Read Montana Online

Authors: Debbie Macomber

Montana (9 page)

BOOK: Montana
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“I'll stick with the tack lesson for now,” he assured her.

Taking small steps backward, Tom was clearly reluctant to leave.

“It'll be fine,” Sam said, hoping the boy understood his message.

Tom nodded once, gravely, then turned and raced out of the barn.

The moment they were alone, Molly let him have it.

“Tom is my son and I'm responsible for his safety,” she began. “I'd appreciate if you'd discuss this sort of thing with me first.”

Sam removed his hat. If he was going to apologize, might as well do a good job of it. “You're right. This won't happen again.”

His apology apparently disarmed her because she fell silent. Still, she lingered. Walking over to Sinbad's stall, she stroked his neck, weaving her fingers through his long coarse mane. “Was there something I said earlier that offended you?” she said unexpectedly. Her voice was softer now, unsure. “Perhaps this afternoon while we were in town?”

“You think I was offended?” he asked, surprised.

She slowly turned and looked at him. Sam had never seen a woman with more striking blue eyes; it was all he could do to avert his gaze.

“Gramps was concerned when you didn't join us for dinner.”

He wasn't sure how to put his feelings into words. The simplest way, he decided, was to tell her the truth. “You're family. I'm not.”

“It's silly for you to cook for yourself when I've already made dinner.”

“I don't mind.”

“I do,” she insisted, her voice flaring with anger. She tamed it quickly by inhaling and holding her breath. “Both Gramps and I would like you to join us for meals.” She paused. “It'd mean a lot to Gramps.”

“What about you? Would it mean anything to you?” Sam had no idea what had prompted the question. He was practically inviting her to stomp all over his ego!

“It just makes more sense,” she said. “But—” she took another breath “—whether you come or not is up to you.”

So that was it, Sam reasoned. She'd done her duty. No doubt Walt had asked her to issue the invitation.

“Will you?” she asked, then added, “I need to know how much to cook.”

“I haven't decided yet.”

“Don't do me any favors, all right?”

What Sam did next was born of pure instinct. It was what he'd been thinking of doing from the moment he first set eyes on her. What he'd wanted to do the instant he heard Russell Letson invite her to dinner.

Without judging the wisdom—or the reasons—he stepped forward, clasped her shoulders and lowered his mouth to hers.

Their lips met briefly, the contact so light Sam wasn't sure they'd actually touched until he felt her stiffen. Taking advantage of her shock, he parted his lips and was about to wrap his arms around her when she pressed her hands against his chest and pushed him away.

“Don't ever do that again!” She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. “How dare you!”

Sam wondered the same thing.

“Gramps would fire you in a heartbeat if I told him about this.”

“Tell him,” Sam urged. He didn't know why he'd done anything so stupid, and he wasn't proud of himself for giving in to the impulse. But he'd be selling snow cones in hell before he'd let her know that.

“I
should
tell him—it'd serve you right!”

“Then by all means mention it.” What Sam should do was apologize—again—and let it go at that, but the same craziness that had induced him to kiss Molly goaded him now. He might have continued with his flippant responses if not for the pain and uncertainty he read in her eyes.

“I'd like your word of honor that it won't happen again.”

Without meaning to, he laughed outright. Honor? Ex-cons weren't exactly known for their
honor.

“You find this humorous, Mr. Dakota?” Her eyes narrowed and her voice rose in a quavery crescendo.

If he hadn't riled her earlier, he sure had now. Unintentionally. She whirled around and marched out of the barn. Sam sighed, leaned against the center post and rubbed one hand over his face, still wondering why he'd kissed her.

Then again, maybe he knew. He didn't like the idea of her dating Letson. His dislike of lawyers was instinctive, following the less than fair treatment he'd received from his own defense attorney. Which, to be honest, wasn't Letson's fault. In any case, it was more than that.

Sam had seen the way Letson looked at Molly—like a little boy in a candy store, his mouth watering for lemon drops. Letson would take Molly to dinner and afterward he'd kiss her. And when he did, Sam wanted Molly's thoughts to be clouded with the memory of
his
kiss. The memory of
his
touch.

Why, though? He reminded himself that he didn't even
like
Molly all that much. So why was he competing with Letson?

Damned if he knew.

And which kiss would Molly prefer—his or Letson's? Sam groaned at the thought.

If he were a betting man, he'd wager it wouldn't be his.

Five

R
ussell Letson was by far the most attractive man Molly had ever dated. When it came to looks, Sam Dakota took a distant second. Actually, she told herself, he wasn't even in the running. Nowhere close.

If she was interested in remarrying—which she wasn't—Molly wanted a man like her grandfather. While Gramps was no Mr. Personality, he was solid and strong in all the ways that mattered. The world needed more men like him. His body had deteriorated with age, but in his prime he'd been a man who inspired others. He was honest and good and fair, and he'd loved her grandmother to distraction. Just as her grandmother had loved him.

From her conversation with the bank manager and from the infrequent letters Gramps had sent her, Molly realized that over the past few years, he'd alienated a number of people. When her grandmother was alive, she'd smoothed over quarrels and difficulties, but with her gone, Gramps had turned cantankerous and unfriendly. Molly hoped all that would change now that she'd moved in with him. And while he had his faults, Gramps was her knight, her compass, her guiding light. Molly couldn't imagine life without him.

