Authors: Barbara Dunlop
As Cole outlined the scenario, an unexpected vision bloomed in his mind. Sydney in a white dress. Sydney in a veil. Sydney with a spray of delicate roses trembling in her hands. He could feel her skin, smell her perfume, taste the sweetness of her lush lips.
“We'd both know it was fake,” she said.
Cole startled out of the vision and gave a short nod. “Yeah. Right. We'd both know it was fake.”
“And that's what would matter. That's what would count.” She squared her shoulders. “Knowing the benefits, I could do it.”
“Then so can I,” said Cole, just as he'd known he would from the second his brother conceived the plan. His family needed him, and that was all that needed to be said.
Thunderbolt over Texas
Next to Nothing!
Too Close To Call
Out of Order
The Mountie Steals a Wife
A Groom in Her Stocking
The Wish-List Wife
writes romantic stories while curled up in a log cabin in Canada's far north, where bears outnumber people and it snows six months of the year. Fortunately, she has a brawny husband and two teenage children to haul firewood and clear the driveway while she sips cocoa and muses about her upcoming chapters. Barbara loves to hear from readers. You can contact her through her Web site at www.barbaradunlop.com.
For Angela of the Vikings.
Princess and Warrior.
ost people loved a good wedding.
Cole Erickson hated them.
It wasn't that he had anything against joy and bliss, or anything in particular against happily-ever-after. It was the fact that white dresses, seven-tiered cakes and elegant bouquets of roses reminded him that he'd failed countless generations of Ericksons and had broken more than a few hearts along the way.
So, as the recessional sounded in the Blue Earth Valley Church, and as his brother, Kyle, and Kyle's new bride, Katie, glided back down the aisle, Cole's smile was strained. He tucked the empty ring box into the breast pocket of his tux, took the arm of the maid of honor and followed the happy couple through the anteroom and onto the porch.
Outside, they were greeted by an entire town of well-
wishers raining confetti and taking up the newly coined tradition of blowing bubbles at the bride and groom.
Somebody shoved a neon-orange bottle of bubble mix into Cole's hand. Emily, the freckle-faced maid of honor, laughed and released his arm, unscrewing the cap on her bottle and joining in the bubble cascade.
Grandma Erickson shifted to stand next to Cole. She waved away his offer of the bubble solution, but threw a handful of confetti across the wooden steps.
“Extra two hundred for the cleanup,” she said.
“Only happens once in a lifetime,” Cole returned, even though the soap and shredded paper looked more messy than festive.
“I've been meaning to talk to you about that.”
Cole could feel his grandmother's lecture coming a mile away. “Grandma,” he cautioned.
“Melanie was a nice girl.”
“Melanie was a terrific girl,” he agreed.
“You blew that one.”
“I did.” Grandma would get no argument from Cole. He'd loved Melanie. Everyone had loved Melanie. There wasn't a mean or selfish bone in her body, and any man on the planet would be lucky to have her as a wife.
Problem was, Cole had plenty of mean and selfish bones in his body. He couldn't be the husband Melanie or anyone else needed. He couldn't do the doting bridegroom, couldn't kowtow to a woman's whims, change his habits, his hair or his underwear style to suit another person.
In short, there was no way in the world he was getting married now or anytime in the foreseeable future. Which left him with one mother of a problem. A nine-hundred-year-old problem.
“You're not getting any younger,” said Grandma.
“I've been thinking,” said Cole as Kyle and Katie climbed into a chauffeur-driven limousine for the ten-mile ride back to the ranch and the garden reception.
“About time.” Grandma harrumphed.
“I was thinking the Thunderbolt of the North would make a perfect wedding gift for Kyle and Katie.”
Even amid the cacophony of goodbye calls and well wishes, Cole recognized the stunned silence beside him. Heresy to suggest the family's antique brooch go to the second son, he knew. But Kyle was the logical choice.
Cole had already moved out of the main house. He'd set up in the old cabin by the creek so Kyle and Katie would have some privacy. Soon their children would take over the second floor, making Kyle the patriarch of the next Erickson dynasty. And the Thunderbolt of the North was definitely a dynastic kind of possession.
As the wedding guests moved en masse toward their vehicles, Grandma finally spoke. “You're suggesting I throw away nine hundred years of tradition.”
“I'm suggesting you respect nine hundred years of tradition. Kyle and Katie will have kids.”
