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Chapter One

Friday night before Halloween

It was time.

Katie Ledbetter unscrewed the lid to the almost empty Mason jar, offered a quick salute and shot back the last mouthful of tequila, lime, triple sec and crushed ice.

Wow, that burned. Still, the heavy layers of self-inflicted what-was-I-thinkingand why-didn’t-I-see-this-comingfuzziness she’d suffered through since the end of summer were finally gone.

Now she was ready to trudge back into the eighth layer of hell, otherwise known as the dating world. It’d been two months. A long enough sabbatical to nurse any heart, even one as used and bruised as hers.

What better night than when people dressed in costume to hide their true selves?

At least here amidst the noise and crowd at the Blue Creek Saloon’s annual Halloween party the deception was on purpose. Tonight one could pretend to be anyone or anything. From sexy to humorous to superhero—even happy.

Then there was the dashing pirate on the other side of the room.

She’d first seen him not long after she arrived, but that’d been a fleeting glance. Since then, she’d spotted quite a few in that same popular costume…

But there was something different about this one.

Even with the distance between them, she could see his masked profile over the turned up collar of his coat and the long hair hanging from a tricorn hat. From the way he stared into his beer she’d say he was a pretty gloomy swashbuckler. In a room full of partygoers he seemed very much alone.

It takes one to know one, matey.

“You totally kill in that outfit.” Her friend Peggy Katz had stepped up beside her, drink in hand.

Katie blinked and wobbled on her high heels, surprised to find she’d taken a step toward the guy. Then the crowd shifted and her pirate disappeared. Ignoring her disappointment, she turned and propped a hand on one hip. “Hmmm, not exactly what I was going for.”

Then again, dressed as she was….

Katie had come up with her own version of the comic book villainess Harley Quinn, going old school with a black and red corset, matching fishnet gloves and a voluminous tulle skirt. A ponytailed blond wig hid her long naturally red hair. She wore a black mask over the top of her face and white pancake makeup and deep red lips completed her look.

Either way, she appreciated her friend’s words. “The object is to capture, honey, not kill.”

“Well, you’ve accomplished that much.” Peggy sucked the last of her drink through the straw. “If one more cop, cowboy or clown hits on you and ignores me, I’m going to take it personally.”

“Are you kidding?” Katie dropped the throaty Brooklyn accent that went along with her character. “You’re a terrific looking witch, even beneath that crazy orange wig, black cape and pointy hat. Aren’t you hot?”

“Oh, please, my hands are like ice. And not because our typical Wyoming winter is swirling outside even though it’s October. Besides, I’ve got plenty to hide. My hourglass figure is shaped more like these Mason jars.” Peggy gave her almost empty glass a shake. “You ready for another?”

“Sure, why not?” Unlike her friend, Katie was quite warm but figured it had more to do with the high body count in the bar than the alcohol. Still, the last drink had disappeared fast. “I wonder what time it is.”

Peggy pulled out her phone. “Almost midnight. Don’t tell me you’re ready to pack it in. I only get to let my hair down, so to speak, every other weekend. If Bruce decides to fulfill his fatherly duties.”

Something Peggy’s ex-husband hadn’t done much of in the two years since the divorce, but he’d stepped it up lately, making this a rare girls’ night out.

A night that included Katie and Peggy crashing next door at the boarding house where Peggy’s sister—a traveling nurse on a relief trip in Brazil—had a room.

No worrying about driving home tonight. Let the margaritas flow.

Katie shook her head and handed over her jar. “I’m here until they kick us out. Mix, mingle and meet someone new, right?”

“Hey, I’m just the wingman—not that you need one. My only advice? Stay away from the bad boys.”

Katie forced a smile. “Oh, you’re no fun.”

“Personal experience talking here.”

Experience Katie shared. She’d dated enough of those too-wild-to-be-tamed kind of guys herself over the years. This last time? She’d picked one who’d worn an actual star on his shirt and the white hat.

Wasn’t that supposed to mean he was one of the good guys?

“Go on, the bar is back this way.” Peggy turned, tossing words over one shoulder. “Mix, mingle and meet your little booty off. I’ll find you.”

Katie’s smile slipped as her friend disappeared in the crowd.

The first two—mixing and mingling—were easy enough, but meeting someone new, considering the population of Destiny, Wyoming, was a challenge. Then again, Laramie and Cheyenne were less than an hour away and this event had become popular over the years.