At least Gramps seemed to approve of Russell—and Russell had gone out of his way to make this a special evening.

The restaurant was everything he'd claimed. The interior was elegant, the booths upholstered in a plush rust red velvet, and the lights low. There was a small dance floor and a live band every Friday and Saturday night, according to the sign outside. Molly was surprised a town the size of Sweetgrass could support an upscale restaurant like The Cattle Baron.

“I'm delighted you could see me on such short notice,” Russell said as he closed his menu. His smile was cordial and Molly smiled back.

She'd gone to some lengths with her appearance. Even Gramps had noticed how long she spent fixing her hair and applying her makeup.

The move to Montana offered a long-overdue opportunity for a social life. Molly was ready to set aside the mistakes of the past and look to the future. As a member of the Sweetgrass community, she wanted to meet and mingle with other adults, and this dinner date was a step in that direction. Marriage didn't interest her, but a social life did.

When she lived in San Francisco, she'd rarely dated. She wasn't opposed to meeting men and never had been. But it was difficult to find a man who understood the responsibilities of single parenthood and shared her values. Even if she'd actually met someone interesting, squeezing in time for a relationship between her family and her job—well, there just weren't enough hours in the day.

Excuses. All excuses.

She hadn't been ready then, but she was now. The difference was her willingness to take a risk. Maybe it was because, with Gramps close at hand, she felt safer, more secure. He obviously liked and trusted Russell. And Sam…

“I hear you've created quite a stir among the fellows in town,” Russell said, looking at her and blushing slightly.

“Me? I caused a stir?”

“There aren't many single women your age in Sweetgrass. There's been plenty of talk—you know, interest.” Russell seemed a bit flustered as if he'd said more than he should. Not a trait she would have expected in a lawyer, but it made him all the more endearing. She liked him already.

“I'm sure you've had plenty of phone calls.” This sounded more like a question.

“Some.” A lady from the local Baptist church and a return call from the school-district office, but that was it. Men weren't exactly pounding down her door, but it didn't hurt her ego any that Russell assumed otherwise.

The waiter, a staid older man, delivered their wine, and after Russell had tasted it, filled their goblets. Russell had chosen well, Molly determined after her first sip. The California merlot was excellent.

She finished her glass and allowed Russell to refill it. A relaxing evening out was just what Molly needed, especially after the long week she'd endured. She'd driven from California to Montana, carting all her worldly belongings. She'd refereed her sons' battles across several states, dealt with the realities of Gramps's health and had begun to improve the appalling condition of the ranch house. It was a week to remember.

After ordering dinner, they chatted amicably. Russell had charming manners and Molly was soon enjoying herself. She couldn't remember the last time she'd spent a quiet evening in the company of an attractive man.

The band arrived, and around nine o'clock, the music started. Not the country-and-western tunes Molly expected, but the mellow sound of light rock. The music was an accompaniment, not an intrusion into their conversation. A few couples got up to dance, and Molly glanced enviously toward the small hardwood floor.

“Would you like to take a spin?” Russell asked, and held out his hand. His eyes twinkled as if he'd been waiting for her cue. A woman could get used to a man this sensitive, she mused.

Not until Russell had placed his arms around her waist and brought her close did she experience a sense of disappointment. It took her a couple of anxious moments to understand what was happening.

The last man to hold her close was Sam Dakota. His hands on her shoulders had been strong and forceful; his touch had rocked her, but his kiss had been gentle. The contrast had been…shocking. Memorable. Twenty-four hours later, and that memory was still potent.

Molly closed her eyes in an effort to banish Sam Dakota from her mind. Russell was handsome and well educated. Polite. Successful. Exactly the type of man she'd hoped to meet. Sam, though, was hard and lean and rough as rawhide. A hired hand. She knew almost nothing about his past, nothing about his future.

It exasperated her that she could be in the arms of a perfectly good dinner date and her mind was full of another man. The
wrong
man!

Despite her determination to put Sam out of her thoughts, Molly found it difficult. She was grateful when their meal arrived and she could sit across from Russell and talk.

“You might remember there was something I needed to discuss with you,” Russell said. He smoothed the napkin onto his lap and sipped his wine.

Molly had the impression he wanted to get this matter, whatever it was, settled now. Immediately. From the way he nervously toyed with his wineglass, she guessed this wasn't a discussion he'd been looking forward to.

“I imagine you're curious as to what I wanted to ask you,” he began, gripping his goblet with both hands.

Until he'd mentioned it, Molly had actually forgotten the reason behind this dinner invitation. “Naturally,” she responded, pretending she'd been breathlessly awaiting their discussion.

“I realize this is a bit premature,” he said. “Personally I'd prefer to wait, but my client is anxious, which is understandable.” His eyes darkened with sincerity. “Forgive me, Molly, if this offends you.”

“Offends me?” Client. He was talking to her on behalf of a client? None of this made sense. She'd assumed they'd gone out primarily to get to know each other and enjoy each other's company—and perhaps to discuss some trivial matter in regard to her grandfather's will.

