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Authors: Sherryl Woods

The Bridal Path: Sara

BOOK: The Bridal Path: Sara
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WAGERED WOMAN

When Sara Wilde’s father sold the family ranch to rodeo rogue Jake Dawson, she was fit to be tied! Now Sara had to get Three—Stars back—whatever the cost. So she challenged Jake to a bucking bronco contest. If she lost, she agreed to be his bride…

Jake knew Sara didn’t stand a chance at winning their wager. But he sure admired her determination. Sparring with the feisty, sultry Sara was the most fun he’d had in ages! Now Jake was even more determined to win the contest…and Sara’s hand!

Watch as three sisters fall in love with the men of their dreams and walk down THE BRIDAL PATH.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter One

I
t was the moment Jake Dawson had been waiting for for ten long years, maybe for his whole life. Three-Stars Ranch was going to be his, every beautiful, rugged acre of it, every head of cattle.

He surreptitiously surveyed his immediate surroundings. He would even own this magnificent old house with its stone fireplaces, high-beamed ceilings and gleaming wide-planked wood floors. It was a home a man could take pride in, a home in which the richest and most powerful could be entertained without shame.

It was a hell of a long way from a two-room shack that hadn’t had electricity half the time. Almost every paltry cent his father had earned back then—on those rare occasions when he worked at all—had been spent on booze. Food had ranked a distant second. Electricity and a telephone had been treated as luxuries.

“You won’t regret selling Three-Stars to me,” he promised Trent Wilde, the man who’d given him a chance when he’d come off the rodeo circuit, broken and battered by one too many championship bull rides.

“See that I don’t,” Trent said.

The sharp words were tempered with the same sort of gruff affection that had always made Jake feel more like a son than an employee. Their unexpected rapport was something Jake treasured. Trent Wilde was one of the few people on earth he trusted and respected, one of even fewer he could honestly say he cared about.

Not that they hadn’t had their run-ins through the years. They both had arrogance and stubborn pride to spare. On top of that, Jake had been bitter when his rodeo career had ended so abruptly. The rodeo circuit had been his ticket out of poverty. Losing it to an avoidable injury had cost him his hard-won self-esteem. No rodeo rider would have allowed a stupid distraction over a woman to cause him to forget to check every piece of equipment before a ride.

He’d taken his own stupidity out on anyone who tried to get too close. He’d had a chip on his shoulder the size of all Wyoming. Wisely, Trent hadn’t knocked it off. He’d nudged at it, patiently and persistently, until Jake had had no choice but to settle down and grow up, something he’d mistakenly thought he’d already done during those hard years at home.

“I have faith in you,” Trent continued now, pouring them both a celebratory snifter of his best brandy. “You’ve worked hard and earned every break I’ve given you. You’ll be able to take Three-Stars into the next century, make it the ranch I always dreamed it could be.”

Given the fact that Three-Stars was one of the biggest, most profitable ranches in the state, the older man’s faith might have been daunting, but Jake had been chomping at the bit for this chance for years now. When Trent had first broached the subject of his buying Three-Stars, Jake had thought it would take longer. No one had expected Trent to retire this soon.

But ever since the older man had been widowed two years earlier, it seemed the spirit had gone out of him. He was anxious to get away and try new things, he’d told Jake. He wanted to kick up his heels a bit, whatever the devil that meant to a man nearing sixty. He declared he’d earned it.

“Have you spoken to your daughters about this?” Jake asked warily, thinking of the three willful young women who’d given Trent Wilde fits during their teens. Since their mother’s death, each was more protective of their father than the other. None were likely to take the news that he was abandoning them and the ranch lightly.

Trent shrugged. “They’ll hear about my plans when the time is right,” he said. “I don’t want them fussing over me, thinking maybe I’ve gone round the bend just because I want to get away from this place and soak up a little sun.” He lit up one of the imported cigars he favored and winked at Jake. “Maybe I’ll just wait and drop ’em a note when I get to Arizona.”

The answer was a little too evasive, a little too flip for Jake’s satisfaction. He didn’t like the idea of being left behind to explain things, a tactic Trent was perfectly capable of using to avoid argument. Danielle, Sara and Ashley Wilde were not exactly shrinking violets about making their opinions known. If any one of them disapproved of Trent’s plans for the ranch, they could make the old man’s life hell.

Not that they could change his mind, Jake admitted dryly.

The trouble was, once they’d given up on their father, they were more than likely to turn on Jake. He shuddered at the thought of coping with the monumental temper tantrums and devious manipulations of which they were capable. Jake considered whether any of them cared enough about Three-Stars to pitch a royal fit or to make serious trouble for him.

Dark-haired, dark-eyed Danielle, the oldest, appeared to be content enough living in town. Nearing thirty and thoroughly independent, she’d built a tidy little business for herself with her homemade jams and baked goods. She turned up at Three-Stars only for the command performances—Sunday dinner and holidays. Practical and sensible, she would cluck and worry over her father’s decision, but she would probably go along with it, Jake concluded.

Ashley, the flirtatious blond beauty, had done half a dozen magazine covers since she’d moved to New York. Trent had them all proudly displayed on the wall behind him. With her modeling career in high gear, Jake couldn’t imagine her caring one way or the other if the ranch were sold. Other than the sad trip to attend her mother’s funeral, she hadn’t even been home for a visit since she’d left. She’d made it plain that Riverton, Wyoming was the last place on earth she wanted to be.

Then there was Sara, a fiery, redheaded tomboy, whose reckless antics had nearly given her father apoplexy on more than one occasion. Something told Jake if there was going to be trouble, that was the quarter it would come from.

