November 13, 2017

Sneak peek of Issued to the Bride One Marine

Only one more day until the release of Issued to the Bride: One Marine. Here's a sneak peek of book 4 in the Brides of Chance Creek series. If you'd like to preorder the book, you can find it at the following retailers. Scroll down to read the first chapter!


Chapter One

Logan walked into the large rectangular office that was the home of the Joint Special Task Force for Inter-Branch Communication Clarity, crossed the room, whistling, and sat down at his desk, dropping his bag on the ground beside him. He thunked a tall take-out cup of coffee near the monitor of his computer, kissed the palm of his hand and slapped it against the photograph of a dark-haired young woman with blue eyes that hung on the wall nearby. “Hello, baby girl!” he said, then pulled a breakfast sandwich out of a paper bag and began to eat.

 

“Don’t let the General see you do that,” Jack Sanders said in a voice as monotone as a robot’s.

Logan didn’t care; it had taken him weeks to wear the man down enough to make him say his line. He’d started this gag the first day he’d arrived at USSOCOM. First Connor O’Riley had played his straight man, then Hunter Powell had taken over when Connor headed to Two Willows. Jack Sanders had hated every damn day of it, so when Hunter had left just over a month ago, Logan made it his mission to force the man to play his part.

Luckily, relentless was Logan’s middle name. It had taken persistence, though. One day he’d said, “Hello, baby girl” over a hundred times before Sanders broke down and answered correctly. These days, Sanders resorted to the monotone voice to register his protest over the whole thing, but as long as he said the words, Logan was satisfied. Doubly so, since usually Sanders—a soldier with the Special Forces—was as cagey as a ferret.

“Don’t let him see me eat?” he said, with as much innocence as he had that very first time all those months ago.

“Don’t let him see you slap the woman you’re supposed to marry.” Jack looked up for the first time. Pointed toward Lena’s photograph. “Haven’t you left yet?”

“Not without saying goodbye. And eating breakfast.” Logan made short work of the sandwich and took the framed photograph of Lena Reed off the wall, unzipped his bag and shoved it in.

“The General will notice that.”

“Let him. He’s giving me his daughter, isn’t he? He can’t be pissed if I take her photo, too. Now, if I took Alice’s—”

He ducked when Jack snatched a stapler from his desk and hurled it at him. The stapler bounced off Logan’s shoulder and fell to the ground.

Jack went back to work, but Logan knew his words had hit their target with as much accuracy as Jack had pegged him with the stapler. Jack was supposed to marry Alice, but the man would have to wait until Logan fulfilled his mission and married Lena before he could try to make that happen.

“Come on, you’re going to miss me. Admit it.”

Jack snorted.

Logan picked up the stapler and put it on his desk, suddenly reluctant to leave. He had no idea why the General had picked him to marry Lena. From everything he’d learned about the woman, she was going to hate him on sight. She’d hate any man the General sent on sight. And if he failed—

The consequences wouldn’t be pretty.

“Well, keep up the good work here at the Joint Task Force.”

This time Jack swiveled around in his chair. They both knew the task force was a waste of time—desk work conjured up by the General to bore them so silly that traveling to Chance Creek and marrying his daughters came as a relief.

“Want to know what I’m wondering?” Jack asked.

“What?” Logan was surprised. He didn’t know Jack wondered about anything. The man made it his business to know everything there was to know.

“Three men sent to Two Willows. Three marriages.”

“So?”

“What are the odds?”

Logan sat back. What were the odds? Shouldn’t one of the General’s daughters have balked by now? “That’s a damn good question,” he admitted.

“I looked it up online. Matchmaking services have a horrible record as far as success is concerned. You might as well toss names around in a paper bag and draw them two by two—it would work as well. So how is the General—General Augustus Reed, who wouldn’t know a thing about romance if it bit him on the ass—scoring a hundred percent?”

Logan had a feeling the General knew more about romance than Jack was giving him credit for. There were photographs of his late wife everywhere you looked here at USSOCOM. Still, he understood what Jack was trying to say.