“This has to do with the Broken Arrow Ranch,” Russell continued.

She tensed. “What about the ranch?”

He frowned as if this was distasteful to him, something he'd prefer not to do. “My client wants to know your intentions after your grandfather dies.”

Molly put down her knife and fork, and clenched her hands in her lap. “My intentions to
what?
” she asked, her voice low. The evening was ruined, her illusions shattered. This was no dinner date; this was some kind of business negotiation.

“I've been asked to approach you with the idea of selling out. Naturally my client is prepared to wait until the appropriate time.”

Until Gramps is dead and buried, that is.
But not long enough for his body to grow cold. For an instant her anger was blinding. Her chest tightened and her breathing went shallow.

“This is a sick joke, right?” It wasn't, deep down she knew that, but she had to ask.

Russell's apology was instantaneous. “I'm sorry, Molly, really I am. Like I told you, I felt the timing with this was wrong, but my client insisted. I didn't want to approach you about it now, not so soon, but my client's afraid someone else is going to contact you first. I'm sure once you think all this through, you'll recognize his request as reasonable.”

Her grandfather wasn't dead yet, and already the vultures were circling overhead. “You can tell your…client, whoever he is, that I won't be selling the ranch.”

“You're not serious, are you?” Russell's eyes widened. “What do you plan to do with it?”

Molly hadn't made any decisions yet. Her one overwhelming concern had been to reach her grandfather before the unthinkable happened. The move from California to Montana had absorbed all her time and energy, dominated every waking moment. She wasn't prepared to answer Russell, nor did she feel any obligation to do so.

“Who hired you?” she demanded. “Who would be so cold and unfeeling—offering to buy the ranch before Gramps is gone? And doing it like this—through a lawyer. Who would do such a thing?”

Russell avoided her eyes. She knew he'd dreaded this and understood now why he'd invited her to dinner. He'd been hoping to smooth the way—and soften the blow.

“I can't answer that, Molly. My client has requested anonymity.”

She laughed shortly. “That's understandable, isn't it?” She sighed and glanced at the ceiling while she collected her thoughts. “If you must know, I'll be working the ranch myself.”

“You,” Russell said slowly. He'd begun to frown again.

“You make it sound as if you don't think I'm capable of doing it.”

“How much experience have you had?” he asked matter-of-factly.

“Experience,” she repeated, feigning a laugh. “I'll learn as I go.”

Russell's frown deepened. “Molly, I realize this whole subject is…unpleasant. Trust me, I wasn't looking forward to broaching it with you so soon. If it'd been up to me—well, never mind, that isn't important. The fact is, a woman alone with two school-age boys isn't going to be able to manage a ranch on her own. Not in these times. Not in this current market.”

“Why not? According to Gramps, Sam Dakota is an excellent foreman.”

Russell crumpled the linen napkin and set it on the table beside his plate, his appetite apparently gone. Molly's had vanished, too. “The foreman's another question. How well do you know this man?”

Molly mulled over her response, but no ready answer came to mind. “Gramps hired Sam and that's good enough for me,” she said. There simply hadn't been enough time to find out much about him or assess his character. She knew she found him somewhat disturbing. But she also knew that Sam cared about her grandfather, and had, in fact, saved Gramps's life. If for nothing else, his devotion to Gramps had earned him her gratitude. And her loyalty.

Once again Russell appeared hesitant. “If Dakota does agree to stay on as foreman, will you be able to continue paying his wages?”

“Wages?” Something else that had never occurred to her.

“You'll remember I was the one who drew up Walter's will, so I'm well aware of the state of his financial affairs. Molly, I have to be honest with you. They're dismal. Even if you were able to strike some kind of financial agreement with Dakota, there's no guarantee you'd be able to make a go of ranching.

“Cattle prices are down. Many long-established ranches are experiencing financial difficulties. There are fewer and fewer independent ranches left. Fewer and fewer true cowboys. Conglomerates are moving in and buying financially strapped spreads at prices well below market value. Ranchers often have no option but to sell, and they're left with nothing to show after a lifetime of effort. I don't want to see you lose your inheritance like that.”

“Thanks for your vote of confidence.”

“It isn't easy saying these things to you,” Russell murmured. “But I feel it's my duty. In six months, when the ranch is on the auction block, I don't want you to look at me and ask why I didn't warn you.”

Molly inhaled a deep stabilizing breath. In time she knew she'd need to make these decisions, but she hadn't expected to be confronted with them her first week in Montana. On a dinner date, yet.

“Molly,” he said, and stretched his hand across the table to grip hers firmly. “I realize this is upsetting—hell, it would distress anyone. But you need to give the matter of selling your consideration
now.
When Walter does die, it'll be the worst time emotionally for you to make this type of decision. All I want you to do is think ahead a few weeks or months, or however long Walt lives.”

Molly knew Russell was right, but she didn't want to face this question yet. She propped her elbows on the table and leaned her head on her hands. “The land has been in the family for four generations.” Gramps and her own father had been born in the very house in which she and her sons now lived.

BOOK: Montana
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ads

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