“Heck, no! Are you insane?” Irritated, Chase Jarrett glowered at his cousin. He hefted another sack of feed from the back of his pickup onto a broad shoulder and balanced the weight before stepping away from her. “There is nothing on this earth or beyond that would convince me to agree to your crazy plan, Ashley. You can’t force me to get married.”
Ashley Jarrett laughed and followed Chase into the storage area of a hulking barn where he stacked the sacks of feed. “No one can force you to do anything, cuz, but I do think you should consider my plan. With Huck Powell sure to announce his retirement soon, the opportunity is ripe for you to take over his spot as the beloved bull rider of the pro circuit.”
Chase smirked at her as he strode back to the pickup and lifted another sack of feed. “No one will take Huck’s place and they shouldn’t even try. Besides, Huck is a friend of mine. Whether he retires remains anyone’s guess. Regardless of what happens with him, I do not intend to marry anyone, especially someone with kids, just to boost my popularity.”
Ashley rolled her eyes and leaned against the pickup. “I never said you had to find a ready-made family. But you do need a wife.”
At Chase’s dubious glare, she held up a hand and stopped him from speaking. “I don’t mean a real wife, I mean for this contest idea.”
After stacking the last sack of feed in the barn, Chase closed the tailgate of the pickup and leaned his corded, tanned forearms over it, studying his cousin. Only a year apart in age, they looked more like siblings with blond hair, hazel eyes, and the same straight nose. Since their fathers were brothers, he supposed it was reasonable he and Ashley shared a strong family resemblance.
Ashley was petite and delicate, typically appearing as though she’d just come from a trendy fashion shoot. The persona fit well with her career as a publicist in Los Angeles.
Once Chase began competing professionally as a bull rider, she’d talked him into hiring her to represent him. For the most part, she’d done a good job and hadn’t steered him wrong, but her latest ploy to garner additional sponsors was sheer lunacy.
“Explain this half-hatched scheme to me again,” he said, releasing a resigned sigh.
Ashley grinned and climbed up on the bumper, seating herself close to where Chase continued to lean on the tailgate. “It’s simple. We’ll run a contest from now until two weeks before the finals rodeo begins in December. Women will enter to become your bride. A winner will be selected and notified. We’ll have a mock ceremony with a limo and the whole works in Las Vegas.”
His gaze narrowed until his eyes looked like wary slits. “And the wedding wouldn’t be real. Just a fake ceremony?”
“That’s right. Just for fun. Women will go nuts to enter this contest. Even if it is only for a day, they’ll be beside themselves at the opportunity to be the bride of Chase Jarrett.” Ashley smiled at him in the way she had since they were kids, whenever she attempted to manipulate him into doing her bidding.
“And the winner would understand it is all pretend, that the whole bride thing would end before the rodeo started that evening. She would be clear on the point I’d most likely never see or speak to her again. Is that right?”
Ashley nodded. “Of course. I’ll personally vet the finalists so you don’t end up with a mentally unhinged stalker chick hunting you down.”
Chase ran a nervous hand across the back of his neck then removed his hat, giving the idea some thought before he looked to Ashley again. “You absolutely promise I will not have any grief, headaches, annoyances, or frustration from this? The winner will understand, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she gets one kiss at the phony ceremony and maybe one when we go our separate ways later. Nothing more. I don’t want some demented girl trying to rip my clothes off in the limo.”
“I promise no one will assault or seduce you.” Ashley smiled knowingly. “If that’s what you want.”
“Darn tootin’ it is.” Chase gave her another measured glance. “You vow on your honor it will only be one day out of my life I’ll never be able to reclaim?”
Ashley nodded. “That’s right, cuz. Even you can suck it up for a few hours and treat the winner like a queen in trade for all the great publicity this is going to generate.”
“I still don’t understand why I need the publicity,” Chase said, tugging off his gloves and stowing them in his back pocket. He motioned for Ashley to walk with him to his newly remodeled ranch house.
