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Authors: Darlene Panzera

Montana Hearts (3 page)

BOOK: Montana Hearts
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“He may never race out of a chute again,” the vet warned.

Jace continued. “And if the prognosis looks good—­”

“Even then,” the vet said, shaking his head. “It could take months to recover.”

Jace nodded and held Delaney's gaze. “He'll have his chance to live a long, happy life.”


Chapter Two

brown rabbit she'd found outside Cabin 5 to the laundry room and set it on the counter where the guests at Collins Country Cabins usually folded their clothes.

Her daughter stood on her tiptoes, gripped the edge of the flat surface with her small fingers, and peered over the edge. “Is he going to be okay?”

“Yes, Meghan,” she said, giving what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “After I clean the wound, he'll be back hopping around in no time.”

Taking a lukewarm water bottle from her shoulder bag, Del held the rabbit still with one hand and flushed the leg wound clean with her other. She figured her furry friend got in a fight with another animal. Maybe a cat, a hawk, or maybe even another rabbit. The lacerated skin had opened up to a one-­inch circle and looked terrible, but it would heal fast. She didn't see any bite marks and the affected area only had minimal swelling.

The rabbit flinched and jerked forward to escape her hold, but she held tight. Then she put the water bottle down and stroked the soft fluffy hair along its back to ease some of his tension. “Meghan, can you get me a towel off the shelf in the corner?”

The screen door screeched open and Delaney's slender, fair-­haired mother walked in, her eyes wide as she warned, “Not our guest towels!”

Meghan hesitated, as if unsure what to do. Her lower lip trembled. “The bunny needs a blanky.”

“Oh, honey,” Loretta Collins soothed, her face instantly contrite. “I wasn't yelling at

“It's okay, Meghan,” Delaney said, avoiding her mother's gaze. Shrugging off her jacket, she wrapped the thin blue cotton material around the animal to dry its leg. “This will work the same as a towel or blanket.”

“What is that creature doing in here?” her ma demanded. “Delaney, if your father finds out about this—­”

“He won't,” Del said, hugging the rabbit close.

Meghan put a finger to her lips. “Don't tell.”

Delaney's ma glanced back and forth between them. “I won't tell,” she conceded, “
time. But, Delaney, you know how your father feels about you turning this place into an animal shelter.”

Yes, she knew. Her gruff, hard-­nosed father often said,
“It's not safe or sanitary for our guests.”

“And, Delaney?” her mother continued, meeting her gaze and nodding toward the counter. “Make sure you spray that with sterilizer to get rid of any rabbit germs.”

“Rabbit germs are pee-­yew?” Meghan asked.

“Yes,” Delaney's ma said with disgust. “Rabbit germs can make you sick. Why don't I take you into the house to wash your hands?”

Delaney wished she had the courage to speak up and voice her opinion about what made a person sick. But she didn't dare talk back to her ma. Or do anything to cause a scene. Her older brother and sister had done that on more than one occasion and it never led to anything but trouble.

Taking the rabbit outside, she released it in the brush behind the row of cabins lining the river, then shook out her jacket and put it back on. The air grew cooler each week, reminding her fall was on its way. Big change from last year when she and Meghan were living in San Diego. Southern California never got as cold as Montana.

Except when one was going through a divorce.

Her cell phone buzzed and she pulled it out of the back pocket of her jeans. “Hello?”

A noisy tirade of angry words assaulted her ears. The only information she clearly picked out was that her caller was one of the editors from
True Montana Magazine.

“Didn't you get the pictures?” Delaney asked, hardly daring to breathe.

“Most of them, but what about the competitors
Jace Aldridge?” the editor demanded. “We don't have any images of them.”

Because she hadn't taken any.
She'd known when she left her post she was putting her job and any hope of future work for the magazine in jeopardy, but her concern for the golden gelding had been greater.

“When I saw Mr. Aldridge's horse was injured, I went to assist the veterinarian.”

“Miss Collins, we wanted you to photograph the rodeo, not care for the animals. We thought you were a professional.”

Delaney stiffened. “I'm sure you'll find the photos I did send are top quality, and the real story from the rodeo is all about Jace Aldridge anyway.”

“I'll decide what the real story is,” the editor said in a huff. “Not you. That's

Glad this was not a face-­to-­face conversation, Delaney swallowed hard and nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”

“Since your photography of the event did not live up to our expectations,” the editor continued, “I'm not sure we can pay you the amount we agreed on.”

“I'll take a pay cut,” Delaney offered, hoping to appease the woman.

However, by the end of the phone call, it was clear the editor did not intend to pay her anything at all.

Delaney thought of her mad dash through security, with Sammy Jo's help, of course, to get to Rio's side. Was it worth it?

Of course it was. If she hadn't intervened, that brash rodeo veterinarian would have had everyone thinking the horse might be better off if he were put down. Her actions might not have gained her a paycheck, but it might have saved a life.

And she could live with that.

Sliding her phone back into her pocket, her thoughts turned to Jace and the devastated look on his face after the horrendous ride. The cowboy's earlier flirtatious banter hadn't had any real effect on her but that look—­when she ran up and saw him beside his injured horse—­

His suntanned face had paled, the muscles in his cheeks and jaw pulled tight, and he'd pressed his lips together like she did when she was about to cry. Except cowboys as tough as Jace didn't go around shedding tears in front of each other. No, he held it in, and it was at that moment that her heart went out to the rodeo hero.

She also liked the wise, diplomatic way he'd answered the veterinarian. Instead of jumping the gun and putting a perfectly sound horse down for no good reason, he'd ordered the tests. Which saved her from having to protest.
She would have done it, if she'd had to. But the horse didn't belong to her; it wasn't her call.

