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Authors: Darlene Panzera

Montana Hearts (10 page)

BOOK: Montana Hearts
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Delaney gasped. “
I'm
not the one who's staring.”

“He's staking his claim,” Nora squealed, and her sister agreed. Then the twins prattled on about the new cameras they got for their birthday.

“Can you give us photography lessons, Del?” Nora asked.

“Please, please, please?” Nadine added.

Delaney agreed, only to get them to stop begging her. “Tomorrow,” she told them, then stiffened. “Ma! What's Meghan eating? Did you give her a
hamburger
?”

Her mother's face took on a worried look as she glanced at the table where Meghan sat with Bree, Ryan, and Cody. “She likes it.”

“Ma,” Delaney said, thinking of poor Gabe. “You know how I feel about eating meat. I thought we agreed you needed to respect my wishes as the parent.”

Her ma winced. “Our beef has high nutrition, which Meghan needs if she's going to grow into a healthy adult. Besides, she
asked
to try it.”

“Ma!”

“I'm so sorry, Del,” her mother said, her face filled with remorse. “I tried to serve her something else but she helped herself and took a bite before I could stop her, and then she liked it so much that I didn't have the heart to take it away.”

Delaney tried to swallow her outrage. Would her mother let her daughter eat rat poison, too, if she wanted? No! Of course not. But if she argued any further, she'd most likely cause a scene, heads would turn, and more ­people than just Jace would be watching her.

She'd talk to both her mother and Meghan again later in private. Just like she would talk to her father and brother about taking their guests on hunting expeditions.

As the guests thinned out and left the dining hall to return to their cabins or to join in song around the bonfire Luke had lit outside, a shimmer of anticipation shot up her spine.
Jace was waiting for her.
And when he left his post across the room and slowly walked toward her, a grin spread across his attractive, suntanned face.

“Can I get you a plate?” he offered as she took off her apron.

“Um, sure,” she said, wondering how she could use this meal to her advantage and encourage him to give their ranch a line of praise.

“Mom,” Meghan said, tugging on her hand so she'd look down at her. “I ate a hamburger.”

“I saw,” Delaney said, and lowered her voice, “but you know we don't—­”

“Cody eats hamburgers,” Meghan interrupted, as if anticipating what she was going to say.

“Yes, but that doesn't mean that
you
have to.”

“Are you going to eat a hamburger, too?” Meghan pointed at the plate Jace placed on the table in front of her.

“I didn't put anything on it,” he said, nodding to the condiment table, “because I didn't know what you would like.”

Delaney stared at the juicy, charbroiled meat wedged into one of her grandma's sliced golden rolls, and froze. When Jace asked if he could get her a plate, she thought he'd meant an
empty
plate, so she could serve herself. But he'd gone ahead and filled plates of burgers and chips for each of them.

She sat down in a chair before her knees buckled. What was she going to do? She could just tell him she was a vegetarian, but she wanted him to
like
her. That was the goal, right? So that he'd be eager to write them the endorsement? But she feared once he found out how different their values were, he'd shoot on over to Gavin's place faster than an arrow could fly. Just because Rio couldn't leave didn't mean Jace couldn't.

He pulled out a chair to sit beside her when Delaney suddenly put out a hand to stop him and gave him a big smile. “Could you please get me a napkin?”

“Of course,” he said, and headed back toward the serving table.

Moving fast, Delaney then took the offensive slab of Gabe's remains off her plate with a fork and quickly slid it under the table where her sister's puppy, Boots, waited for handouts. She didn't like the idea of handing off Gabe to another, but at this particular moment it was either her or the dog. And the dog didn't seem to mind half as much as she did.

When Jace returned, he handed her a napkin and frowned. “Where's your hamburger?”

Delaney patted her stomach and gave him a big smile. “I ate it.”

“You ate it?” he repeated in obvious disbelief. “What did you do? Wolf it down?”

“I was hungry.” She gave him a big smile to distract him, but it didn't work.

