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Authors: Darlene Panzera

Montana Hearts (18 page)

BOOK: Montana Hearts
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What if the incident with the tranquilized deer in the cabin wasn't related to the poachers at all? What if whoever put the deer in there
did
want it to cause a fight between him and Delaney? How far would Zach go to get rid of him so he could win Del's attention?

B
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D
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,
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Luke spent a large portion of the next day cleaning up the mess the panic-­stricken, neck-­bleeding deer had caused in Cabin 26. The three women who had rented the place had salvaged what they could of their belongings and left the rest for Del to gather up and put into a garbage can. But the extra work didn't bother her. It helped keep her mind off the fact that, as of today, the hunters were allowed to use guns. Already several shots had echoed between the rolling hills and she'd winced each time, praying the targeted animal had managed to escape.

Bree knelt on her hands and knees using a rag to scrub the bloodstains off the wood floor. “This is never going to come up,” she complained. “And we need this cabin ready for our new guests tomorrow.”

“Clean what you can and I'll use my sander to get rid of the rest,” Luke said, then tore down the last piece of the broken paneling separating the bedroom and kitchen. “I'll have this wall fixed before the new guests arrive, too.”

Delaney glanced at her watch, realized it was midafternoon, and frowned. “Where are those twins? They promised they'd be here to help clean.”

“I saw them a few minutes ago when I drove the gator down to the supply shed to get a new sheet of plywood,” Luke said, picking up a hammer and a ­couple nails. “They were fiddling with their cameras and taking pictures of the ­people next door at Woolly Outfitters.”

Delaney tossed the last bit of broken debris into the trash can and frowned. “I'm going after them before they get themselves into trouble. We don't want our new neighbors to accuse us of spying.”

Both Bree and Luke agreed that was a good idea. Frustrated by the twins' lack of focus, Delaney went out the door, but halfway to the property line she was already having second thoughts. Like maybe Bree should have been the one to come talk to them and not her.

Then she spotted the twins, hiding in the brush, each with a camera around their neck, except they weren't looking through the lens. In fact, they weren't taking pictures at all. Nora held a remote control, and Nadine was pointing toward something hovering in the air, a small black object with four tiny propellers like a mini helicopter, barely perceptible through the shadow of the trees.

Delaney moved closer, stared at the UFO, and instead of scolding the twins, she asked, “What is it?”

Both twins jumped, then turned, waved her forward, and placed their fingers to their lips, indicating for her to keep quiet.

“It's a drone,” Nora whispered. “With a video camera attached giving us supersharp clarity and a range of up to five hundred feet.”

“We combined last month's paychecks to buy it,” Nadine said, her face full of excitement.

“But why are you using it to spy on our neighbors?” Delaney asked, glancing around them to make sure no one had noticed them.

“We're not spying on Mr. Woolly,” Nora told her. “We're—­”

“Filming the new cute guys who came to the ranch with their father,” Nadine explained. “We wanted to catch them in action. They took their guns to go hunting, but instead of going up the trail, they crossed over to Woolly's property with Jace.”

Delaney gasped. “What's Jace doing over there?”

“Take a look,” Nora said, holding the remote control at an angle so Delaney could see.

She leaned her head toward the small two-­by-­three-­inch video screen in the middle of the handheld device to view exactly what the video camera on the drone flying above was recording and saw Jace and the three undercover agents staying at their ranch speaking to Isaac Woolly and another ­couple in front of the mobile trailer the outfitter had brought in.

“Does this thing have audio?” Delaney asked, wondering what the group on the screen could possibly be talking about.

Both twins gave her a regretful shake of their heads.

“Can we zoom in?”

This time the twins smiled. “Oh, yes,” Nora whispered, turning one of the dials on the controller. “Watch this.”

The group's faces enlarged and focused in on the two young men, Clint and Clay. One was speaking, the other smiling, and both the twins happily sighed as they gazed at the male images on the screen.

“Let me see the others,” Delaney said, squeezing her way in between Nora's and Nadine's shoulders. “Quick!”

“Okay,” Nora agreed, her tone showing her reluctance to view anything but the boys.

The view shifted and showed Jace was the one now talking. Then Nora scrolled over to the man next to him and Isaac Woolly's white bearded face came onto the screen.

“Keep going,” Delaney encouraged.

The next images were those of the ­couple standing beside Mr. Woolly, and as soon as Delaney saw them, she fell back and let out a small yelp.

Both Nora and Nadine put their fingers to their lips again to tell her to hush and Delaney cupped her mouth with her hand. Then drawing toward the screen again, she stared at the ­couple who had racked up so much trouble for her family over the last few months.

