she’d been spaced out and was now hunkered down between them, his hands shoved deep in his pockets and his head nodding in time with the horses’ hooves.

Cord’s teeth flashed her way. She wasn’t fooling him. He was well-aware that she had a tendency to space out. Daydream. Write stories in her head. Happy stories where the heroine’s twin sister didn’t end up with the man the heroine loved.

It was the hardest part about pretending to be Rosalin. She had to pay attention. Rosalin was not romantic. Rosalin did not space out. Rosalin did not read romance books.

Rosalin was a successful business executive in Chicago who had finally agreed to marry Cord and work from home at his ranch in North Dakota. She was finding the transition harder than she had anticipated, which is why she was enlisting Rosie’s help.

Rosie understood this. But she didn’t resent the situation any less.

“I asked if you were cold.” Cord’s breath huffed out in white clouds as he spoke, the moonlight shining down on the snow and turning everything into an old, black and white movie.

“No.” North Dakota could be brutal, but by December Rosie had acclimated. Layers helped, too. “Are you, Joseph?”

“Mr. Cord already asked me.”

Of course. She’d missed that in her spaced out state.

“I just wanted to make sure. Since it’s the last ride and this is a pretty night, Bill and Sadie will take us a little farther, but I don’t want anyone freezing to death.” Cord’s breath puffed out white with each word, the consideration that was a part of his DNA coming out as naturally as he guided his team of drafts.

Rosie leaned back against the backrest, the horses’ harness bells jingling in the frosty night air. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, but didn’t allow her mind to wander.

Cord was right. It was a beautiful night. And she should just be in the present and enjoy it.

She snuggled down deeper in her coat, sleepy despite herself.

“I think our friend has fallen asleep,” Cord said low.

Rosie thought he meant her, but when she opened her eyes, Joseph’s head had fallen back and he let out a half snore.

She lifted her gaze and met Cord’s. “I guess that means you’re a good driver.”

“Doesn’t take much when you’ve got quality horses like Sadie and Bill.”

“They are good horses.” Back in high school he’d taken every extra job he could find after the work on his own ranch was done in order to save up enough to buy them. He hadn’t been able to afford a full-grown already-trained team. So he’d bought Sadie and Bill as yearlings.

Her breath blew out in a white cloud that slipped past her cheek. “You did a good job training them.” Especially since he’d never even owned any type of horse before he’d bought these.

“I had a certain librarian wanna-be who did a lot of research for me and bought me more than a few draft horse training books.”

“YouTube was helpful as well.”

“And you went through and found all the best videos.”

“But you put the work in.” She didn’t know why she was trying to deflect his praise. It was true she’d gotten onboard with his dream and helped him in every way she could short of working with the animals herself. It was the one thing they’d done together that Rosalin hadn’t been involved with.

“You were with me, Rosie. I couldn’t have done it without you.” The bells jingled and the muted sound of big hooves crunching in the snow provided beats to their music. “Did you ever think we’d be here tonight? Bill and Sadie providing hours of entertainment to the people of Sweet Water and rocking one little almost-orphan boy to sleep?”

“It’s more than you and your horses.” She’d always loved that about him. He’d loved the horses, yes. But he’d always been about how the horses could bless others. Almost like service dogs or singers at nursing homes. He’d always wanted to share them.

“I wouldn’t have worked for it so hard if it had been only about me.” He held the reins loosely in his hand and stared straight ahead.

“I know,” she said. It was one of those things that she wasn’t sure Rosalin really appreciated about Cord.

In fact, she wasn’t sure exactly what Rosalin did appreciate about their friend, other than his willingness to put up with her constant cancellations and work-focused life.

A buzz drifted over the cold air seconds before she could see the bobbing headlight.

A snowmobile, probably.

Cord had come to the same conclusion beside her and he straightened a little, tightening the reins, although his horses had only flickered their ears.

“Whoa,” he said.

They stopped in tandem, as he’d trained them to do, with little pressure of the reins. Bill and Sadie were easily the best trained team of horses Rosie had ever seen, having won ribbons in four different states over the years.

The buzzing got louder.

Joseph stirred, then settled in more deeply. Running around in the cold all day had probably worn him out. Rosie wondered if he’d gotten anything to eat.

“You know, you don’t usually talk my ear off. But the last month or two, you’ve really gotten quiet.” Cord’s voice was soft and low, but the snowmobile was far enough away that he didn’t need to raise it to be heard over it, even though it was heading this way.

Her stomach clenched. Had he figured her out? She wanted to make a crazy claim, deflect, anything to keep him from realizing that her romantic hopes had been completely dashed when he’d gotten Roaslin to agree to marry him.

As good as her imagination was, it always failed her in the heat of the moment.

He spoke before she came up with anything even remotely believable – that she was secretly a unicorn or a mermaid from another planet sent to save earthlings from the curse of eating too many vegetables not seeming quite believable enough, not to mention, it wouldn’t explain why she’d been quiet. Someone sent to save the earth should be talking, right?

“I think I know why.”

Her heart and stomach grabbed each other and held on tight. She bit the insides of her lips, her mind completely blank. She couldn’t even say the word unicorn.

“We’ve been friends for a long time, Rosie.”

She nodded. Internally trying to separate her heart and stomach which were still wrapped up like wrestlers on a mat.

“I think you could share with me when something big is going on in your life.”

Yeah. Like when her twin sister was marrying her current crush? Not likely.

“And something big is going on, right?” Cord asked gently.

Oh, boy. He was going to force her to tell. She should have spent more time learning to lie. Her head was nodding before she could stop it.

“I’m a little put out that you chose to keep it to yourself.”

Like, what was she supposed to do? Ruin their engagement by throwing a fit? Make them feel guilty? Everything would be awkward.

“Rosie.” Cord gave her name a firm sound.

The snowmobile’s light flashed up and down as it went over drifts in the field.

“I’m sorry. I guess I should have said something,” she finally blurted out, completely embarrassed that he’d somehow figured out that she was secretly crushing on him.

“Yeah. I definitely think you should have.”

“I’m sorry.” She squirmed in her seat. “Maybe we can keep this between us?”

Ugh. That didn’t sound right.

“Why?” He sounded truly perplexed, which was totally unlike him. Surely he realized how pathetic this made her look. “There’s no shame in letting other people know.”

“There’s not?” she mumbled, still not sure she could see the benefit of telling anyone.

The drone of the snowmobile was loud enough that she barely heard his next words.