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Authors: Darlene Panzera

Montana Hearts

BOOK: Montana Hearts
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Dedication

In addition to romance, laughter, and suspense,

the Montana Hearts series celebrates families, especially the bonds between siblings.

This book is for my brothers and their wives:

David and Karen Gant

Wayne and Carly Gant

Acknowledgments

I
WANT TO
thank my editors, May Chen and Gabrielle Keck, for the wonderful opportunity to write this series and for all your help along the way. I thank God for all His many blessings. And I'd like to thank my agent, Nicole Resciniti, my family, friends, critique partners, and Laurie Schnebly Campbell, who was an inspiring mentor during the creation of this particular story.

 

Chapter One

T
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at her. Delaney Collins lowered her camera lens and glanced around twice to make sure, but no one else behind the roping chute was looking his direction. Heat flooded her cheeks as he followed up the wink with a grin, and a multitude of wary warnings sounded off in her heart. The last thing she'd wanted was to catch the rodeo circuit star's interest. She pretended to adjust the settings, then raised the camera to her eye once again, determined to fulfill her duty and take the required photos of the handsome dark-­haired devil
.

Except he wouldn't stand still. He climbed off his buckskin horse, handed the reins to a nearby gatekeeper, gave a young kid in the stands a high five, and then walked straight toward her.

Delaney tightened her hold on the camera, wishing she could stay hidden behind the lens, and considered several different ways to slip away unnoticed. But she knew she couldn't avoid him forever. Not when it was her job to shadow the guy and capture the highlights from his steer-­wrestling runs. Maybe he only wanted to check in to make sure she was getting the right shots?

Most cowboys like Jace Aldridge had large egos to match their championship-­sized belt buckles, one reason she usually avoided these events and preferred capturing images of plants and animals. But when the lead photographer for
True Montana Magazine
called in sick before the event and they needed a fill-­in, Delaney had been both honored and excited to accept the position. Perhaps after the magazine viewed her work, they'd hire her for more photo ops. Then she wouldn't have to rely solely on the profits from her share of her family's guest ranch to support herself.

She swallowed hard as the stocky, dark-­haired figure, whose image continuously graced the cover of every western periodical, smiled, his eyes on her—­yes, definitely
her
—­as he drew near.

He stretched out his hand. “Jace Aldridge.”

She stared at his chapped knuckles. Beside her, Sammy Jo gave her arm a discreet nudge, urging her to accept his handshake. After all, it would be impolite to refuse. Even if, in addition to riding rodeo, he
was
a hunter, an adversary of the animals she and her wildlife rescue group regularly sought to save.

Lifting her gaze to meet his, she replied, “Delaney Collins.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jace said, his rich, baritone voice smooth and . . . dangerously distracting. His hand gave hers a warm squeeze, and although he glanced toward Sammy Jo to include her in his greeting, it was clear who held his real interest. “Are you with the press?”

Delaney glanced down at the Canon EOS 7D with its high-­definition 20.2 megapixel zoom lens hanging down from the strap around her neck. “Yes. I'm taking photos for
True Montana
.”

The edges of his mouth curved into another smile. “I haven't seen you around before.”

“I—­I'm not around much, but Sammy Jo here,” she said, motioning toward her friend to divert his attention, “used to race barrels. You must know her. Sammy Jo Macpherson?”

Jace gave her friend a brief nod. “I believe we've met.”

“Del's a great photographer,” Sammy Jo said, bouncing the attention back to her.

Jace grinned. “I bet.”

“It's the lens,” Delaney said, averting her gaze, and Sammy Jo shot her a disgruntled look as if to say,
Smarten up, this guy's into you. Don't blow it!

Except she had no desire to get involved in a relationship right now. And definitely not one
with a hunter.
She needed to focus on her two-­and-­a-­half-­year-­old daughter, Meghan, and help her family's guest ranch bring in enough money to support them. Especially since her ex-­husband hadn't made a child support payment for the last nine months. The money she did make she spent on lawyer fees trying to sort it all out.

Jace pulled his straw hat off his head and held the brim flat against his chest. “What are you two lovely ladies doing after—­”

“Hey, Aldridge,” a balding, middle-­aged man with gray sideburns cut in with a shout. “Have you given any more thought to my offer to come hunt big game this fall?”