Surely, she could find one interesting man who was looking for something…more.

Despite a dating history that went back to the seventh grade, more often than not it had been Katie who’d walked away with a broken heart. Still, she never gave up on the dream of loving—and being loved—by one special person.

This last time…a deputy sheriff and single dad. He’d been the one.

Or so she’d thought.

She’d done everything right when it came to her and Jake.

They’d been friends before she’d agreed to a date. Waited three months before getting intimate. Then another few months before she met his sweet little girls. So when he’d convinced her to move into his place back in June, almost at their one year anniversary, she believed she’d found what she’d been looking for.

First cohabitation. Then a ring. One day a wedding and more chil—

“Stop thinking about him.” Peggy had returned with two more margaritas. “Don’t bother denying it,” she continued. “I can see it in your eyes.”

Katie kept her gaze on her drink as she took a long sip. “I wasn’t…not really,” she said. “Okay, I was, but geesh, when it comes to my lack of success with men…”

“You’re successful with men.” Peggy spoke when Katie’s words trailed off. “Just not at finding one who wants the same things you do.”

Katie swallowed. “Ouch.”

“I was right where you are now a few years ago. I’d bought into the whole he’ll-change fantasy. For far too long,” her friend said. “Then dating again. Yuck! Now I’ve only got one guy in my life.”

Katie smiled. With his gapped-tooth grin, red curls and love of all things Justice League, Peggy’s eight-year-old son was one of her favorite people. “Curtis is just about perfect, but I don’t think he counts.”

“He’s the only thing that counts.”

Her friend was right. Kids came first. Always.

So much so, Katie had eagerly taken on the care of Jake’s girls, aged three and five, after she’d moved in. Due to his work schedule, she’d been the one who cared for the girls at night. Then he would get home after midnight, and after a rare, quick—and okay, fireworks-free—tumble in bed, he’d be snoring.

Days passed and they’d fallen into a pattern with Katie convincing herself that life was supposed to be that way when it came to family. So when less than two months later Jake said he was getting back with his not-quite-so-ex-wife, Katie had been stunned.

That had been the end of August.

If pressed, she’d admit she missed the fun and affection Jake’s daughters had brought into her life more than the man who’d moved away as soon as she’d moved back into her old apartment over a vacant storefront in town.

“You know, you should’ve grabbed one of those Murphy brothers when you had the chance.” Peggy said, yanking Katie from her thoughts. “Back when all six were single.”

Katie ignored the pang in her heart, and gave her standard answer to that familiar refrain. “‘Those Murphy brothers’ are my bosses.”

“Not all of them.”

“Yes, each has a share in the family business. Besides, Bryant was seeing Laurie when I went to work for them five years ago. And Ric—geesh, he was barely out of high school.”

“Like you were much older. You were right out of college.”

That was true. She’d met the Murphys at a university job fair that had netted her a few offers. It took only one visit to the quaint town of Destiny and the headquarters of Murphy Mountain Log Homes in a grand, two-story log home on the Murphy family ranch. That same day she’d signed on as their executive assistant.

The fact that the one brother who’d first interviewed her was six feet of perfection with sad eyes like dark chocolate hadn’t factored into her decision—

“Now the guys are dropping like flies,” Peggy went on. “Two married in less than two years, both expectant daddies. Two more leaving town to live with their amours in jolly old England. That leaves Ric stationed overseas and Nolan—”

“You don’t have to give me a rundown, Peg. I know what’s going on in their lives better than most. Even with Destiny’s thriving gossip mill.”

“A mill still buzzing about how the only single brother still in town isn’t making time with the high school vice principal anymore.” Peggy’s declaration came out in a sing-song voice. “Care to dish?”

No, she didn’t. Katie didn’t like to talk about the Murphys.

Especially about Nolan.

The brothers and their parents, the founders of the company, had been good to her from the moment she started working for them. She’d been alone, on her own for much longer than those four years at college. It’d taken her awhile to accept their affection and inclusion in their personal lives as genuine.

They were the closest thing she’d had to family.

She’d never do anything to mess with that.

“So, what’s the scoop on none of the Murphy men—or their wives—being here tonight?” Peggy continued. “Seems a bit strange not to see at least a few of them around.”

Katie was glad for the change in the conversation. “Both mommies-to-be haven’t been feeling well so I’m guessing their hubbies stayed home with them. Nolan is traveling for business. Even if he were around, I’d doubt he’d be here.”