“I don’t know. Divine order?” Logan supposed those successes made his failure with Lena all the more likely.

Statistically speaking.

Or maybe not. Was it like flipping a coin? Each new coin toss still had a 50 percent chance of coming up heads—no matter how many other coins had been tossed previously.

“Divine order?” Jack repeated incredulously. “Who the hell believes in divine order?”

His parents did, with a conviction that made it hard for him to follow a path of his own. So did his brothers, who were both in the priesthood. Logan had spent a lifetime trying to escape the calling his family saw for him. He’d thought he’d done that when he joined the Marines—trading a religious calling for a patriotic one.

Then he’d screwed up.

“Does the General have some kind of predictive technology we don’t know about yet?” Jack mused.

Logan cocked his head, glad for the distraction. He didn’t want to think about the past he’d run from. “Are you worried you’re out of the loop on some new kind of spook software, Sanders?” It had been a running joke among the rest of them in the task force that the soldier might be Intelligence.

Jack sighed. “Just trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense.”

“I’ve stopped trying to make sense of anything.” Logan got to his feet. Unlike his parents and brothers, he’d rebelled against the idea you could be directed toward your fate by something outside yourself. He’d left home. Joined the Marines. Escaped any divine order that might be leveled at him.

And then the dreams had started.

He touched the medallion he wore on a cord around his neck, then shook his head at the gesture. He wasn’t going to be a priest, no matter what his parents wanted. Not even if St. Michael himself kept charging into his dreams at night.

When he’d messed up, he’d thought he was on a one-way ticket back to Idaho. Back to the pressure to conform to a calling he’d never had. Now he’d been saved again by the General. Here he was, on his way to Chance Creek to get married. To hell with the dreams.

“There’s something else,” Jack said, interrupting his thoughts. He pulled a document out of a file folder and handed it to Logan. A photograph, but of what Logan couldn’t make it out.

“What is it?”

“Drone footage. Of Two Willows. I finally got one there this morning to do a flyover. See, here’s the house and the carriage house.”

“Oh, yeah. There are the outbuildings.” Logan could see it now. Everything lined up with the maps on the walls of their office. It had taken them a while to realize why the General had surrounded them with intelligence about his own ranch.

He wondered who Jack had in Montana to put the drone in the air. Was he working with one of the other men already at the ranch?

Somehow, Logan doubted it. Jack liked to keep secrets. Logan leaned in for a closer look. “But what’s this smudgy part in the middle?”

“Near as I can figure out, that’s the hedge maze. Thing is, I can’t get a clear image of it. I tried several times. See?” Jack handed him more photographs, and Logan examined them. From what he’d heard, the maze was one of Two Willows’s most distinctive attractions. Planted by the General’s wife when she was a girl, it had grown so high you couldn’t see into it from the ground—or from the second-story windows of the house. Brian, Connor and Hunter had all reported back that there was something uncanny about the huge standing stone at its center. He couldn’t pretend he wasn’t as curious about it as Jack seemed to be. Which made it interesting that Jack was right; the maze was blurry in each of the photos.

“How do you explain that?” Logan asked. “And who have you got on the ground at Two Willows? Brian?”

Jack shrugged. “I can’t explain it; that’s the problem. How the hell are those women scrambling my drone?”

“I don’t know.” Logan noticed Jack had evaded his question. Just like he thought; it wasn’t Brian—or any of the others, he’d bet. He didn’t have time to stand here and grill Jack, though. He gave his desk a last once-over, then lifted his bag. “I’ve got to go. See you on the other side, man.”

Jack got up and faced him. Held out a hand.

Logan, surprised again, shook it.

“Good luck. I think you’re going to need it,” Jack said.

“Thanks a lot,” Logan said wryly.

But Jack was right, and therein lay the problem. He needed to get married and settle his future once and for all, but like the General had hinted, Lena was a capable, independent woman—a fighter in her own right. Uninterested in marriage. How the hell could someone like him change her mind?