Delaney stiffened as Gavin McKinley joined them. His property lay a short distance down the trail behind her family's ranch and sometimes he crossed the line.
In more ways than one.

“Don't have the time,” Jace told him, then turned his attention back to her. “Del—­”

“Delaney Collins,” Gavin exclaimed, interrupting again. “Is that you?”

She'd already taken three steps back, hoping she could slink off while the others were talking, but she hadn't been fast enough. Gavin grabbed hold of her arm and spun her around. “It
is
you. I suppose you'll need to pick up some extra photography jobs now that Labor Day's approaching. Isn't Collins Country Cabins about ready to close up for the season?”

Delaney shook her head. “No. Actually, we've decided to stay open during the fall this year.”

“Stay open?” Gavin's jaw dropped and he squinted at her as if he hadn't heard her right. “What for? Is your family trying to steal my business?”

“My family does not
steal
.” Delaney swallowed the bitter saliva gathering at the back of her throat.

He also rented out guest cabins, not nearly as nice as her family's, but perfect for the barbarian hunters he housed, equipped, and led on backcountry expeditions.

Jace stepped between them, forcing Gavin to drop his arm away from her. “Mr. McKinley, you'll have to excuse us. I'm scheduled for a private photo shoot before it's my turn to compete and we only have twenty minutes.”

To Delaney's relief, the outdoor outfitter hesitated a moment, glanced at each of them, and then stormed away in a huff.

“Good one,” Sammy Jo said, smiling at Jace with approval.

Jace grinned and once again Delaney watched his gaze turn toward her. “Will I see you at the Chuck Wagon later?”

“Uh . . .” Del looked up into his dark-­lashed killer green eyes, and the hope she saw within tripped up her tongue.

“It's a barbeque for today's competitors and their friends,” Jace clarified, as if she didn't know what he meant. “If you don't have access, I could get you in.”

“Me? No. I—­I'm here with, uh, Sammy Jo,” she said, heat rising into her face as she fumbled the words.

“She's included in the invitation,” Jace amended, “of course.”

“Of course,” Delaney repeated, reminding herself,
He's a hunter, like the monster who just left.
She hesitated as the horrifying image of Gavin shooting the beautiful young doe she'd nursed back to health when she was sixteen played out once again in her mind. She'd never forgotten, nor forgiven him. “But . . . I—­I'm just here to take pictures.”

Sammy Jo gave her another small jab and Delaney winced. Not from pain, only from her own inadequacy at intelligent speech. If she kept talking, most likely the rodeo hero would realize she couldn't put two sentences together in his presence and leave her alone.

Except he didn't seem to be through with her yet. His grin widened into a full smile, one that consumed half his face and displayed rows of perfect white teeth that would probably make most women weak in the knees. She wasn't most women.

“All right, then,” he relented. “Can I have my picture taken?”

She nodded. “Of course.”

“With you?”

Just when she thought they were finally about to get back to business.
“I—­I don't think that's what the magazine is looking for.”

Jace let out a small chuckle. “Not for the magazine,” he corrected, “for me.” He gave Sammy Jo a quick look and nodded toward Delaney's camera. “Would you mind?”

“Not at all,” Sammy Jo said, her eyes alight with mischief. “I'm not a professional, but I can take a decent shot. C'mon, Del, get closer to him and turn around.”

“I—­I don't let anyone else touch my camera,” Del protested, voicing the first excuse that came to mind. “It, uh, cost a lot of money.”

“Are you serious?” Sammy Jo exclaimed. “Del! What's the matter with you?”

“That's okay,” Jace soothed. “I understand. How about we use the camera on my cell phone?”

Sammy Jo nodded. “Perfect.”

Delaney frowned as he whipped out a phone from the inside pocket of his lightweight jacket and handed it to her friend. The man probably collected photos of women from every town he pulled into along the rodeo circuit. His cell phone was probably full of them. Why would Sammy Jo want to encourage him? However, rather than cause a scene, she did as she was told. Better to get it over with so Sammy Jo wouldn't make a big deal of it, as she had an infuriating way of doing.