“Didn’t he—” Peggy paused and peeked at her glowing phone again. “Oh, what the…it’s my ex. I knew it was too good to be true. Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”

Katie, glad for the interruption, pushed any thought of Nolan out of her head, a habit she’d gotten good at over the years. She scanned the sea of costumes, from the homemade to the store-bought.

Hmmm, might she get another glimpse—

Oh, there he was again.

Her pirate.

She had a better view this time, even if it was from the back. He’d taken off his jacket to reveal a white shirt with billowing sleeves and a blackish vest. The hat was gone too. Flowing hair that had to be a wig hung past his yummy broad shoulders. It was held in place by a silk bandana wrapped around his head.

Boy, he could’ve stepped off a tall-sailed, three-masted schooner.

She lowered her gaze, taking in tight breeches, knee-high boots with oversized cuffs and a sword hanging from the wide leather belt on a trim waist.

Hmmm, very nice. Then the Captain Jack wannabe turned around. His mask was much like hers; it covered most of his face, except for a strong jaw and sexy mouth accented by a piratey-type beard.

Their eyes met and held, and darn if she didn’t get a little breathless. Then his gaze raked over her and Katie’s skin tingled. An urge to go to him filled her, but she’d promised to stay put. Without her cell phone—there was no place to carry it in this outfit—Peggy wouldn’t know where she’d gone.

Maybe he’d come to her.

She lifted her hand. Alcohol-fueled bravery had her poised to crook a finger in his direction when a group of revelers got between them. By the time they moved past, he was gone again. Darn.

Once he finished this latest beer Nolan Murphy was out of here.

Damn, he was tired. Worse, he was hot and pissed off. Okay, hot, pissed off and surprisingly, turned on.

What a way to end a crazy week.

It had to be a hundred plus degrees in the Blue Creek Saloon. Taking off the costume’s heavy coat had helped. So had a few too many icy cold beers that had gone down fast. Anything to stop thinking about his hard-to-please client.

What should’ve been an easy project—building a compound of log homes, much like what his family had done on the ranch—had turned into a project from hell. After promising to work on a new list of must-haves from the client and his three adult children—all women and as opinionated as their father—Nolan had grabbed a seat on a late flight out of Spokane.

He’d arrived home after dinner, relieved his mom from babysitting duty. Square footage calculations, source materials and window placement had continued to fight for space in his brain.

Then instead of relaxing at home, he’d let his kids convince him that dressing up in this crazy costume and coming to the party was a good idea. Luckily, his brother’s lady love was a costume designer in the movie business and she’d sent a group of outfits to choose from for Halloween.

But eyeliner?

When Abby had insisted a pirate wasn’t a pirate without darkened eyes, he’d gone along with her putting the crap on his face. At least his mask would cover it.

Mainly because it was the first time he and his sixteen-year-old daughter had talked in weeks without fighting.

The twins had chimed in and helped shave his beard, which was now mostly gone except for a strip outlining his jaw and a bad version of a goatee with beads dangling beneath his chin from braided whiskers.

Proud of their handiwork, they’d insisted on snapping selfies with him threatening good-naturedly to post the images online. He talked them out of that by agreeing to go snowmobiling if the weekend’s prediction of more snow came to pass.

Abby had gone quiet, except to remind him she was grounded—under house arrest as she put it—until the end of the month.

Meaning he’d have to leave her behind and ask his folks to keep an eye on her.

Something else the two of them continued to fight about. If she was old enough to drive, to babysit her brothers, she was old enough to take care of herself.

Nolan took a long draw on his beer. Even with his parents living next door, he wasn’t comfortable leaving Abby home alone.

Not after the crap she’d pulled last month.

Asking for yet another favor from his folks was something he didn’t want to do. Not after just getting home. Hell, his mom and dad were supposed to be retired.

Thanks to his brothers’ love life the family business was restructuring. Their dad was back with the company again and Nolan’s work load had increased too. His mom claimed she loved being with her grandchildren while he traveled, but it was a lot to ask of a woman who’d already raised six boys.

So he’d left tonight with the promise to discuss their weekend plans over breakfast. He could hear his kids going at it, the twins blaming their sister for spoiling their fun, before he even got to his truck.

The joys of being a single parent. Especially to teenagers.

Sighing, he raised the mug to his lips for the last time and after a long chug set it down empty on the closest table. He checked his phone. After 1:00 a.m. and the party was still going strong, with more out-of-towners than he’d expected. He’d run into a few people he knew when he first arrived, most not realizing who he was until he told them.

