Wyoming Marriage Association Book 1
- First Date: Divorce
- Second Start: Family
Going undercover as a couple on the brink of divorce is the perfect role for K.D. and Eric. After all, neither of them believes in marriage. The one snag is they’ve never met before.
Locals think there’s something wrong going on at the Marriage-Save facility that wants to take up permanent residence in a historic building in Bardville, Wyoming. While he investigates from the outside, the sheriff recruits his friend, Eric Larkin, to look into the matter from the inside, along with deputy K.D. Hamilton, as a couple desperately in need of counseling.
It’s a match made for divorce.
K.D. never has believed in marriage, with her view strengthened by watching her mother’s current marriage restrict and change her.
Eric’s family is filled with good marriages, leaving him unprepared for the possibility of a bad one. His was a stinker. The divorce from his ambitious ex was even worse. As he told someone, “For me it was getting hit in the head from behind with a cement block. After the first blow, it’s all a little foggy.”
So, they’re all ready for the relationship-headed-for-divorce part of this assignment. But to fool everyone at the Marriage-Save facility, they also need to persuade them there was enough between them once to fall in love and get married.
This could be trickier than either of them ever expected/bargained for.
The Wyoming Marriage Association – Helping love find a way
Characters from my Bardville, Wyoming and A Place Called Home trilogies, the Wyoming Wildflower series, and Ride the River join forces to bring together people they hope will find love and happiness as they have.
You might have seen a short preview of The Wyoming Marriage Association at the end of Making Christmas (Wyoming Wildflowers, Book 10). Eric Larkin is one of the travelers stranded at Christmastime in a shoddy convenience store; he's introduced in that novel as "an attractive fair-haired man in his mid-thirties."
THREE DAYS AGO
Eric Larkin heard the shop bell ring over the door of Nearly Everything on Big Horn Avenue in Bardville, Wyoming, as he walked in.
In the year he’d lived here, it had become a familiar, even a friendly sound. Nothing to disturb his peace of mind at all. What did set off alarms in his brain was the way the four women huddled near the entry to the back office turned toward him. Specifically, the way they looked at him.
Back in his days as a prosecutor in Chicago, the defense team sent him that kind of look when it was about to try pulling out a witness to testify that the defendant had been having tea with the pope at the time of the crime.READ MORE
Jessa Grainger owned this store. Ellyn Griffin and Rebecca Chandler were from Far Hills Ranch in the next county south. Nice women, every one of them. In fact, Jessa’s and Ellyn’s husbands were the reason Eric landed in Wyoming. They’d encouraged him to move here nearly a year ago for a fresh start.
None of those women was likely to try pulling a tea-with-the-pope rabbit out of her hat.
The fourth woman was Pauline Ohlrich, his assistant, if that’s what you called a woman who ran his law office and did her best to run his life.
She’d have no compunction about pulling a tea-with-the-pope rabbit out of her hat if she got it in her head that it was for Eric’s good.
A few words floated to him, as if they’d been let loose before the speakers recognized him.
Something about marriage association came from Rebecca.
Sort of a trial run. That was Jessa.
Don’t know how that will get the result— Pauline started.
Ellyn stopped the words with a one-handed tamping-down gesture. To his amazement, Pauline complied.
Wished he knew that trick.
He raised a hand in greeting to the group. Each woman waved back. Three smiling, Pauline not.
He turned to his left, toward the self-serve coffee. He poured himself a cup and picked up a canister of his favorite. Pauline’s campaign against his caffeine habit included refusing to buy coffee for the office.
“Eric, come talk to us a minute, will you?” Ellyn called.
“Sure.” He followed the aisle down the side of the store then across the back to where they stood.
All four watched him intently.
“Yes, something is,” Ellyn said. “And we need your help to make it right. You’re perfect.”
* * *
Deputy K.D. Hamilton listened closely to the sheriff of Cabot County, Montana — her boss — but still hadn’t heard anything to tell her the assignment.
“…sort of a loan of your services.”
“To Shakespeare County in Wyoming?”
“Yeah, yeah. County seat’s Bardville and the Sheriff there’s named… uh, Cully Grainger. You’ll report to him.”
“Okay. But what—?”
“Thing is, Tal Bennett asked for you.”
“Tal Bennett,” she repeated blankly.
She’d heard of Bennett from the guys in the Cabot County sheriff’s department, where he ranked as a legend. He’d started his career here, before he’d jumped to the FBI, where he appeared to be on the fast track. Until he abruptly quit, disappeared for more than a year, then resurfaced as a private investigator in central Wyoming.
“Yeah. Owns that Tal Bennett Investigations that’s been making a splash. Pretty darned insistent, too, considering the number of strings he pulled to guarantee I said yes,” grumbled the sheriff.
“He wants me on this operation?”
“Said that, didn’t I? So, what do you say?”
“Where and when?”
“First, you and I get married.”
“Excuse me?” K.D. Hamilton stared at the man she’d just met in the office of the Shakespeare County sheriff in Bardville, Wyoming.