“It's the Randalls,” she whispered, her pulse racing as she considered what she should do.

“Who are they?” the twins asked in unison.

“Our previous ranch managers,” Delaney informed them, her head spinning. “The ones who embezzled our money and want to steal away our ranch.”

Delaney ran toward the house and nearly collided with Bree, who came running from the opposite direction.

“The PI called,” Bree said, her voice breathless. “The Randalls have been spotted in Fox Creek.”

“I know,” Del told her, and pointed toward the property line. “I just saw them next door.”

It took both of them, Luke, and Ryan Tanner to hold their father back and prevent him from charging next door.

“The sheriff and his men are on their way,” Bree scolded. “They'll be here in just a few minutes. We need to let the authorities handle this.”

“Susan and Wade Randall have some nerve showing up here,” Jed growled, stomping his foot. “I want to talk to them.”

“After they're arrested I don't think they'll be allowed to speak to anyone,” Luke said, keeping guard by the front door of the main house in case their father tried to run out.

“But at least we'll have peace of mind knowing that they are finally caught,” Delaney added.

“That's right,” Grandma added. “We must always look on the bright side.”

A knock sounded on the door and everyone in the room glanced at one another as Luke moved aside to open it.

“Sheriff McKinley,” Delaney's ma called out the moment he stepped over the threshold. “Did you catch them?”

Because he didn't answer right away, Delaney held her breath, and when he shook his head, her stomach squeezed tight. “But I saw them. How could they escape?”

“We searched the premises,” the sheriff informed them. “But the Randalls were gone before we arrived. Isaac Woolly said he knew them by a different name and had no idea there was a warrant out for their arrest.”

Jace walked through the door next and Delaney ran toward him. “You were there,” she gushed. “What did the ­couple with Isaac Woolly say to you?”

He looked at her as if bewildered, and after the sheriff and Delaney's family filled him in on what was happening, Jace said, “The ­couple wanted to know if Woolly was interested in forming a partnership with another outfitter.”

“What was Woolly's answer?” Delaney's father demanded.

Jace gave him a solemn look. “He said he'd think on it.”

 

Chapter Twelve

W
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of his cabin, Jace took Delaney into his arms, and tried to allay her fears. “A week has passed and no one's seen the Randalls, not even Isaac Woolly.”

“I don't think Isaac would tell anyone even if he did,” Delaney said, her voice rising as high as her ma's in a near hysterical panic. “And if they work together and put our ranch out of business, we'll have nowhere to go. I won't have any way of supporting myself or Meghan, and I have no idea what we'll do!”

“You weren't this upset yesterday,” he said, pulling back with a frown.

“Yesterday I thought I might still have a chance of getting child support from my ex,” Delaney told him. “But I talked to the lawyer and he said that Steve quit his job so the courts can't demand his boss dock his pay.”

Jace scowled, his bitterness for her ex growing stronger. “How will he live?”

“Steve has moved in with his new girlfriend and apparently her family has a lot of money,” Delaney said, her voice cracking. “He doesn't need to work. They've also switched over his bank accounts, his cars, and everything he owns into her name so none of it can be taken by the courts and given to me to help support Meghan.”

“He's a jerk,” Jace said, looking her straight in the eye, “but I don't want you to worry. I'm not going to let anyone put your family's ranch out of business. We're going to catch these poachers, the sheriff's going to catch the Randalls, and your family is going to be just fine.”

She swallowed hard and gazed up at him with terrified eyes. “What if we're not?”

He pressed a kiss to her lips and then grinned. “If not, then I guess you'll have to marry me.”

“Marry
you
?”

“Is that such a terrible idea?” he asked, alarmed by her shocked reaction. He'd said it to tease her, but the thought of marrying Delaney and becoming Meghan's father ignited true desire. He'd never felt such a profound connection with anyone like he did with the two of them before. He'd do anything to protect them, anything to make them happy.

“Are—­are you proposing?” she asked, her eyes wide and her mouth dropping open.

“Just think about it,” he said, kissing her lips again. “We don't have to make any decisions right now.”

“No,” she agreed. “We don't. But thank you for offering. And, of course, you're right. My family will be fine. We'll persevere, we always do. Everything will be fine.”

Although he'd managed to smooth things over with Delaney, things were
not
fine with his own family. As soon as he and Delaney walked out of the “dead ser­vice zone” on their way up to the main house for lunch, his cell phone buzzed with a series of messages telling him he'd missed six calls—­four from his sister, two from his mom.