“Can I get you some more?” he offered, still staring at her.

“Oh, no,” she said quickly. “I still have the potato chips to eat.”

He hesitated, then sat down in the chair beside her. “A gal with a healthy appetite. From your slim figure, I never would have guessed.”

Beside them Meghan laughed, pulled Bree's dog out from under the table, and announced, “Boots likes hamburgers, too.”

Delaney froze and her gaze darted toward Jace, but he didn't appear to suspect anything. He was too busy engaging Meghan in a sword fight with their forks.

J
A
C
E
A
S
K
E
D
D
E
L
A
N
E
Y
if he could use the landline and she led him to the ranch office and closed the door so he could make his phone calls in private. If he wasn't mistaken, she almost looked relieved to be rid of him. Sitting down in the chair behind the large wooden desk, he groaned.

He'd thought coming here would be nice for both him and his horse but so far nothing had gone as planned. Before dinner he'd followed Delaney to the patch of woods where she kept her animal hideaway. He'd been careful to keep out of sight, so she wouldn't see him, but why hadn't she wanted him to come with her? What did she think he would do? Shoot the animals she was caring for right in front of her?

He had no interest in hunting game with a clear disadvantage. In fact, he wasn't in the mood for hunting at all since Rio's injury. He used to hunt on his friend Bucky's ranch to put food on the table for his family and help thin out the deer population so they wouldn't all die of starvation, but he'd never
enjoyed
putting an animal down, no matter what the media said. And after seeing the pain in Rio's eyes, he couldn't bring himself to hunt right now even if offered the best package deal made available to mankind.

Of course, the local outfitters didn't have to know that. In fact, he'd almost enjoyed playing along when talking to Gavin McKinley and pretended interest just to see how far the man would go. If Gavin wasn't offering poaching trips, then he might know someone who was and be able to tip him off on who sent the threatening letter to his mom.

He still needed to talk to his mother about his long-­lost cousins, who added another layer of tension to his stay each time they looked at him. While waiting for Delaney to finish serving dinner to the guests, Ryan's son, Cody, had come up to him and asked for his autograph. He didn't even think the kid knew they were related, but that didn't stop Ryan from giving him another cold stare.

Picking up the phone, he called his mother's number, determined to find out if there had been other threats. While he had her on the phone, he thought he'd ask about the real story with the Tanners, too. But his sister, Natalie, answered his call instead.

“Mom's not home right now,” Nat told him. “She's speaking at a dinner tonight in Helena hosted by her supporters. She's ahead in the polls and it looks like she may have clinched the governor's seat.”

“The election isn't for another two months,” he reminded her. “There's still plenty of time for the competition to sway votes.”

“Jace, whose side are you on?” Nat scolded.

“Mom's, of course. But I do worry about her being a target for some of the crackpots out there. Any more letters?”

“No,” his sister assured him. “And Mom's acting as if the incident never happened.”

“That's good.” Then he remembered the second reason he'd called and asked, “Hey, Nat. Guess who I ran into out here in Fox Creek?”

“Knowing you, it could be anyone,” she teased. “
Mr. Rodeo
knows everyone.”

“I didn't know we had cousins.”

She hesitated. “Who?”

“Tanners,” he replied. “From Dad's side of the family. What do you know about them?”

“Mom never talks about Dad's relatives much. I knew he had a sister, Lora Lynn, who married Bo Tanner, but she and Mom never got along.”

“Aunt Lora had four boys: Dean, Josh, Ryan, and Zach. I've met the last two, who look to be around the same age as us, and Ryan's seven-­year-­old son, Cody.”

His sister gasped. “How did you meet? How did you find out you were related?”

“Ryan works here, at Collins Country Cabins, on weekends. He's engaged to Delaney Collins's older sister, Bree. And he wasn't too friendly. He said Mom took something from them.”


Our
mom?”

“Yeah. Any idea what it could be?”

“None. But now that you've got my curiosity going, I promise you that as soon as Mom comes home I'm going to find out.”

