Montana SEAL's Mail-Order Bride(7)

By: Elle James

“Ranch hand?” Gavin’s eyes narrowed. “What ranch hand?”

“You don’t remember Percy advertising for a ranch hand now that the senator is backing Brighter Days? Management thinks they’ll need more help.”

“I thought the idea behind the ranch was to let the recovering veterans do the work.”

Lori nodded. “It’s still the concept. But you have to admit that when Percy is gone, some of the more difficult work piles up.”

“I’m there,” Gavin argued. “I help. I don’t know why he thinks we need another full-time ranch hand.”

“From what I understand, Collin Banner needs this job as much as we need him.”

“Ahh. A paid guest?”

Lori shrugged. “From what I read in his letter to Hannah.”

“So, now you’re reading Hannah’s mail?” Gavin stared at the woman he thought he knew.

Again, Lori shrugged. “I might have been in her office when she was reading it. And I might have looked over her shoulder when I put the next day’s mail on her desk.”

The bus rolled to a stop in front of the small bus station. Martin Sims, the man who sold bus tickets at the bus station and also ran the local newspaper, stepped out of his office and pushed his Colorado Rockies baseball cap to the back of his head and stretched. “Only ten minutes late. I’d say that makes for a good day.”

As the bus door opened, Gavin’s gut twisted into a solid knot, and he held his breath, fully expecting his worst nightmare to step down.

A woman who had to be in her fifties, carrying an oversized tote bag filled with yarn and knitting needles was first to step down onto the sidewalk.

Gavin stiffened.

“Seriously, dude,” Lori hissed. “Get a grip. It’s not her.”

A man about Gavin’s age, with broad shoulders, muscular arms and thighs was next out. He carried a camouflage backpack and wore sunglasses. He glanced around, his face turning toward Gavin and Lori.

Because his eyes were hidden by the mirror shades, Gavin couldn’t get a reading on him. But he appeared to be prior-military by the way he carried himself—shoulders back, chin up, fists clenched in a loose ball. And the camouflage backpack had to be a carryover from his active duty days.

The man headed toward Gavin. “You wouldn’t happen to be from the Brighter Days Ranch, would you?”

Gavin nodded, only half-listening to the man, because his attention was still focused on the bus door.

Lori held out her hand. “We are. I’m Lori Mize, one of the long-term guests. You must be Collin Banner.”

Collin gripped her hand in a firm shake. “I am. I’m your new ranch hand.” He released Lori’s hand and held out his hand to Gavin.

“Gavin Blackstock, assistant foreman,” Gavin said, taking his focus off the bus long enough to shake hands with Banner. When he turned his attention back, he was disappointed to see the bus driver climbing down to shake hands with Martin Sims.

That was it?

His brow furrowing, Gavin exchanged a glance with Lori.

She shrugged.

“I have to collect my duffel bag, and then I’ll be ready to go,” Banner said.

The bus driver opened the undercarriage of the bus and pulled out a tattered, plaid suitcase and set it down in front of the woman with the bag of yarn. Then he reached into the bus again and pulled out a drab green duffel bag.

Banner grabbed the bag and slipped it over his shoulder. “That’s it for me.”

What the hell? Gavin glanced at the bus door again. Had he been stood up by his bride? Relief, disappointment and a spike of anger warred inside him. When he should be happy the woman was a no-show, he was disappointed he’d been proven right. You couldn’t order a bride over the internet. It just didn’t happen that way.

He shot another glance toward the woman with the yarn when she stood there, without moving. Surely, she wasn’t his bride. Just to be certain, he said the name loud enough she could hear and respond if it truly was her. “Aurelia.”

The woman tilted her head to the side. “Pardon me? Did you say something?”

“Aurelia?” he asked.

The older woman’s face lit in a smile. “Oh, that’s rich.” She slapped a hand to her thigh and laughed. “You think I’m Aurelia?”

Heat flowed up Gavin’s neck into his cheeks. “No, ma’am. My apologies.”

“I’m not Aurelia.” The older woman tipped her head toward the bus door. “But she is.”

Gavin turned in time to see a pair of long, shapely legs lead their owner down the steps of the bus to the sidewalk. The woman wore a tan trench coat. The hem of a powder-blue dress hung down below the coat and blue shoes matched the dress perfectly. A soft cream-colored scarf covered her head and shoulders, hiding her face from sight.