Introduced as Eric Larkin.
Nobody ever said an attractive face guaranteed sanity.
“First, we get married,” repeated Larkin, as if it were something she might do three times a day instead of never-in-this-lifetime.
“Because we’ll need paperwork in case they check our cover story. Then all you have to do is pretend to be my wife for a week or so.”
The word did to her nervous system what Fire! did in a crowded theater — caused a mad stampede for the exits.
“I don’t think—” she started before her protest was overrun.
“Wait a minute, Eric,” said Cully Grainger, the Shakespeare County sheriff and another stranger to K.D.
This was his office. But she had a feeling he’d exude the same calm authority sitting in the middle of a kiddie pool.
Then again, nobody said authority guaranteed sanity, either.
She looked at the third man in the room. Tal Bennett. Another one she hadn’t met until walking into this office a handful of minutes ago.
When and where?
Now she wished she’d asked a few more questions.
Her gaze flicked back to Eric Larkin.
Tal Bennett’s request brought her here to Cully Grainger’s office. But Larkin was the key.
He wasn’t the easiest person to read.
Faint lines fanned from the corners of his eyes and bracketed his mouth, seeming to wait for a smile. Speculation, since he sure wasn’t smiling now.
He was … blocking.
Grainger followed up his “Wait a minute, Eric,” with “All she has to do? You make it sound like she’ll be window dressing. The agreement is that Deputy Hamilton will be involved in the investigation.”
“Contribute, sure, but—”
“Fully involved,” said Tal Bennett. “K.D. is a top-notch officer. Broke my record at the range last year.”
Bennett knew about that? K.D. felt almost shy. Stupid.
Damn right she was top-notch. Contribute? She could — would — run this investigation.
“No disrespect to Deputy Hamilton, but this is more likely to require finesse than shooting,” Eric Larkin said without looking at her.
Matter of fact, he hadn’t looked at her since he politely shook her hand during the introductions.
First, Grainger introduced himself, Bennett, and the pregnant woman sitting quietly on a loveseat against the wall — Ellyn Griffin.
Then Grainger turned to Larkin, who stood and offered his hand to K.D. as Grainger pronounced his name.
In that moment, topping her nearly five-foot-ten by a few inches, he’d studied her like a wary dog studying the face behind the hand offering a tidbit.
Didn’t trust the face or the hand, but sure did want that tidbit.
Though where on earth that image came from she had no idea, because judging by his clothes, looks, and bearing, Larkin was not accustomed to taking handouts.
Grainger didn’t explain Eric Larkin’s position, just gave his name, then invited him to tell K.D. the plan.
That’s when he’d dropped the first-we-get-married bombshell.
“If these were drunk drivers or barroom fighters,” he said now, “I’m sure her skills would be needed. Following the legal and money trail requires expertise.”
Great, so her sheriff thought women were such delicate flowers that she had to constantly fight efforts to keep her at a desk and Mr. Financial Wizard thought she was only good for muscle.
“I can add,” K.D. muttered. “Even divide in a pinch.”
Ellyn Griffin, the pregnant woman sitting beyond the testosterone trio, covered her mouth, but not before K.D. saw her smile.
None of the three men in the room, however, responded to K.D.’s mutter. That figured. They already had her playing the role of wife.
Oh, I couldn’t do that — I’m his wife.
How many times had she heard that? Every time she’d urged her mother to stand up to her husband’s rules, regulations, and rigid budget.
Mom, tell Mark you need a new dress and forget the budget for once. Especially since the budget never applied to his wants.
Oh, I couldn’t do that — I’m his wife.
“Hold on.” Grainger said with a drawl that didn’t sound like Wyoming or Montana. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves. We should explain to Deputy Hamilton.”
He smiled at her. It was hard not to smile back. Along with his authority, he was relaxed in the way of people whose world spins very happily indeed.
Which formed a sharp contrast to Larkin.
No happy spinning for him, despite those lines at the corners of his eyes promising a grin.
First glance said he wasn’t law enforcement.
It wasn’t his longer-than-regulation dark blond hair or his clothes’ quality, or even the distant focus that hid more than a blank expression could.
It was the trouble in his eyes that made her certain he wasn’t a cop.
Because the trouble surprised him, and trouble didn’t surprise cops.
“Explaining would be helpful, Sheriff Grainger,” she said.
“Here in Shakespeare County, we value our history. We also want strong businesses because our business owners are the first line of—”
“Campaign commercial,” Larkin muttered. The lines by his eyes and mouth flashed in a grin for a fraction of a second.
Totally different from his wary, polite expression.
“Re-election’s not for a few more years,” Grainger said. Looking at her, he added. “We have a historic railroad hotel a bit west of here that’s leased by an organization called Marriage-Save as a retreat for couples, sort of a resort. They offer packages of various lengths with counseling, all that. Marriage-Save previously operated in Oregon. They came here and leased the old hotel. They’ve done a nice job fixing it up. Now they want a long-term lease. Because of the hotel’s historic status, the county has a say.”
