The Cowboy's Secret Bride

By: Cora Seton

Chapter One

This wasn’t the place.

Carl Whitfield swept his gaze across the pastures before him, took in the squat, ugly house perched close by, and shook his head over the dilapidated barns and outbuildings some distance away.

“Hilltop Acres is a bargain,” Megan Lawrence, his realtor, said. An earnest young woman, she’d inherited him as a client when his former realtor, the senior partner at the firm, had given up on ever finding him a suitable property.

“It’s small,” he countered.

“It’s a ranch. Not many of them for sale around here.”

“You’re telling me.” He’d been searching for years. Three years, to be exact. He could picture what the right place would look like. A big house perched on a rise of ground, the land sloping away to a tremendous view. Plenty of acreage for a large cattle operation.

Not a stunted little spread like this one.

A prosperous ranch like the ones featured in the movies he used to watch with his father when he was young. His dad had spent summers in Montana when he was a kid. Loved to watch westerns and chew over old times.

“If you’re not interested, we’d better leave. I’ve got another appointment.” Megan pulled out her cell phone, frowned at something on the screen and tucked it away again.

Carl adjusted his hat. Back when his father was alive, he’d never dreamed he’d amass the means to buy a ranch. Now he wished his dad was here to help him pick one out. “Someone else is looking at this property?”

“No—it’s Camila Torres. She just wants a little place in town.”

“Camila—?” Carl cut off, his chest tightening. “Camila’s looking for a house?”

“That’s right. Two bedrooms, one bath. Close to her restaurant.”

He bit back a curse. He’d blown his chance with Camila a long time ago, but he’d hoped—

Hell, he’d hoped she’d give him a little while longer to fulfill the terms of her ultimatum. He’d known since the moment he’d met her she was the one for him, and at one time he’d been sure she felt the same way, but he’d blown it on their first real date. He’d gone too far, too fast. Instead of keeping to light topics and getting-to-know-you conversation, he’d found himself talking about marriage, family, and his plans for the future.

Camila had listened gravely, and told him she had one requirement for the man she married.

He had to commit to staying in Chance Creek.

It was a simple thing. Yet he’d hesitated to say he would—for a number of reasons. He hadn’t found a spread yet, he’d still had business in California that kept him flying back there frequently—and he’d still been too new to the community to feel secure in his place here. After all, his first attempt to settle in Chance Creek hadn’t gone so well.

He’d regretted that hesitation ever since.

“Carl, I like you—a lot,” Camila had said. “But I’m serious about this.”

“I’m looking for a ranch,” he’d told her.

“Ask me out again when you’ve bought one. Then I’ll know you mean to stay.”

“I hear some women like to pick out their home,” he’d teased her.

“Feel free to ask my opinion, but I’m not taking this any farther until you’ve settled here.”

“It’s only a matter of time, I promise.” Off-balance from the turn the conversation had taken, Carl hoped they could move on and enjoy the evening, but Camila had kept a polite distance for the remainder of the date. Carl, accepting the challenge she’d laid out for him, had redoubled his efforts to find a place. God knew he wanted to live here. Had wanted it for decades, ever since his father had first described the community. His dad hadn’t summered here—he’d stayed with his great-uncle who’d had a small spread much nearer to Bozeman—but family friends had owned a much larger ranch in Chance Creek at the time. Carl’s dad had considered it paradise. When Carl came to check out the town, he did too.

Unfortunately, finding a ranch here had proved impossible. He and Camila had drifted apart, until one day he realized he was avoiding her—and she was avoiding him. Things between them had gotten uncomfortable. His lack of progress made it look like he wasn’t interested in her. That wasn’t the case, and Carl didn’t know how it had come to this.