*****

As Lena surveyed the tables and chairs set up on the back lawn for Jo’s wedding reception, she couldn’t help thinking she and her sisters should stop renting the damn things and just buy a set of their own. They seemed to host a wedding every other month here at Two Willows. First Cass had married, then Sadie, now Jo.

The ranch weddings would have to stop, though. Colder weather was drawing in. Jo was lucky it looked like the rain would hold off for a day or two. And besides, no one else in this family was getting married.

Certainly not her.

“You look stunning,” Brian Lake said, joining her on the back porch and trying to take the stack of tablecloths out of Lena’s arms. Cass’s husband had been at Two Willows for months now, and Lena had gotten used to him, but she wasn’t used to compliments and she shrugged this one off. Jo had insisted they all go to a beauty salon in town that morning and have their hair—and their nails—done for the wedding. In shifts, of course, since they all couldn’t leave the ranch at once. At least one Reed had to be on Two Willows land at all times. Amelia had made that promise when the General first left Two Willows to serve his country—not because he asked her to, but because she somehow thought it would guarantee his safety—and now that she was gone, they’d fulfill it for her.

Lena swore Jo had paid the hairdresser off to make her look as girly as possible. Her dark, straight locks had been pulled back and twisted into a complicated updo, and her angular face was framed by tendrils the woman had curled into corkscrews. Lena had nearly gagged when she looked in the mirror afterward. But then things got even worse. Jo had decided they’d all get makeovers, too. Lena had to submit to being plucked, moisturized, buffed and made up like a beauty queen, rather than the rancher she was.
The final indignity was the fake nails and the layers of polish another worker at the salon had shellacked onto her. She couldn’t do a lick of work like this, and how was she going to tackle the evening chores when the time came? She’d spent an hour walking around with her fingers fanned out, afraid to touch anything, before exasperation overcame her caution. If only she could rip the fake nails off—

But Lena suspected they’d been glued into place with an industrial-strength substance that required an equally industrial-strength solvent to dissolve.

Worst of all, she couldn’t carry her pistol, and these days she preferred to be armed. Her sleek shoulder-holster was normally easy to hide under a loose shirt or light jacket, but this darn dress didn’t come with one. Cass, her older sister, told her she didn’t need a firearm today, but to Lena’s way of thinking that was a reckless assumption. Three times Two Willows had been attacked by drug dealers who wanted to establish a foothold in Montana. Three times they’d fought them off—with weapons of one sort or another.

“I got this,” she said to Brian, refusing to give up the tablecloths. This much she could do, at least. She walked down the steps and began to spread them on the tables, grateful it was a day without wind.

“Really, Lena—you’re beautiful.” Brian followed her and reached for the rest of them. “You’ll be fending off suitors left and right at the reception.”

“I don’t want suitors, and I don’t need any help,” she snapped. Why was it the minute she put on a dress, guys like Brian thought she became helpless? She spread another cloth on a long rectangular table.

“That won’t stop men from trying,” he told her. “They’ll be falling all over themselves.”

Was he laughing at her? She’d have punched him if she wasn’t afraid of breaking one of these damn nails.

She spread the final tablecloth and turned on her heel, her ankle-length, spring green bridesmaid dress swishing around her legs in an annoying way as she walked up the steps to the back porch. Inside, she found Sadie and Connor organizing the tableware.

When Sadie approached with a stack of plates, Lena quickly lifted a tray of glasses to move it to the other end of the large plank table. Just as quickly, Connor moved to try to take it from her.

“I got this,” she said and set it down in a better position.

“Can’t help wanting to ease the way for a lovely lass like you,” Connor said brightly. “Never seen you in finer form, Lena.”

Lena rolled her eyes. Connor wasn’t nearly as Irish as he liked to pretend sometimes, and she wasn’t in the mood for his theatrics today. “Everything ready in here?” she asked—as if she was running this show. Which she wasn’t; weddings weren’t her thing.

