Jodi Thomas, Patricia Potter, Emily Carmichael, Maureen McKade

How To Lasso A Cowboy

© 2004

Easy on the Heart by Jodi Thomas

Chapter One

THUNDERCLOUDS HUNG LOW along the western sky, darkening Cooper Adams’s mood even further than the rock bottom he had started the day with. He stared out the grimy window of the saloon, waiting for a stage he feared would arrive on time. He was blessed with the best stretch of freshwater rangeland in Texas, and cursed with three sisters whose mission seemed to be to make his life hell.

Downing the last of his drink, Cooper thought of his ranch hands pulling double duty with a dozen sick cattle in Echo Canyon, threats of ?ash ?ooding along the breaks, and rumors of rustlers. The last thing he needed was another visit from his old maid sisters.

He knew why they were coming. The three had ?nished raising him when their parents died before Cooper turned ten and next month he would be thirty without a wife. The fact he had more important things to worry about than ?nding a bride never crossed their minds. The army in petticoats would arrive to ?ght for Cooper as they had all his life, even if they had to battle him on their quest to make him happy and settled.

Happy. Cooper almost laughed at the word. For him there was no such place. What did it matter if he were wed or single? The world would not suddenly become peaceful, there would still be more work than hours of daylight, and nightmares would continue to rush through his dreams. All that mattered to him was the ranch, the new colt he’d bred from the Steeldust line, and selling enough cattle up north to make it through the winter.

In truth, Cooper favored the overall idea of marriage and family. It was women in general he disliked. They were chatty, confusing, helpless, and costly. Somewhere there had to be a woman with more redeeming qualities than irritating ones, but he had no time to look for her.

He poured himself another shot of whiskey, walked out on the saloon’s porch, and watched the roots of his aversion to the fairer sex climb off the noon stage. His sisters, dusty but determined angels of matrimony. Three old maids who were worried about him.

He gulped the last of his drink and walked across the muddy street to the stage.

The sisters saw his bachelorhood as a curse and the death of the family name, yet they viewed their own single status as a blessing. After all, they had each other and enough inheritance to live comfortably in their small house in Dallas.

Cooper studied them as he neared, guessing that when they had been in their prime, no man got a word in between them to pop the question. Or maybe any suitor was frightened away with the possibility that he might have to take the whole batch if he proposed to one.

Smiling, Cooper watched the trio order the stage driver to hurry with the luggage lest they get wet in the downpour that was sure to come any minute. This was their fourth trip up from Dallas since spring and Cooper knew he would have them on his hands until the ?rst good frost this time. Then, the bedding plants back home somehow upstaged any mission.

Cooper glanced at the clouds, wishing for an early winter. He might as well stop swearing under his breath and make the best of their visit. There was nothing he could do to stop them, short of moving to the Oklahoma Territory.

“Cooper!” Emma shouted when she spotted him moving toward them. “Oh, Cooper, we’re here. We made it! Can you believe it? We’re ?nally here.”

He laughed to himself. Emma hadn’t said anything that wasn’t obvious to the rest of the world since she learned to talk. Somehow, she believed that if she did not tell everyone the sun was shining or it might rain no one else in the family would notice. She was a town crier in a village where everyone could see the clock.

“Welcome, Emma, how was your trip?” Cooper took her bag.

Before Emma could answer, Johanna heaved a small trunk toward Cooper without bothering to greet him. “Oh, don’t ask Emma,” Cooper’s oldest sister shouted. “I don’t think I can bear to relive one moment of this day.”

“Hello, Johanna.” Cooper shouldered her luggage. If a sixfoot statue could come to life and wear a bonnet, he was sure she would look just like Johanna, all starch and glory. “The wagon is right over here. I’ll have you home before the rain sets in.”

She retrieved her hatbox and traveling Bible from the coach and marched to the surrey Cooper had bought a few years earlier for the sole purpose of hauling the three old maids.

“The ride from Dallas was horrible,” Emma whispered, determined to tell her story. Though she looked much like Johanna, nothing about Emma was quite as polished. Not so tall, not so proper, not so proud in her bearing. “A man smoked right in front of Johanna without even bothering to ask if he could, then when we switched stages in Sherman, the driver seemed determined to hit every hole in the road.” She shook her head, making her tiny wire glasses dance on her nose. “I thought Johanna would surely climb up beside him and instruct him on how to drive a team. Winnie could have done a better job with the stage, and we all know how Winnie drives.”

Grinning, Cooper nodded. Winnie was the only sister who’d bothered to learn to drive a team and all she had gotten was criticism for her effort.

Cooper helped both Johanna and Emma into the buggy then turned back to fetch the youngest of the three, Winnie. If Johanna was a grand harbor statue, Emma her copy, then poor Winnie was only a tugboat circling round them both. She was short, broad in the beam, and forever whistling slightly as she hurried along out of breath.

He found her behind the stage surrounded by luggage. “Welcome, Winnie.” He leaned down so he could see beneath the brim of her lopsided hat.

“Hello, Cooper Boy.” She grinned, shyly patting his cheek as if he were still a child. “You’re looking very handsome today.”

“I hope all these aren’t yours.” He glanced around at the bags, trying not to let on that her pet name bothered him. He’d struggled for six years to carve a ranch out of this wild land and, before that, he’d fought the Yankees in a war he thought would never end. The name “Cooper Boy” didn’t fit, but he could not bring himself to hurt Winnie’s feelings by telling her so. He also ?gured any hint of being handsome had long been weathered from him by life’s storms. His sandycolored hair was already salted with gray at the temples and worry lines usually plowed across his forehead.

“Oh, no, only one bag is mine.” Winnie continued her search. “At least, that’s all I remember packing. Johanna said I should buy a new traveling bag, and I did just before we left. Now I can’t remember just what it looked like. It was licorice black. No, cocoa gray. No, it might have been chocolate brown.”

“Come on along, Winnie!” Emma scolded from the buggy. “We are waiting on you. It’s sure to rain before we make it to Cooper’s place. And once it rains, that road will be nothing more than a muddy lake.”

Winnie lifted her dusty, purple skirt a few inches and hurriedly circled the luggage as if they were yard chickens and she could eventually catch one.

Grabbing what he thought looked to be the newest bag, Cooper held it up. “This one?”

“Yes.” Winnie smiled. “That must be it. Brown. I remember now. It was walnut brown.”

Cooper offered his arm and ?nally escorted his last sister to the surrey. He’d been drinking the hour he waited for the stage and now wished he had arrived even earlier at the saloon. There would be no more hard liquor in the house until his sisters departed. He wasn’t a man given overly to spirits, but his sisters’ visits usually went well

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