“I’ve told you a hundred times, Chase, the publicity might not help you ride better, but it gets you more sponsors and more exposure, and that’s a great thing.” Ashley grinned at him as they both stopped and stared up at the two-story farmhouse painted a welcoming shade of pale green with white and gray trim. “Remind me why you wanted to live in the middle of nowhere. It took me almost an hour to drive here from the airport in Pasco and I got lost twice on these wretched back roads.”
Chase motioned for her to precede him down the walk and up the wide porch steps. The first time he’d set foot on the ranch, he knew he was going to buy it. Something about the big red barn, tumbledown house, assortment of outbuildings, and acres of ground spoke to his heart, calling him home. It reminded him of happy summer days spent at the ranch his mother’s parents owned where he’d first learned all about the cowboy way of life.
With funds he’d inherited from his maternal grandmother combined with the money he’d saved from his bull riding earnings, he was able to purchase the ranch. He’d also remodeled the house and moved his herd of bucking bulls to the place. The proud owner of fine Angus beef cattle, Chase also had three dogs, a ranch manager to oversee things in his absence, and two hired hands.
For a guy who grew up riding waves in California, he wasn’t doing too badly. He hoped, if he continued working hard and saving his money, he’d have a successful ranch to support him when he retired from the rodeo at some point in the distant future.
He couldn’t think of anywhere he’d rather live than this corner of northeastern Oregon. It was far enough away from his parents that they’d never visit, but close enough to an airport Ashley definitely would.
“I’ve always liked this area. You know I looked at real estate every year when I came to town to compete in the Pendleton Round Up. Tate Morgan and Cort McGraw both retired from rodeo and have ranches on the Washington side of the Columbia River not far from here. This just seemed like a great place to set down roots. Besides, views like this are hard to find.” He pointed to rolling fields that had been harvested of wheat, fat cattle grazing on still-green pasture, and sagebrush-dotted hills in the distance.
“Agreed. But Hermiston, Chase? What puts the town on the map?”
“The fact a champion bull rider just moved into the area,” a deep voice said from behind them.
“Lucas Dunham! It’s so good to see you,” Ashley said, hurrying over to the cowboy who made his way down the sidewalk in a wheelchair.
“Hey, Ashley. Chase said you were coming for a visit. What do you think of the place?” Lucas asked.
“If my cousin has to live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, then I can’t think of a place better than this.” She grinned at the man who had been Chase’s best friend since they were both freshmen in high school.
“That’s a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one,” Lucas teased, grinning at Chase. “Lori sent me over to see if you two would like to join us for dinner.”
Chase shook his head. “I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you and your beautiful wife join us? I’ve got steaks thawed out ready to grill.”
Lucas winked at Ashley. “I can’t turn down an offer like that. Lori baked a peach pie this afternoon. We’ll bring it over. About six?”
“Yeah, that would be great,” Chase said, nodding at his friend.
Lucas tipped his hat to Ashley. “Don’t let him talk you out of whatever brilliant plan you have for bettering his career. With me out of the rodeo loop now, I’m glad you’re around to push him beyond his comfort zone.”
Ashley giggled and looked over at her cousin. “Oh, I fully intend to shove him completely into a whole new zone with my latest plan.”
“Awesome!” Lucas spun his chair around and glanced back over his shoulder. “Be prepared to tell us all about it at dinner.”
“I will. See you both in a bit.” Ashley watched Lucas make his way to a new manufactured home located a few hundred yards past the barn. The house had been on order the last time she was there, being customized with a floor plan to accommodate Lucas’s wheelchair. Judging from the sunny yellow exterior and the plethora of autumn flowers blooming along the front of it, the Dunham family had turned the place into a home.
She turned back to Chase with a soft look on her face. “It’s so good to see Lucas happy again. You had a big hand in that even if you refuse to admit it.”