Taking a step closer to the man, she glanced up into his face and the intensity of his gaze stole her breath. She glanced away and turned toward the camera. His arm wrapped around her, warming her back through her light cotton short-­sleeved shirt, and he rested his hand on her shoulder. With a slight tug, he pulled her even closer.

“Say cheese!” Sammy Jo instructed.

Jace's smooth, alluring voice repeated the word. Delaney didn't say anything, but counted the seconds in her head. One, two, three . . . why wasn't Sammy Jo clicking the picture?

“Just give me another few moments here,” her good friend said, another mischievous grin spreading across her face. “I want to make sure I get it just right.”

“Sammy Jo!” Delaney hissed, realizing she was stalling on purpose.

“Relax, Del,” the matchmaking menace coaxed. “Let's see that pretty smile of yours.”

“It
is
pretty,” Jace whispered against her ear. “As pretty as the sun rising over the horizon.”

Delaney smiled at the ridiculous pickup line and a flash of light from the cell phone let her know that Sammy Jo had finally taken the picture.

“Thank you,” Jace said as she stepped away. “How about you give me your number so I can send a copy to you?”

Smooth. Definitely smooth.
However, Delaney wasn't taking the rodeo hunter's bait. Steeling her resolve, she shot the cowboy an apologetic look and with as much courage as she could muster she warned, “You got the picture. That's enough.”

He looked as if he was about to protest, but Delaney quickly escaped out of earshot and made her way around the other side of the fenced arena.

“What are you doing?” Sammy Jo demanded, following at her heels. “If you'd played along you could have had a date tonight.”

“I don't want a date,” Delaney whispered. She peeked back over her shoulder and realized she was trembling.

“I think you do,” Sammy Jo countered. “You're just afraid every man you date will turn out to be a jerk like Steve.”

Delaney ignored the reference to her ex. “I'm happy to be alone.”

“Someday, you'll change your mind,” Sammy Jo predicted, “when the
right
man comes along.”

“Jace Aldridge is
not
that man,” Delaney said, and let out a small laugh. “In fact, I'm surprised he noticed me at all. It must have been my camera flash that drew his attention.”

“Del,” Sammy Jo scolded. “You're too hard on yourself.”

“The guy's famous,” she argued. “Even ­people who don't follow rodeo follow him. It must be the hair. All the ladies seem to love the way his wispy, dark brown hair falls over his forehead.”

“Yes!” Sammy Jo squealed. “And you got your picture with him. You could have sent it in to the magazine and had
your
photo on the cover, too.”

“I'll let others enjoy the limelight,” Delaney assured her. “I don't need attention.”

“You could have at least asked for his autograph,” Sammy Jo insisted, “for Meghan.”

Delaney laughed. “What would a two-­and-­a-­half-­year-­old want with Jace Aldridge's signature?”

Sammy Jo shrugged. “I don't know. It could be worth a fortune someday.”

Delaney thought of her ex-­husband and the money he hadn't paid her. Maybe Sammy Jo was right. Maybe she
should
have asked for the rodeo star's autograph. Then she could have auctioned it off when Meghan was older and needed college tuition—­if ­people still knew who Jace Aldridge was by then.

Too late now. The moment was lost. And after the cold brush-­off she'd given him, she doubted Jace would waste any more of his precious time on her again. Within five minutes he'd forget her name, and within ten he'd forget she even existed.

J
A
C
E
G
R
I
N
N
E
D
A
S
she walked away. The blond-­haired, blue-­eyed beauty was interested in him even if she didn't give him her number. He could tell by the way her eyes widened and her lips parted when she gazed at him with that cautious yet yearning expression, which had several beats of his heart tripping all over each other.

He leaned his arms on the rail of the crowded rodeo arena as one of the bronco riders shot out of the gate. The noise level from the stands rose with cheers, applause, and whistles as the buckin' cowboy struggled to remain saddled. But as impressive as the wrangler's ride was, Jace found more pleasure watching Delaney.

She stood to the side of the announcer's box, her camera raised to her eye and her hands twisting the round lens back and forth to make adjustments as she snapped photo after photo. Her friend Sammy Jo stood beside her, and despite the fact that both women's attention was fixed on the excitement going on in front of them, their differences stood out like salt and pepper.

BOOK: Montana Hearts
6.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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