The Marriage Pact

By: Linda Lael Miller
The women of Bliss County are ready to meet the men of their dreams! See how it all begins in this enthralling new series by #1 New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller

Ten years ago, Hadleigh Stevens was eighteen and this close to saying “I do,” when Tripp Galloway interrupted her walk down the aisle. Now that she’s recovered from her youthful mistake and Tripp’s interference, Hadleigh and her single friends form a marriage pact. She doesn’t expect Tripp to meddle with her new plan to find Mr. Right—or to discover that she’s more attracted to him than ever!

Divorced and eager to reconnect with his cowboy roots, Tripp returns to Bliss County to save his ailing father’s ranch. He’s not looking for another wife—certainly not his best friend’s little sister. But he’s never been able to forget Hadleigh. And this time, if she ends up in his arms, he won’t be walking away!





For Buck and Goldie Taylor,

cherished friends and true Westerners, with love.






Prologue


One Saturday in September,

Ten years ago...

BOTH SIDES OF the shady street were jammed with cars and trucks for what seemed like a mile in both directions, and time was running out—fast. So Tripp Galloway double-parked his stepdad’s ancient truck alongside the bride and groom’s waiting limo, shifted into Neutral, set the emergency brake and jumped out, leaving the engine running and the door gaping.

The limo driver, probably rented along with the car, was killing time on the sidewalk, cell phone pressed to one ear. A clock-watcher, Tripp decided distractedly. The chauffeur was obviously waiting for the shindig to end so he could collect his money and beat it. His jowly face was florid.

Seeing that Tripp meant to leave the rig unattended, the man broke off his ongoing conversation to protest, “Hey, buddy, you can’t park there—”

Tripp went right past him without a word, through the open arbor-style gateway and up the flagstone walk.

The doors of Mustang Creek’s small and venerable redbrick church, one of the oldest buildings in the county, were wide-open, despite the faint chill of the autumn afternoon, and the place was ominously quiet.

And that might—or might not—be a good sign.

Tripp didn’t know all that much about wedding protocol, especially these days, when a lot of couples got hitched freestyle, but if the thing was over—if he was too late to stop what amounted to a matrimonial train wreck—there would be rivers of triumphant organ music swelling out into that sunny afternoon. Wouldn’t there?

On the other hand, the silence could mean that Hadleigh Stevens was just now saying, “I do.” That the deed was done.

Tripp drew an anxious breath and hurried inside.

Three ushers occupied the tiny vestibule, watching the proceedings up by the altar and nervously adjusting their spiffy black bow ties. Hoping there wouldn’t be a tussle, Tripp shouldered his way between them, bold as a brass bowling ball, and strode into the sanctuary.

Fortunately, no one tried to stop him.

This incident was bound to be hard enough on Hadleigh as it was, without a knock-down, drag-out brawl to ratchet up the drama a notch or two.

Not to mention, Tripp reflected grimly, that this was a church, not a cowboy bar.

He kept walking, only peripherally aware of the guests crowding the pews, packing the choir loft, lining the walls.

Clearly, this wedding was the main event of the season. Except in July, when the rodeo was on, there wasn’t much to do in Mustang Creek, and it would have been plenty talked about, even without the impending interruption. Now, Tripp thought, the day would spawn legends.

Time slowed to a crawl, it seemed to him, as he moved steadily forward.

Hadleigh was up ahead, a vision in white, beautiful even facing in the other direction, her veil sparkling with tiny rhinestones, tumbling down her slender—and mostly bare—back, iridescent as a waterfall reflecting flashes of light. She and the bridegroom stood facing the minister, who spotted Tripp’s approach before the happy couple did, of course. The old man raised his eyebrows, sighed heavily and closed the small book he’d been reading the ceremony from with a snap that echoed through the gathering like a bullet ricocheting off cold steel.

The guests, briefly dumbstruck, soon began to murmur among themselves.

Tripp prepared himself for a row but, once again, no one interfered.

Hadleigh, turning her head to follow the preacher’s gaze, started when she saw Tripp, standing just a few feet away from her now, his boots splotched with the pink-and-white rose petals strewn along the aisle.

She didn’t make a sound, not then at least, but even through the layers of chiffon comprising her veil, Tripp saw Hadleigh’s luminous brown eyes widen in surprise. Over the course of the next few seconds, which passed with all the speed of a glacier carving out a new canyon, however, the bride’s astonishment gave way to pure feminine fury.

She whirled, took a step toward him and nearly tripped on the hem of that over-the-top dress. This, of course, did nothing to improve her general outlook.

Always undaunted, a combat veteran and a man who flew commercial airliners for a living, Tripp realized his heart was hammering, and he felt heat climb up his neck, pulse behind his ears.

Say something, commanded a voice in his head—the voice of his dead best friend, Hadleigh’s older brother, Will.

Tripp cleared his throat and asked benevolently, “Did I miss the part where the preacher asks if anybody here can give just cause why these two should not be joined together in holy matrimony?”

More gasps sounded behind him, followed by a lot of whispering and a few nervous chuckles, but, for the time being, these were the least of his concerns.

He merely looked straight at the preacher and waited for an answer to his question.

Hadleigh’s face went apricot-pink behind that veil; her mouth opened and then closed again. It was as if her vocal chords had been tied up in a knot.

The reverend, a balding, rotund man named John Deever, who raised hogs when he wasn’t preaching the Gospel, conducting weddings or teaching shop at Mustang Creek High School nine months out of the year, had been known to wear bib overalls under his stately ministerial robes during busy times so he could get right back to his farmwork without having to change his clothes.

“This,” Deever announced, ponderous as a judge, “is highly irregular.”

Tripp could have sworn he saw a brief twinkle dance in the man’s eyes, for all his outward show of disapproval.

Oakley Smyth, the bridegroom, finally turned around, looking faintly shocked to find himself where he was, in a church, surrounded by people, confronted with opposition. He resembled a man who’d been cruelly jolted out of a sound sleep—or a coma. As he registered Tripp’s presence and what it meant, Oakley’s eyes narrowed and a flush appeared on his smooth-shaven face.

“What the—” he muttered, then bit back the rest of whatever he’d been about to say.

“Because,” Tripp went on, in that forceful way people use when they intend to override any argument, operating on the theory that they might all be standing there glowering at each other for the rest of the day if he didn’t get things rolling, “it just so happens that I know a reason, and it’s a damned good one.”

Hadleigh, clenching her bridal bouquet in white-knuckled hands, closed the short distance between Tripp and herself in a few purposeful steps, cheeks glowing like neon, eyes flashing whiskey-colored outrage. “What,” she demanded, looking as though she’d gladly have swapped that delicate cluster of pink-and-white flowers for a loaded pistol, “do you think you’re doing, Tripp Galloway?”

“I’m stopping this wedding,” Tripp said, deciding Hadleigh’s question must have been rhetorical, since the answer was so obvious.

A short silence throbbed between them.

“Why?” Hadleigh whispered, ending that silence, sounding stricken now as well as furious. At eighteen, she was a budding beauty, but not yet a full-grown woman, not in Tripp’s estimation, anyway. No, she was still his late best friend’s kid sister, the one he’d promised to protect, still too young and naive to know what was good for her, let alone guess that she’d been dancing on the razor’s edge.