Chase shrugged. “I didn’t do much, other than offer him the job as my ranch foreman. In truth, I’m the one who benefits from Lucas and Lori being here because I can leave for a rodeo and not have to worry about anything. I trust them both completely.”
Ashley walked back over to Chase and smiled up at him. “Still, not everyone would have been so willing to give him a job. I mean, a ranch foreman who is bound to a wheelchair isn’t something you come across every day.”
“Nope, but Lucas knows more about ranching than I ever hope to and Lori is just as knowledgeable as he is.” Chase guided Ashley up the front steps, grateful he could provide a job and place for Lucas and Lori to live. After Lucas’ accident, he wasn’t sure his friend would ever claw his way out of the darkness that settled over him and find a way to not just survive but thrive again. A day at a time, Lucas made progress until he’d regained his sense of humor even if he’d never regain the ability to walk. “Of all the ways I envisioned one of us getting hurt, I always figured it would be a rank rodeo bull that did the damage, not a misstep off a haystack.”
“I’m just glad Lucas seems like he’s back to his old self. He and Lori hadn’t even been married a year when the accident happened. It’s good to see he finally came out of his funk and is embracing life again.” Ashley squeezed Chase’s arm as she moved past him and opened the front door. “And that’s because of you.”
He scowled. “Just don’t let the word get out that I’m a big-hearted softie. It’ll ruin that reputation of bad boy bull rider you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.”
“My lips are sealed.” She stepped inside the house, making note of the gleaming hardwood floor in the entry.
Chase grinned as he closed the door, shutting out the warm Indian summer temperatures lingering far longer than he’d expected as they approached mid-October. The recently installed heat pump filled the house with welcome coolness. “As for your question about what puts Hermiston on the map, the answer is watermelons. Even you can’t argue against the fact that they grow the best watermelons here.”
She laughed. “I concede they are the best watermelons I’ve ever tasted.” Her hand settled on his arm and she gave it a squeeze. “For the record, I’m so pleased you’re happy here. You deserve to be.”
“Thanks, Ashley.” Chase removed his hat and waved a hand around the entry. “So, what do you think of the house? It looks a little different from the last time you were here.”
“It certainly does.” She walked into the large gathering room that had once been a formal parlor and separate dining room. Chase was in the midst of knocking out the wall between the two rooms the last time she’d visited. Construction crews had been crawling over the house like ants on a sugar cube at the time. She’d spent one night amidst sawdust and a plethora of tools before declaring it time to go home. “I like it.”
“Me, too. I know it needs more furniture and art on the walls, but I figure I’ll add things when I find stuff that catches my eye.” Chase gave her an imploring look. “Do you really like it?”
“I really do.” She pointed to a bare wall. “There’s no need for you to rush into purchasing things just to fill the space. Take your time.” A warm smile lifted the corners of her mouth upward. “For the record, I love the house and the ranch. The place really suits you, Chase.”
“It means a lot to get your stamp of approval, Ash.” He reached out and ruffled her perfectly styled hair, just like he used to when they were kids.
Huffing indignantly, she pushed blond hair out of her face and scowled at him. “You better behave or I’ll tell Granny on you.”
He chuckled. “She’s been threatening to move in with me if I don’t visit her soon. I promised her I’d be there for Thanksgiving.”
Ashley appeared relieved. “That’s good to hear. I know you hate spending time with your folks, but Mom and Dad will be there, too, and me, of course.”
“Of course. When have you ever turned down the opportunity for a home-cooked meal?”
“Never.” Ashley grabbed his arm and tugged him toward the kitchen. “Speaking of which, let’s get started preparing your famous grilled steak dinner while we talk about all the sponsors I have interested in footing the bill for your pretend wedding.”
Chase let her pull him down the hall. “Are you certain there isn’t a better way to do this? One that doesn’t involve a bride, fake or otherwise?”
Ashley shook her head. “Like it or not, Chase Jarrett, you are getting married.”