“So will you.”
“Not if I don't get married.”
“Of course you'll get married.”
“Grandma. I'm thirty-three. Melanie was probably my best shot. Give the brooch to Katie.”
are the eldest.”
“Olav the Third came up with that rule in 1075. A few things have changed since then.”
“The important things haven't.”
“Wake up and smell the bridal bouquets. We're well into the twenty-first century. The British royal family is even talking about pushing girls up in the line of succession.”
“We're not the British royal family.”
“Well, thank God for that. I'd hate to have the crown jewels on my conscience.”
Grandma rolled her eyes at his irreverence. She started down the stairs, and Cole automatically offered his arm and matched his pace to hers.
She gripped his elbow with a blue-veined hand. “Just because you're too lazy to find a brideâ”
She tipped her chin to stare up at him. “Yes, Cole Nathaniel Walker Erickson. Lazy.”
Cole tried not to smile at the ridiculous accusation. “All the more reason not to trust me with the family treasure.”
“All the more reason to use a cattle prod.”
He pulled back. “Ouch. Grandma, I'm shocked.”
“Shocked? Oh, that you will be. Several thousand volts if you don't get your hindquarters out there and find another bride.” Then her expression softened and she reached up to pat his cheek. “You're my grandson, and I love you dearly, but somebody has to make you face up to your weaknesses.”
“I'm a hopeless case, Grandma,” he told her honestly.
“People can change.”
Cole stopped next to his pickup and swung the passenger door open. He stared into her ageless, blue eyes. “Not me.”
He hesitated. But if he wanted her support, he knew he had to be honest. “I make them cry, Grandma.”
“That's because you leave them.”
“They leave me.”
She shook her head, giving him a wry half smile. “You leave them emotionally. Then they leave you physically.”
“I can't change that.”
“Yes you can.”
Cole took a deep breath. “Give Kyle the brooch. It's the right decision.”
“Find another bride. That's the right decision. You'll thank me in the end.”
Cole couldn't help but grin at that one. “This from a woman who once threw her husband's clothes out a second-story window.”
Grandma turned away quickly, but not before he caught a glimpse of her smile.
“You know perfectly well that story is a shameless exaggeration,” she said.
His grin grew. “But you admit there were men's suits scattered all over the lawn.”
“I admit no such thing, Cole Nathaniel.” She sniffed. “Impudent.”
“You get that from your mother. May she rest in peace.”
Cole helped Grandma into the cab of the truck. “The Thunderbolt would make a perfect wedding gift.”
“It will,” Grandma agreed, and he felt a glimmer of hope.
Then she adjusted the hem of her dress over her knees. “You just have to find yourself a bride.”
So much for hope. “Not going to happen,” he said.
“You need some help?”
Cole's brain froze for a split-second, then it sputtered back to life. “Grandmaâ¦”
She folded her hands in her lap and her smile turned complacent. “We're late for the reception.”
“Don't you dare.”
She turned to him and blinked. “Dare what?”
“Don't you try to match me up.”
“Close the door, dear. We're running late.”
Cole opened his mouth to speak, but then snapped it shut again.
His grandmother had inherited the stubbornness and tenacity of her ancestors. He knew all about that, because he'd inherited it, too.
He banged the door shut, cursing under his breath as he rounded the front grill. There was no point in arguing anymore today. But if she started a parade of Wichita Falls' fairest and finest through the ranch house, he was going bull riding in Canada.
Cultural Properties Curator Sydney Wainsbrook felt her stomach clench and her adrenaline level rise as Bradley Slander sauntered across the foyer of New York's Laurent Museum. A champagne flute dangled carelessly from his fingers and that scheming smile made his beady brown eyes look even smaller and more rat-like than usual.
“Better luck next time, Wainsbrook,” he drawled, tipping his head back to take an inelegant swig of the '96 Cristal champagne. His Adam's apple bobbed and he smacked his lips with exaggerated self-satisfaction.
Yeah, he would feel self-satisfied. He had just outbid her on an antique, gold Korean windbell, earning a hefty commission and making it the possession of a private collector instead of a public museum.
It was the third time this year he'd squatted in the wings like a vulture while she did the legwork. The third time he scrabbled in at the last second to ruin her deal.