Yeah, the costume was that good.

Since then, he’d pretty much been drinking alone while brushing off the interest of more than one female. Oh, he’d been charming, speaking in a fake pirate’s accent, which proved he’d seen too many reruns of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

And again, had too much to drink.

Not that he was uninterested in pursuing something with the opposite sex. He hadn’t been a monk since his divorce five years ago, but lately it seemed he couldn’t get a certain redhead out of his mind.

Another daily struggle, thanks to the fact she worked for him. For them.

For the family business, which meant hands off.

He’d thought he’d gotten a handle on whatever it was he felt for Katie, especially since her last relationship seemed to be the real thing, but now—

Nolan cut off the thought. It didn’t make any sense to go down a path that could only lead to trouble.

Not just for him. Or her.

There was a whole group of people who’d be affected if he allowed—

Damn, there I go again! He curled his fingers into a tight fist, and pushed aside one image for another, bringing to mind the one person who’d caught—and held—his attention tonight.

And explained his surprising state of arousal.

Everyone was here to be looked at. It was the point of a costume party, he guessed. When he felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, despite the crazy wig, he turned and found her staring.

His first thought had been she was a pretty sexy-looking clown. Until the pieces of her outfit came together as a Batman villainess, a cool throw back to his youthful preference for the bad girl.

Temptation to lessen the distance between them had filled him. 

Surprised him.

So much so that when she got lost in the crowd moments later he decided he would finish his beer and end the evening before he did something stupid.

He needed to call one of his brothers. Driving home was out of the question.

He slapped the pirate hat back on and started walking along the edge of the dance floor, holding tight to the costume’s overcoat. There was no way he’d let anything happen to it, considering this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill rental getup.

“There you are, lover!”

Luscious curves, warm and radiating a sexy scent of spicy vanilla and lime, slammed into his chest. Nolan instinctively wrapped his free arm around the woman’s svelte waistline, mostly to keep the both of them from toppling to the ground.

His first thought was she must have mistaken him for someone else, but then her lips brushed at his ear. “Play along, please.”

Her whispered words, a fiery blast on his skin, surprised him. Her voice almost sounded familiar. “Hey, do I know—”

“But no booze. Whaz up with that?” The blonde switched to a nasally accent, her voice loud again as she gave him a quick squeeze and whirled back around, grabbing at his waist as she stumbled. “Ya see? Not for nuttin’, but I told yuz I had a fellow here. Now, amscray.”

Nolan had no idea what was going on.

The costumed guy standing in front of him resembled a deranged clown with his red hair and yellow jumpsuit. He was eyeing the beauty hanging on to Nolan with a nasty glare.

He pulled her closer and looked down, surprised to find he was holding the lady he’d caught checking him out earlier. A sexy Harley Quinn, right down to the character’s Brooklyn accent and attitude.

An attitude with a hint of fear.

“Me and my captain’s gotz plans. So yuz can move on,” she slurred, waving an empty glass jar in the air. “No interest here.”

“You were interested a few minutes ago,” the clown said.

“N-not really.” She dismissed him as she handed off the jar to a waitress. “Jusz passing time.”

“Just a tease,” the guy growled and took a step forward. “Typical of a drunken girl on the prowl—”

“That’s enough, matey.” Nolan slipped back into full pirate mode with the fake British tenor, his voice low as he angled himself between the clown and the lady. “The lass is taken. So you take a walk.”

“Or what? You’ll challenge me to a duel, Captain Kangaroo?”

The sword hanging from Nolan’s waist was a prop, but it’d do some damage. Still, he didn’t plan to be goaded into a fight. 

He had no idea who this guy was, but he figured the jerk wasn’t a local. Hell, she probably wasn’t either, but she obviously didn’t want anything to do with this clown.

“Oh, get lost.” Miss Quinn grabbed at Nolan’s vest, pressing those curves against him once more. “Come on, Cap’n Jack. Letz dance.”

Dancing was the last thing Nolan wanted to do. Okay, last after fighting.

He was too old, too tired to deal with either tonight.

Yet, he shuffled backwards, watching the pissed off clown stomping off into the crowd. Nolan could’ve escaped then from the slightly tipsy and very sexy bad girl in his arms and been on his way too.

Instead he tossed common sense to the wind, cursed the booze floating in his veins and pulled her in close.

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His Destiny Bride

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