“We’re ready,” Sadie said.

“Come on, lass. Give a man a little twirl,” Connor continued with his overblown Irish accent. He reached out, took her hand and spun her around before she could stop him. “Lovely sight. You should dress up more often.”

Lena snatched her hand away.

Sadie nudged her husband, but she was grinning. “Stop riling up my sister. He’s right, though, Lena. You should let your girly side out once in a while. It’s fun, isn’t it?”

“It’s ridiculous.” Lena stalked out of the room, her anger building. Being girly wasn’t fun. It was dangerous. She’d learned that the hard way. Once she’d let her guard down around a man. Once—

The memories crashed over her, and Lena, in the front hall now, braced herself against the staircase railing, fighting to push them back. She’d never forget the way Scott had drawn his arm back. The way he’d smashed his fist into her face so hard she’d nearly blacked out. She’d always thought herself an equal to any man.

He’d proved her wrong.

Lena pushed off from the railing, straightened and stalked down the central hall to the front door. Yanking it open, she stepped outside to where the ceremony would be held and pushed the memory to the back of her mind, where it belonged. Scott was gone, and she wouldn’t replace him with any other man. She’d keep her distance from them from now on.

Out front, Hunter Powell was setting up chairs in rows. Jo, her youngest sister, was already upstairs getting ready for her big day.

Her husband-to-be looked nervous to Lena. She grabbed several chairs and lugged them over to add to the rows, happy to finally have found something to do.

Hunter hurried over to her, his hand outstretched to grab the chairs from her. “Well, look at you,” he said in his honey-smooth Southern drawl, pausing to look her up and down. “You’re a knockout, Lena. Didn’t know you had it in you. Those Chance Creek cowboys aren’t going to know what hit them tonight. Let me help you.”

“I’ve got it.” Lena was past all patience. She turned her back on the former Navy SEAL sniper and began to unfold the chairs one by one. Hunter grabbed them to line them up, and she bit back a frustrated groan. “I said I didn’t need help.”

“Darling, you’re too beautiful to lug chairs around. You’ll ruin your dress.”

Lena let out a frustrated groan and gave up. She stalked off around the house, heading toward the barn, ignoring Hunter when he called after her. They could all make fun of her if they wanted to. She wasn’t beautiful. She wasn’t feminine. She didn’t care at all about dressing up—

And she didn’t care about men.

Bunch of idiots, if you asked her. Assholes. Got in your way. Slowed you down. Shot at you once in a while.

Knocked your lights out if you let them.

Lena stumbled on the uneven ground, caught herself and picked up her pace.

Now they were invading her ranch, wooing her sisters—and marrying them.

So far, they hadn’t wrestled control of the cattle operation from her. Brian, Connor and Hunter listened to her when she told them how things should be done, but how long would that last? When would they join forces against her? Overrule her?

If she couldn’t take on one man, how could she take on three?

She kept walking, her throat aching with the vicious unfairness of life. She should have been six feet tall. She should have had muscles and strength, and the cutthroat personality Scott had. The kind of personality that let you tell a woman you loved her—just before ramming your fist into her face.

Lena balled her hands to stop their trembling, her fake nails digging hard into the flesh of her palms. She didn’t want to think about Scott. And she didn’t want to think about Brian, Connor and Hunter, either. She had dreamed for years of finally getting to run Two Willows—her way. But that dream was fading fast.

She didn’t know where that left her. She’d never given thought to a life that didn’t include living on this ranch, tending these cattle—protecting this land. She’d fought the General tooth and nail for years for the control of it.

Now he was winning by sending husbands.

It had to stop.

*****

When Logan pulled into the long lane that led to Two Willows, he found it lined with cars and trucks, and had to park almost out at the street. He grabbed his bag from the passenger seat, and the small box the General had sent along with him, and walked the rest of the way, taking in the lovely old white-clapboard house the General's wife had grown up in and made the family home. It was a large, generous old Victorian that immediately tugged at Logan’s imagination. He’d grown up in Idaho in a town with plenty of houses like this.