“My mother's received two anonymous threatening letters telling her to drop from the governor's race,” he confided to Delaney. “She may have got a third. We believe they are from the poachers who don't want her to increase the amount of game wardens in our state so they continue to make their money without being caught.”

“Isn't that her?” Delaney asked, pointing to the two women walking toward them with Bree.

It was. And from the tense, drawn expressions on each of their faces, they weren't here for a friendly visit. His gaze dropped to the suitcases in their hands. “Mom, Nat, what are you doing here?”

“We booked a cabin,” Natalie said, giving Bree and Delaney a wary glance as if unsure how much to say in front of them.

“Bree,” Del exclaimed. “Why didn't you tell me they were coming?”

“I didn't know,” Bree said, equally surprised.

“I booked the cabin under my pen name,” Natalie explained. “Natalie Brooks.”

Delaney gasped, then she shot Jace a quick glance and stared openmouthed at his sister. “
You're
Natalie Brooks? The author of
The Power of Positive Relationships
?”

Natalie nodded, and Delaney gazed at her as if starstruck. “I love your books. I have three of them on my nightstand beside my bed right now. You have no idea how much I appreciate what you said about how others should be treated and how to stand up for yourself.”

“I'm excited to meet you, too,” Natalie said, flashing her a smile. “I've heard so much about you. But right now . . .” Her voice trailed off and when she looked at him there was real concern in her eyes.

“Jace,” his mother said, handing him her suitcase. “We didn't know where else to go.”

“What happened?” he asked, bracing himself for the news that could have driven his mother from her own house. He watched his mother and sister give Del and Bree a hesitant look and he added, “You can talk in front of them.”

“Someone knocked out the security guard,” Natalie said, her voice grave. “Then they broke into the house and came upstairs to where we were sleeping.”

“When I woke there was a dead rat next to my pillow,” his mom said, cringing as she relived the memory. “We're not safe there, Jace.”

He thought of the poachers leaving dead carcasses around the Collins property and the fact someone had tranquilized and placed a deer into Cabin 26. Not to mention the possibility these poachers may even be living on the properties next door.

Jace swallowed hard. “I'm not sure you're safe here either.”

T
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Delaney and Jace saddled two horses and took the main trail all the way up the rise toward the silver mine where her grandfather used to work. Grandma had wanted to go to the mine herself to get the mineral water she used to make her lotions, arguing she'd been up there hundreds of times. But the family didn't think it was safe. Not with poachers and the Randalls in the area. Armed with a rifle, Jace had volunteered to go for her and Delaney agreed to show him the way.

“I think Grandma was hoping the sheriff would offer to bring her to the mine,” Delaney mused. “Like a date.”

“Speaking of dates,” Jace said, bringing his mount closer to her and Fireball. “You never responded to the text I sent with our photo.”

“Do you want this to count as a date?” she asked, giving him a smile.

“I'll take whatever I can get,” he said, and let out a chuckle. “Especially since you won't marry me.”

“You weren't serious,” she said, laughing as she swatted his arm with her hand.

“Maybe I should have my sister ask for me,” he teased. “From the way you were fawning all over her, I doubt you'd say no to her.”

Delaney turned Fireball around the next bend and said, “I was not
fawning
.”

“You looked at her as if she were a superstar,” Jace continued.

“She is,” Delaney exclaimed.

Jace's eyes sparkled, as if amused. “And I'm not?”

“Everyone in your family is a superstar. Your mother is running for governor, and I can't
believe
she's actually renting one of our cabins! Ma almost had a heart attack when she found out. We haven't had many high ranking officials at our ranch before. Then there's your sister, a
real
author.” She ran her tongue over her lower lip and then smiled at him. “Then there's you.”

“What about me?” he prompted.

She laughed. “You're a rodeo star.”

“And?” he pressed.

“Handsome,” she added.

“You
are
honest.”

She playfully swatted his arm again. “And you've got yourself a bit of an ego.”

He puffed out his chest like Gavin had done when crowing about his business. “What else?”

“You're mine?”

Grinning, he leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Now
that's
what I like to hear.”

Delaney hadn't had this much fun since . . . well, she couldn't remember. She'd overheard Ryan and Bree flirt with each other, and had been witness to many of Sammy Jo's crazy attempts to win over Luke, but she'd never had someone she could comfortably talk to like this. When Jace spoke to her, it was as if he
adored
her. It wasn't just his words, but the tone in which he said them, the depth of emotion in his eyes when he looked at her. He
did
adore her, she was sure of it, and he adored Meghan, too.

“If I'm yours, then why won't you marry me?” Jace teased again.