Her wildlife rescue group would have had a fit if they knew she'd taken on the photography job. They'd warned her many times about the sport's cruelty to animals. But Delaney wasn't sure she shared their view. After all, Sammy Jo had raced barrels and always had the utmost concern for her horse's welfare. And it didn't appear as if the accident in the arena had been Jace's fault. She'd ridden all her life and she, too, had got her foot caught in the stirrup once or twice.

Accidents happened.

Digging through her shoulder bag, she took out the business card Jace had given her and stared at the telephone number beneath his name. Did she dare call and ask how Rio was doing?

Delaney had slipped away when he and the vet loaded the horse into the trailer to go to the animal hospital. She'd told herself it was to make sure Sammy Jo hadn't gotten herself into any real trouble. The angry vendors forgave her friend when they took a look at her big shiny barrel-­racing belt buckle. But the real reason Delaney had slipped away from Jace was because she hadn't wanted to talk to him again. It appeared the horse would be properly taken care of and her mission was complete. There had been no more need for interaction and maybe it was best to keep it that way. Even if she was anxious to hear news of the gelding's condition.

She wavered back and forth for several long moments trying to decide what to do, then dropped the card back into her shoulder bag. She wouldn't call. She'd go into town and buy the local Sunday paper instead. No doubt if there was any news about his horse, she could either find it there or listen to the gossips hanging around the general store.

After letting her ma know what she was doing, she grabbed the keys to the family's red rusty pickup. In a small two-­block town like hers, news traveled fast and she got an earful, all right. Except the chatter coming from the towns­people's mouths wasn't about Jace or his horse. It was about Fox Creek Outfitters and how the owner, Gavin McKinley, was trying to put her family out of business.

The local reporters hounded him wherever he went. They called, they flooded his social media, and even pounded on the door of his hotel room. He hadn't ventured out much for fear of being followed, but when he did, he saw the photos.

The front page of the newspapers featured large images of him hanging upside down off the side of his horse, reminding him of his failure again and again. They even showed a close-­up of the tangled leather straps around his boot. He thought of the slender, pretty blond he'd met and wondered if any of the photos were from Delaney Collins's camera.

He hoped not. At the time, she'd appeared more concerned about him and his horse than winning a prize shot for her magazine. And he'd like to think that at least one person had more consideration for his predicament than these other bothersome cameramen and reporters. Even if it was her job.

And to think he'd dedicated that ride to her, hoping to get her attention. He got it all right, along with every other media source chronicling the rodeo community. It had been one of those days when he would have welcomed a do-­over. Too late now. What was done was done and all he could do was move forward.

Except, not with Delaney. He'd been touched by the look of concern on her face when she rushed in to take a look at his horse, but then she rushed out again afterward without saying goodbye. She probably thought he was a self-­righ­teous jerk and with good reason. He'd acted like one. He'd lost more than a large cash purse at that rodeo. He'd lost the soundness of his horse, he'd lost a chance at
, and maybe even his rodeo career. His friends had all urged him to continue riding, told him what happened was an accident and that they believed in him. Some even offered up their own horses for him to ride in future events.

But Jace didn't want to have to learn the quirks of another animal right now. He didn't want to have to think about cues or how best to communicate with someone new. He and Rio were a team, and besides, he could use this time to think about what he wanted to do with his future. Sooner or later, his body would give out, too, and he would have to find a different career.

Jace put his sunglasses on, and keeping his head down, he walked from his hotel room to the local restaurant for a bite of food. He glanced at his watch. Almost two p.m. The main lunch crowd should have cleared out by now, giving him the privacy he craved, but the Bozeman Stampede had drawn hundreds of visitors into the area. He'd be a fool to think he could remain hidden for long. He'd have to eat and run before anyone recognized him.

It was because he kept his gaze turned toward the wall of buildings that he caught sight of Gavin McKinley's big bold outfitting poster tacked to the bulletin board outside the hardware store, and recognized Delaney's last name hanging out below. He stopped short to look at the advertisement and realized there were two posters on top of one another.

Gavin's poster contained photos of hunters with an elk head, a black bear, and a mountain lion, and proclaimed that if you wanted to hunt there was only one outfitter to choose—­Fox Creek Outfitters: The Best in the West. Except whoever had put it up hadn't done a very good job and the bottom fragment of the Collins Country Cabins advertisement still stood out.

Curious, he tore Gavin's poster away and gazed at the one beneath featuring a beautiful two-­story log lodge, with a row of outlying guest cabins beside a fantastic fly-­fishing river. There was also a stable, a small arena, and an octagon gazebo
“perfect for weddings.”
Jace thought that the dude ranch—­surrounded by pockets of green trees, open fields rising into soft rolling hills, and panoramic views of the distant mountains—­seemed perfect for anyone.

Glancing across the street, he spotted several other posters and realized Gavin McKinley hadn't just covered
of the Collins posters, he'd covered
of them. And this wasn't even either of the two rivals' hometown. They were both located in Fox Creek, a good half hour from Bozeman, which meant Gavin may have spread his posters across the entire region. No doubt the bothersome outfitter thought he could drum up business while wiping out his competitor's at the same time.

His hunger forgotten, Jace tore each of Gavin's offensive posters down, stuffed them under his arm, and deposited them into a nearby dumpster. Then he jumped in his truck and headed straight for the animal hospital to check on Rio and receive the test results.

The veterinarian at the hospital was more encouraging than the one he'd encountered at the rodeo. “The good news is that Rio's injury should heal just fine,” the doctor told him.

Jace released his breath and relaxed as a truckload of worry eased off his shoulders. “Thank God for that,” he told the doc. “I don't want to lose him.”

“There's no break, but he's strained the tendons all along the side of his leg and will be out of competition for the rest of the season,” the doctor warned.

BOOK: Montana Hearts
11.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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