His childhood home had been of much newer construction, though, built during an era that didn’t prize grace and architecture. A four-bedroom, two-bath structure without much to recommend it except its location on his uncle’s large spread. His uncle’s place had been the original home on the ranch, of course, and it was old and charming, like Two Willows was. He’d always felt a sense of relief when he’d entered it. His aunt and uncle, while Catholic, weren’t as devout as his parents were. They worked hard but didn’t take things so seriously. He’d grown up in a loving home, but the difference between his parents’ expectations and his own dreams was so large he never felt quite as at ease there.

Neither of his parents worked the ranch; his mother had been a librarian and his father worked at a hardware store. They’d taken the house on his uncle’s spread because family was important to the Hughes—and because the price was right. His father pitched in during the busiest seasons, but once Logan had grown able to do a man’s work and could take his place, he’d stepped back from even that.

Logan had spent most of his time helping his uncle and the hands. By the time he’d left for the Marines, he’d known just about everything there was to know about working with cattle, which was part of the reason the General had chosen him for this role.
When his phone buzzed in his pocket, Logan stopped, pulled it out and took the call. It was his brother. “Hey, Anthony.”

“Hey, yourself. Mom said you hadn’t gotten in touch in a while.”

“Been busy.” Busy hiding the mess he’d gotten himself into. He didn’t want to give his parents any ideas that he might come home.

He still couldn’t believe how stupid he’d been, rushing into the Sergeant Major’s house—busting down his door—like an avenging angel ready to save a damsel in distress.

“Busy, huh? Too busy to call your mother? She worries, you know.”

“Stop playing parish priest with me.”

His brother chuckled. “Sorry. It’s hard to step out of character, you know?”

Logan did know. He’d worked hard to break out of the character his parents had wanted to cloak him with and become a Marine, instead.

“I’ll call her—soon as I can.”

“Call her today.”

“If I have time. I’m… busy.”

“Where are you? Can you at least tell me that? Still in Florida?”

Logan always found it hard to lie to Anthony. Ten years older than him, Anthony had always held the upper hand in their relationship and was a man of the cloth now, like their much older brother, James. James was a missionary in Ethiopia. No one expected him to call home all the time.

“No—I’m in… Montana.”

“Montana? What kind of mission are the Marines running in Montana?”

“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you. And I can’t tell you, so don’t ask.”

“Already did,” Anthony pointed out. “You know, if you had to join the military, the least you could’ve done was be a chaplain. It would have eased Mom’s heart to know—”

“That wasn’t my path,” Logan snapped. They’d gone over this a thousand times. His mother had two priests for sons. Wasn’t that enough? Why harp on the one that got away? “You can tell her that next time you two talk.”

“I know you don’t think you have a calling—”

Seriously? They were going to do this again? Logan shoved his free hand in his pocket. “I know I don’t have a calling.”

He had no desire to be a priest. Didn’t think God would have him after so many years in the service, anyway. Surely he’d broken far too many commandments to make that even possible, if he’d ever had an inkling that way.

Which he hadn’t. Not ever.

So how to explain his dreams?

He wasn’t a priest in them, either, he reminded himself. Normally he wasn’t one for dreaming much at all.

Which made them even more—

Weird.

“You ever think about St. Michael?” he asked Anthony as casually as he could.

“St. Michael? What about St. Michael?”

Logan couldn’t tell his brother he’d been dreaming about the saint. Anthony would have him home and in a collar before he could finish the sentence.

“St. Michael carries a sword.” He touched the medallion again. His middle name was Michael—for the saint. His first name represented a touch of whimsy his mother seemingly hadn’t had before or since. “He’s supposed to be a protector. Like me,” he asserted, unsure why it seemed so important to clarify the connection.

“Not exactly like you. He was a saint. You’re a Marine,” Anthony said.