Sara had been dogging his footsteps, poking her nose into ranch business, asking questions, ever since he’d turned up on the ranch. He doubted there was a chore around the place she couldn’t handle or a ranch hand she couldn’t charm into doing exactly what she wanted. He wondered if his boss knew that. Like it or not, he’d better know now what Sara’s reaction was likely to be. Jake never ran from a fight, but he sure liked to know when one was heading his way.

“What about Sara?” he asked bluntly.

Trent regarded him blankly. “What about her?”

Jake thought carefully about the best way to phrase his concerns without costing himself his dream. He settled for suggesting, “She seems to love the ranch.”

“Well, of course, she does. It’s her home,” Trent said with the confidence of a man used to controlling his world and everyone in it. He paused, his expression suddenly nostalgic. “Nobody’ll walk away from this place without regrets, not even me.”

Before Jake could work up the courage to point out that maybe that meant he shouldn’t sell, at least not yet, Trent was going on.

“As for Sara, she’ll find someone she wants to marry one day soon. There are already half a dozen men who’d court her, if she’d give ’em a second look. I have one or two in mind. I’m thinking I’ll give her a push before I leave. She’ll settle down, have her own home, give me some grandbabies, same as the other two will eventually. Where would that leave Three-Stars? It would have been different if I’d had sons, but with daughters…”

Jake didn’t bother pointing out that Trent’s chauvinistic attitude was out of step with the times.

Trent shook his head sadly. “No, this is the best decision for all concerned. Besides, I made you a promise when you came here and I keep my promises. Now that I know for certain that this is still what you want, I’ll have the lawyer here tomorrow to finalize the details and get busy with the paperwork. The bank won’t be any problem. We’ll close on the deal in no time and we can both get on about the business of living the rest of our lives the way we want.”

Because he wanted desperately to believe it could be as simple as that, Jake pushed aside his worry over Sara’s reaction and allowed himself to savor the moment. This time tomorrow Three-Stars would be all but his.

And once those papers were signed, no one on God’s earth would ever steal it away from him.

* * *

Sara Wilde stood outside her father’s office blatantly eavesdropping on his conversation with Jake Dawson. Seething with resentment, her temper rose with each traitorous word they spoke. Give him some grandbabies indeed! Hell would freeze over before she would do anything her father wanted ever again. The days of struggling to please him, to impress upon him how much alike they were, were over.

How could he sell Three-Stars, the only home Sara and her sisters had ever known? Just because they weren’t boys! It just proved what she’d believed all along, that he’d named the ranch Three-Stars when he’d been anticipating three brilliant males to carry on the family name. She was surprised he hadn’t taken down the sign over the gate and renamed the place once he’d realized there would be no sons. Maybe Three Little Flowers, she thought irritably.

What the heck did gender have to do with anything? By her teens she had developed a clear vision of what she wanted from life—to be as successful and powerful as her father, to take over Three-Stars. She’d known that both Dani and Ashley would give their blessing to the plan, but that vision had obviously never coincided with her old-fashioned daddy’s views on the subject.

As his comments had just indicated, Trent Wilde would have turned her into a docile lady, content to be baking pies and making jams for some man. That sort of thing might be fine for Dani, but Sara had ranching in her blood. In her view, running Three-Stars Ranch was not only the most logical career choice she could make, but more importantly, it was her birthright. Had she been a son, as her father had just so clearly stated, there would have been no question about it. Knowing that truly grated on her feminist nature.

She knew as much about running the place as any man on it, her father and Jake Dawson included. She might have come away from college with the liberal arts degree her father had thought suitable, but she’d slipped in every agriculture and animal husbandry course she could manage. She’d borrowed every ranching book in her father’s library at one time or another and sneaked away to read them where he wasn’t likely to catch her. No one could have been more prepared to take over Three-Stars than she was. If he’d listened to even half her comments at the dinner table, he would have known that.

How could her father sell the ranch to an outsider, anyway? Not that Jake Dawson was exactly a stranger. He’d been working for her father for ten years, the past five of them as foreman.

Jake was bullheaded, condescending and every bit as old-fashioned when it came to women as Trent Wilde himself. In Sara’s opinion that was a thorough waste of one incredibly sexy, gorgeous hunk of man.

Thinking about Jake’s easy-to-look-at features, his thick, indecently touchable sun-streaked hair and well-toned muscles distracted Sara from the crisis at hand for several minutes. Woolgathering was one of her worst habits, according to her critical father, who was much more likely to find faults than virtues in his offspring. Daydreaming about the mysterious, unattainable Jake was something she’d been doing for years. By now it was an impossible-to-shake habit.

Not that Jake had ever shown a lick of interest in her. He was polite and distant, answering her questions with the kind of aloof professionalism that would drive any woman who wanted to be noticed to distraction.

Used to getting her share of masculine attention, there had been times when Sara had been sorely tempted to strip naked and ride bareback through the fields just to see if she could stir a reaction out of him. Only the fear that she might not had kept her from trying it. If he merely tossed her a blanket in that cool, unflappable way of his, she’d never get over the humiliation.

Okay, so she was woolgathering again. It might be a fault under ordinary circumstances, she conceded, but not this time. She needed to find a way to thwart this deal and she needed to come up with it fast.

As the middle daughter in a family of strong-willed individuals, twenty-seven-year-old Sara had learned early to stake her claim on the things that mattered to her. She was as stubborn as her father’s prize bull, a trait she’d inherited from a master.

BOOK: The Bridal Path: Sara
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