In the Rancher's Arms - By Kathie DeNosky


“Do you, Victoria Anderson, take Eli Laughlin to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health?”

Reverend Watkins droned on, but Victoria couldn’t have said whether the man recited the sacred words of the wedding vows or if he were trying to auction off a pile of manure. She was far too nervous to concentrate on anything but the ruggedly handsome, dark-haired stranger standing next to her—the very one whom she would pledge herself to within the next few seconds.

When the rotund little minister cleared his throat and gave her an expectant look, she swallowed the panic threatening to choke her. “I do,” she murmured, her voice surprisingly steady, considering the state of her nerves.

The good reverend turned to her almost-husband and repeated his question, but Victoria heard none of the words. Two short hours ago, Eli Laughlin had been nothing more than a few long-distance phone calls and a half dozen or so email messages. In fact, during the course of their brief acquaintance, they hadn’t even bothered to exchange pictures.

Not that it would have made a difference in her decision to marry him—it wouldn’t have. There just weren’t a lot of options for a down-on-her-luck heiress with less than five hundred dollars to her name and several death threats hanging over her head.

But she fervently wished they had at least discussed physical characteristics. It might have lessened her shock when Eli met her at the airport in Cheyenne. She wasn’t sure how she had expected him to look, but she knew beyond a shadow of doubt, nothing could have prepared her for the reality of the man she had traveled over eighteen hundred miles to marry.

Of course, if she hadn’t been so distracted by the hurried preparations and the urgent need to leave Charlotte, she might have taken a hint from the sound of his voice. She had always heard of someone having bedroom eyes, but Eli Laughlin had a bedroom voice. Smooth and deep, his voice could—as her nanny used to say—charm the bloomers off an old maid. The first time he had called to interview her, just the sound of it had caused goose bumps to shimmer up and down her arms and her pulse to flutter erratically. It stood to reason nature wouldn’t have bestowed that kind of voice on a scrawny little wimp.

Victoria glanced up at him from beneath her lashes—way up. When they had discussed their arrangement, she hadn’t given his size a second thought, hadn’t considered it would matter. She had been more concerned with convincing him that she met his list of qualifications, and listening to him outline his reasons for treating the marriage like a business agreement. But now?

The man was well over six feet tall, had the broadest shoulders she had ever seen and every time he moved, the most fascinating bulges pulled at the fabric of his chambray shirt. From her vantage point, he looked like a giant and a well muscled one at that.

Her gaze traveled to his face. Weren’t men who spent the majority of their time outdoors supposed to have skin like leather? The only wrinkles Eli had were the faint creases fanning the corners of his dark brown eyes and the laugh lines bracketing his mouth.

“I do.” The sound of him responding to the minister jolted her back to reality.

“By the power vested in me by the state of Wyoming, I pronounce you husband and wife,” Reverend Watkins said cheerfully. “Son, you may kiss your bride now.”

Surely Eli wasn’t going to kiss her, she thought as she stared up at her new husband. They had met in person only a few hours ago when he’d picked her up at the airport in Cheyenne. Her pulse sped up when he put his arms around her and started to lower his head.

A moment of panic seized her. What on earth had she gotten herself into?

But remembering the prenuptial agreement, especially the part outlining a one-month “get acquainted” phase, she began to relax a bit. The marriage would remain in name only unless both parties agreed to waive the clause and consummate the union before the end of the specified four weeks.

“Congratulations to both of you,” Blake Hartwell said, brushing Eli aside to hug her.

On the hour’s drive from the airport to his attorney’s office in Eagle Fork to sign the prenuptial agreement, Eli had explained that the wedding