Sydney had nothing against competition. And she understood an owner's right to sell their property to the highest bidder. What galled her was the way Bradley slithered around her contacts, fed them inflated estimates to convince them to consider auction. Then he bid much lower than his estimate, disappointing the owner and keeping important heritage finds from the community forever.
you sleep at night?” she asked.
Bradley leaned his shoulder against a marble pillar and crossed one ankle over the other. “Let's see. I spend an hour or so in my hot tub, sip a glass of Napoleon brandy, listen to a bit of classical jazz, then crawl into my California king and close my eyes. How about you?”
She pointedly shifted her gaze to the stone wall beside them. “I fantasize about you and that broad ax.”
He smirked. “Happy to be in your fantasy, babe.”
“Yeah? The broad ax wins. You lose.”
“Might be worth it.”
His lips curved up into a wider smile. “Whatever turns your crank.”
A shudder ran through Sydney at the unbidden visual. She took a quick drink of her own champagne, wishing it was a good, stiff single malt. It might have been a long dry spell, but she wouldn't entertain sexual thoughts about Bradley if he was the last man on earth.
Bradley chuckled. “So, tell me. What's next?”
She raised an eyebrow.
“On your list. What are we going after? I gotta tell you, Wainsbrook, you are my ticket to the big time.”
“Should I just e-mail you my research notes? Save you some trouble?”
“Whatever's most convenient.”
“What's most convenient is for you to stick your head in a very dark place for a very long time.”
“Sydney, Sydney, Sydney.” He clucked. “And here I tell all my friends you're a lady.”
“It'll be a cold day in hell before I voluntarily give you any information.”
He shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Then he leaned in. “I have to admit. The chase kind of turns me on.”
Fighting the urge to fulfill her broad-ax fantasy, Sydney clenched her jaw. What
she going to do now?
She was on probation at the Laurent Museum due to her lack of productivity this year. If Bradley scooped one more of her finds, she'd be out of a job altogether. Her boss had made that much clear enough after the auction this afternoon.
What she needed was some room to maneuver. She needed to get away from Bradley, maybe leave the country. Go to Mexico, or Peru, orâ¦France. Oh! She quickly reversed the smile that started to form.
“See?” purred Bradley. “You like the game, too. You know you do.”
Sydney struggled not to gag on that one.
He held up his empty glass in a mock salute. “Until next time.”
“Next time,” Sydney muttered, having no intention whatsoever of giving him a next time. She figured the odds of Bradley following her overseas were remote, which meant the Thunderbolt of the North was wide open.
She had three years' worth of research notes on the legendary antique brooch, including credible evidence it was once blessed by Pope Urban the Fifth.
Forged by the Viking King, Olav the Third, in 1075, the jewel-encrusted treasure had journeyed into battles and
crossed seas. Some claimed it was used as collateral to found the Sisters of Beneficence convent at La Roche.
Most thought it was a legend, but Sydney knew it existed. In somebody's attic. In somebody's jewel case. In somebody's safe-deposit box. If even half the stories were true, the Thunderbolt had an uncanny knack for survival.
And if it had survived, she'd pick up its trail. If she picked up its trail, she'd find it. And when she found it, she'd make
it stayed with the Laurent Museumâeven if she had to hog-tie Bradley Slander to keep him out of the bidding.
Life was looking up for Cole. He'd spent the past three days at a livestock auction in Butte, Montana, with his eye on one beauty of a quarter horse. In the end, he'd outbid outfits from California and Nevada to bring Night-Dreams home to the Valley.
He might not be in a position to produce the next round of Erickson heirs, but he was sure in a position to produce top-quality cutting horses. That had to count for something.
Cole tossed his duffel bag on the cabin floor and kicked the door shut behind him. Of course it counted for something. It counted for a lot. And he had to get his grandmother's voice out of his head.
It had been months since the wedding. He wasn't a stud, and she could only make him feel guilty if he let her.
He pulled a battered percolator from a kitchen shelf and scooped some coffee into the basket. As soon as Katie was pregnant, he'd make his case for the Thunderbolt again. If Olav the Third could start a tradition, Cole the First could change it.
He filled the coffeepot with water and cranked the knob on his propane stove. The striker clicked in the silent kitchen. Then the blue flame burst to life.
A four-cylinder engine whined its way down his dirt driveway, and Cole abandoned the coffeepot to peer out the window. His family drove eight-cylinder pickups. In fact everybody in the valley drove pickups.