“I was hoping you'd say that,” Jace said, and grinned. “You're always better at digging up details than I am.”

“I'll take that as a compliment,” Nat said, as if amused. “By the way, speaking of details . . . how's it going with Delaney?”

Jace hesitated. “I don't think she trusts me any more than the Tanners.”

T
HE FOLLOWIN
G
D
A
Y
,
Delaney kept her promise to the Walford twins and gave them a lesson in photography. Both girls had received identical cameras from their uncle for their seventeenth birthday and held them up to their eyes, trying out different types of lenses, and adjusting the apertures and dials.

“Too bad we didn't have these when Dreamy Devin was here this summer,” Nora crooned.

“Too bad he went off to college,” Nadine agreed.

“When do you two go back to school?” Delaney asked. She'd gotten used to the teenagers' quirky ways, but it would be a relief to have some peace and quiet around the ranch.

“Wednesday!”
they chorused.

“We'll be high school
seniors
,” Nora added, as if she could hardly believe it. “And we'll rule the school! But Bree said we can still help out on weekends.”

She did?
Delaney sighed. So much for a respite. Oh, well, she might as well accept it and hope for the best. Smiling, she asked, “Maybe you'll meet some cute boys in your new classes?”

“Not like Devin,” Nora said dramatically. “He was so handsome—­”

“No one we meet will ever be as handsome as him,” Nadine finished for her.

Delaney smiled. “My grandma always says,
‘You never know what might be waiting around the next corner until you get there.'

“My, gosh, you're right!” Nora exclaimed, and nudged Nadine's arm. “Who are those boys coming toward us?”

Nadine turned her head and Delaney followed their gaze. A few of their newest guests had teenage sons. Both girls rotated their camera lenses to zoom in on them, and started clicking pictures as fast as their fingers would let them.

Nora giggled. “I'm so glad our uncle wanted us to learn how rewarding it is to go on a nature shoot—­”

“And capture life in all its gorgeousness,” Nadine added, clicking more photos of the boys.

Nature shoot? Delaney's mouth popped open as she realized that was the answer.
That's
how she'd distract Jace from hunting. She'd give him a camera and take him on a
nature shoot
to teach him to appreciate the wildlife around him—­without killing it.

Delaney brushed her hair, dabbed on some of the makeup Sammy Jo left her, and yes, even put on the dreaded lipstick. Then she changed into her best sparkly western-­style blouse, a gift Bree had given her to update her wardrobe, and went down to the stable to tack up the horses.

The other guests who had signed on for the trail ride gathered in the staging area. Luke led their assigned horses up to the raised platforms to make it easier for them to get on. Then a few minutes later, Jace arrived. With a gun. A Winchester 30-­30 lever action rifle like her father's.

Delaney swallowed hard and forced a smile. “Glad you made it. We almost thought we'd have to leave without you.”

“We?” Jace looked at each of the guests. “I thought when you offered to take me on a trail ride, you meant a
private
trail ride.”

Is
that what she'd implied? “I—­I take the guests on trail rides every day.” She glanced at the threat in his hands. “Not . . . hunting expeditions.”

Jace gave the weapon a quick glance. “Your father insisted I bring this just in case I saw something.”

Ugh.
Anything to get the endorsement.

“Jed wouldn't take no for an answer,” Jace said, hoisting the rifle strap over his shoulder. “He's a hard man to refuse.”

Yes, he was. But it was bow season. Guns couldn't legally be used for another two weeks. What was her father thinking?

“I'll take the others,” Luke offered, “and you can take Jace.”

Delaney gasped. “But—­”

“Whatever it takes,” Luke reminded her.

Yes, she'd promised to do whatever she had to in order to please their special guest and get his endorsement. “Thank you, Luke.”

“You're welcome,” her brother shot back, and grinned.

Jace tipped his hat toward her, then mounted the chestnut gelding Luke brought over to him. “Ready when you are.”

BOOK: Montana Hearts
2.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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