“Maybe I will marry again someday,” Delaney said, turning serious. “After a long, long, very long engagement.”

“Geez,” Jace said, as if disappointed. “And here I was hoping I could get you to fly to Las Vegas and tie the knot overnight.”

“Been there, done that.” Delaney smiled and shook her head. “It didn't work out. Like I said, he wasn't even a friend.”

The steady clip-­clop of her horse's feet upon the fresh-­scented earth soothed her soul, and the rhythm rocked her back and forth in a soft, lulling motion. As they walked on, her thoughts turned to the scene in the gazebo she'd witnessed in early August.

“The Hamilton wedding this summer brought in over a hundred guests,” she said softly. “They had extravagant decorations, beautiful bridesmaids' gowns, a delicious wedding cake. But it was what the bride said to the groom at the altar that really got to me. She said, ‘Today I'm the luckiest gal in the whole world, because I get to marry my
best
friend and there's no one else I'd rather be with than you.' It was the most beautiful moment. Then she cried because she was so happy, and I—­I cried with her, because I never had that. If I ever marry again . . . I want to be able to say those words. I want to be
that
happy.”

“Happy enough to cry?” Jace asked gently.

“Yes,” she repeated, and with a deep longing in her heart and a smile she nodded. “Happy enough to cry.”

The entrance to the silver mine came into view, resembling the mouth of a cave in the side of the hill. “There's the mine.” Delaney pointed. “The natural underground spring where my grandma gets the mineral water to make her lotions is inside.”

“How do we get in?” Jace asked, studying the structure.

“It was boarded up about fifty years ago after it closed down,” Delaney said with a nod, then gave him a mischievous smile. “But that hasn't stopped the local kids from going in there to kiss, or my grandma from getting her mineral water. There's a few loose boards that move aside so we can enter.”

Jace helped her hitch the horses to a nearby tree. As they walked toward the mine entrance, Delaney stopped up short. “Someone's been here,” she said, pointing to the smoldering campfire in a ring of rocks.

“Del,” Jace said, his tone issuing a warning. “This could be where your embezzling ranch managers are hiding out.”

The truth was the campfire could have been made by anyone. Which is exactly what the sheriff told them after he'd gone up to the mine to check it out. Still, Delaney had hoped that maybe they'd stumbled on a clue. They hadn't passed anyone on the way up to the mine and on the way back the only person she and Jace met was Gavin McKinley.

“Sure you don't want me to take you out on one of my hunts?” Gavin had asked as he stepped aside on the trail to let them pass.

“Not interested,” Jace said, and gave him a half grin. “In fact, I'd love some extra cash to buy the Collinses new posters to advertise their ranch. Are you interested in buying my guns?”

Gavin shook his head. “Nah. I'm going to keep hoping you'll change your mind, Jace. Let me know if you need anything.” As if she were an afterthought, Gavin tipped his hat toward her and added, “You, too, Delaney. Have a good day.”

“Would you really sell your guns?” she'd asked when they were alone.

Jace hesitated. “I'd sell them if I only used them to hunt. But guns are also used for protection.”

That's what her father and brother had told her a million times. But she thought the sound from the sticks of homemade dynamite her grandma used to blow stubborn roots out of her garden worked just as effectively to scare off wild animals as a few bullets shot into the air. The explosions were small and concentrated to only a few square feet to ensure both human and animal safety. And as a bonus, the smoke the dynamite left behind kept predators away long after the blast.

Just like they had the night before. Just before midnight, a few howls had come from the open field behind the cow pasture and Luke had gone out there to toss a few of Grandma's sticks of homemade dynamite in their direction, thinking it was a pack of coyotes.

Grandma said that Grandpa Collins had learned to make the explosive sticks while working at the mine, which led Delaney to think about Jace and his marriage proposals. She tried to imagine what it would be like to work with Jace on a daily basis and see him every day the rest of her life. What new things could they teach each other? What memories could they create?

Jace's kisses could be just as explosive to her senses as one of those sticks of dynamite, and she feared just as devastating if he ever stopped. Hopefully, he would never stop. Jace said he wanted to buy a house in the area, and if he did, who knew where the days ahead would lead them?

Later that night, after Meghan was tucked into bed, Delaney slipped back down the stairs and out the door to see if she could get one more of those heart-­racing kisses, but Jace wasn't in his cabin. She found him standing by the stable speaking to Ryan, who sat upon his black horse with the white blaze across its blue eyes, aptly named the Blue-­Eyed Bandit.

BOOK: Montana Hearts
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ads

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