“I protect people, just like he’s supposed to.” That’s what the dreams had to mean, right? In them, St. Michael descended from the heavens and handed him that radiant sword he was always depicted with. In the dreams, Logan took the sword, held it firmly and wielded it like he knew what it was for.

He always woke with the sense he was supposed to protect—someone.

Which was why, when he’d heard the Sergeant Major’s wife yelling, he’d gone charging in like a white knight.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t the damsel he was looking for.

And now he’d skunked his career.

He knew Anthony—and his parents—would interpret the dream very differently. “It’s symbolic,” his mother would say. “The sword is the word of God. You’re meant to protect your parish. Come home and take up your calling.”

Logan fought the urge to rip the medallion from his neck and toss it away. “Look, I’ve got to go.”

“Call Mom—”

Logan hung up. He’d call his mother.

Just as soon as he caught himself a wife.

*****

Kitchen duty. Lena hated nothing more than kitchen duty, but it was better than simpering around among the guests in this travesty of a dress. Like Brian had predicted, she’d been fending off male attention ever since the reception had started. Jo’s wedding had been beautiful, and now her sister was glowing like she’d reached some stage of nirvana. Lena was happy for her. Really. But all this romantic love stuff was pissing her off.

As were her fake nails. Maybe if she scrubbed some dishes, they’d fall off.

Lena slammed a pile of dishes into the sink and ran water over them. Outside, people danced, music and laughter sliding in the open windows to fill the kitchen.

The night was cooling down, however, and already some men were building a bonfire to keep folks warm. Soon autumn would really make its presence known and they’d be in for another hard Montana winter.

Lena didn’t mind. She loved every season at Two Willows. Coming home from the barns on a cold, crystal winter evening, every star a bright pinprick in the sky—

Those were moments to live for.

She could almost enjoy herself if there weren’t so many damn men around the place these days. She’d come across Brian, Connor and Hunter having a chat about security on the ranch while Hunter was gone with Jo on their honeymoon. They hadn’t even bothered to add her to their little conference, although she’d always guarded this property with her life. When she’d burst in to add her two cents, they’d all looked guilty, like they’d been caught doing something wrong.

Which they had.

Underestimating her again. Just because Scott had gotten the drop on her didn’t make her useless. She’d been caught off guard once and only once. It would never happen again.

“We didn’t want to bother you—it’s your sister’s wedding,” Hunter had said.

“It’s your wedding!” she’d cried back at him. He’d exchanged glances with the others, as if he hadn’t understood the distinction.

Apparently, men were supposed to handle things like security. Women were supposed to slither around looking sexy. She would bullwhip the lot of them if she could get away with it without upsetting her sisters.

Instead, she’d given them a piece of her mind and left them to it. They could make all the plans they wanted; she was the one who knew Two Willows like the back of her hand. She could keep it secure. When her mother died eleven years ago, and the General refused to come home, she’d pledged to keep her sisters safe.

Although lately she’d been failing on every front.

But that was the past, she told herself sternly. She’d learned her lesson.

Someone knocked on the front door, and Lena dried her hands, relieved to get away from the dishes—and her ugly thoughts. She had to get things back in hand. No more self-defeating thoughts. No backing down from the job she’d worked toward her whole life.

This was her ranch. Hers. Not Brian’s or Connor’s—or Hunter’s, for that matter.

Her cattle operation.

She hoped they understood that.

The knock sounded again.

She hoped the General understood that, too. Two Willows wasn’t Reed land—it had belonged to the Griffiths—her mother’s family.

He didn’t get to call the shots here. Much as he thought he did. He’d sent three men, and her sisters had married them. He’d better not think he could—

She had almost reached the door when the knocking became a thunderous pounding.

Irritated, Lena yanked the door open—saw a tall man, with the shoulders of a fullback and biceps of an MMA superstar, his blue eyes flashing with humor, his mouth tugging into a smile as he took her in.

“Hello, baby girl. My name’s—”

“Oh, hell no!” Lena slammed the door shut.

And locked it.





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