He paused. She nodded that she followed.
“We were real glad to have them lease the place for a trial period. Not always easy to keep it occupied, with it not right in the center of town. For them, the location’s a plus. Close enough for guests to get to town, not so close it distracts from what they’re workin’ on out there. Seemed like a good fit all-round. But now we have reason to believe Marriage-Save or someone working there might not be on the up-and-up. Before we agree to long-term, we need to know for sure.”
“In what way not on the up-and-up?” she asked.
Eric Larkin shifted like a boxer getting ready to move around the ring. Grainger glanced toward him, then the woman on the couch before saying, “That’s not entirely clear, and that’s one of the things we hope to find out.”
A fishing expedition.
Well, what did she expect? That they’d hand her a plum assignment?
“How do you intend to find out?”
“By sending you and Eric in as a couple posing as clients to watch the operation from the inside and — most important — to serve as bait. See if a certain divorce lawyer snaps you up.”
“That’s where you come in,” said Tal Bennett. “Your sheriff agreed to a short leave of absence to let you do this — if you’re interested.”
What she most wanted — a chance at an investigation, because even a long-shot could lead somewhere. Bennett’s connections were legendary. Grainger was no slouch.
Wrapped in the guise of what she never wanted — being a wife.
Though it would be pretending to be a wife — temporary and with a stranger. Totally separate from her views on marriage.
She looked at Larkin.
He was assessing her.
She made no effort to mask her reciprocal study, looking directly into his hazel eyes. Beneath the trouble she’d spotted earlier, she recognized a man who planned to run the show.
Just like a husband.
Bennett said, “K.D., before you decide, I want to be clear. Although I got your sheriff to agree to send you with a suitcase packed for a week or more—” He smiled, as if he knew what speculation a suitcase of “business casual” raised in her. And she wondered now if she’d come anywhere close to the wardrobe required. “—I have no official role. Neither does your department. This is Sheriff Grainger’s operation. He asked for my cooperation in finding a capable candidate.”
That low bar might be what they expected. She’d deliver more.
“A married couple makes sense,” she said with give-nothing-away calm.
Larkin’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.
Neither did Grainger for a long moment, followed by saying appropriate phrases of pleasure that she’d agreed.
“Which of you do I report to?” She looked from Tal Bennett to the sheriff, leaving Larkin out of it.
“You’ll report to me. Both of you.” Grainger exchanged a look with the man who would play her husband. That look held history. Maybe warning. But who was warning whom … and about what? “Your Marriage-Save retreat begins Friday, so—”
“Friday? That’s too soon. We need prep — a week, two weeks — to get our cover straight and tight.”
Larkin shook his head. “We don’t have time. The only reason we could get me and my— and you — in now is a cancellation. Usually it takes months to get in. We can’t wait that long. The decision on the long-term lease has to be made by the end of the month. In the meantime, people could be hurt.”
She adjusted to those facts. She was used to sorting out situations fast — fights, domestic disputes, accidents, and other law enforcement situations didn’t wait for the responding deputy to line everything up neat and tidy.
“Then we need to start prep immediately,” she said.
Grainger nodded. “Right. Use every minute to learn all the stuff married couples know about each other. Also, that’ll give you both a chance to bone up on what we know about Marriage-Save.”
Learning what most married couples truly knew about each other would take a lot less than a few days. But information on Marriage-Save would help. So would observing how Eric Larkin thought and reacted, especially when it came to maneuvering around him to work the case.
“A few basic facts will do,” Larkin said. “There’s no reason to—”
“Yes, there is,” Bennett said bluntly. “If your stories don’t add up, they’ll smell a rat. K.D. is one hundred percent correct on prep.”
Larkin looked as if he’d keep arguing, but Grainger sent him a look that stopped him.
Interestingly, the look didn’t hold any hint of an order. More like Grainger wanted to laugh and Larkin knew it. And that’s what stopped him from arguing.
Grainger cleared his throat and said, “You need a problem.”
“A problem. A reason you’re heading for divorce that you can tell the Marriage-Save people. Something more specific than general incompatibility. Something the counselors can try to fix. A conflict, a core argument — you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Larkin’s voice was flat. K.D. tucked that observation away for later consideration.
To Grainger she said, “Infidelity? Abuse?”
“Hey!” Larkin objected with an unexpected glint of humor.
She widened her eyes in assumed surprise. “What? I could be the one running around. Or the abuser.”
“Great. We’re getting counseling because you beat on me? Forget trying to save that marriage — I’d divorce you.”
“Too bad more women don’t react that way to abuse.”
“Yes, it is.”
That solid, even response eased one layer of concern. A woman — even a cop — pretending to be married to a stranger needed to know certain things. Though she wouldn’t let down her guard.
“I’m adding that to my list.” Grainger typed into the laptop on his desk. “Need a marital problem.”
The woman sitting on the couch cleared her throat, and every head turned toward her.
“First though, as Eric said at the start, they need to be married,” she said. “That means a wedding.”COLLAPSE
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