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Authors: Darlene Panzera

Montana Hearts (5 page)

BOOK: Montana Hearts
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Delaney took the card from her ma. “I'll call him,” she said, “but there's no guarantee he'll say yes.”

What if he did? And wanted to hunt?
Her family might not share her passion for saving animals, but she could not invite that man here and watch him put the wildlife around her in jeopardy. Her anxiety rose higher as she thought of the way he'd stolen her breath when he held her gaze, how her pulse had quickened when he'd drawn near, and the fact he'd already stirred her emotions with genuine concern over his horse. If she wasn't careful—­very,
very
careful—­her heart could end up at greater risk than her beloved animals.

For while they at least had a chance, she didn't think she could survive having her heart broken a second time.

J
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from the third ranch on the list the veterinarian had given him disappointed. The facility had an available empty stall, all right. But half the side boards had been broken, the stall door didn't latch properly, and the place in general had been a dump. He wouldn't have Rio recovering in a place like that. Or in a cramped, noisy stable like the first two he'd visited.

He opened the door to his truck and was about to climb in behind the wheel when his phone rang. Lifting the phone to his ear, he said, “Hello?”

No one answered and for a moment he thought maybe the caller had hung up. Then a soft, sweet voice he remembered said, “Mr. Aldridge, this is Delaney from Collins Country Cabins. I'm, uh, also a photographer and we met this past weekend at the Bozeman Stampede PRCA rodeo?”

As if he could forget. He grinned. “I know who you are.”

Her family's ranch had been first on the list but the last one he'd wanted to contact. Mainly because he didn't think Delaney wanted anything to do with him. She hadn't even wanted to take his business card. Yet, here she was, calling
him.

“Mr. Aldridge—­”

“It's
Jace
.”

“Yes, I know, but I'm calling for business purposes.”

So she thought she had to be more formal? He grinned. “I'm listening.”

“First—­how is Rio?” Her voice cracked on the last syllable of his horse's name.

“I thought you said you wanted to talk business,” he teased.

“I'm sorry, I do, but first I just have to know—­what were the test results?”

Jace leaned against the side of his truck wondering when she'd get to the part when she admitted that she had been thinking about
him
a lot, too. “Rio's leg wasn't broken.”

“And?”

“If Rio can't compete in rodeos, I'll retire him. He'll spend the rest of his days feasting on field grass, rolling in the dirt, and having fun.”

Jace heard a sound come through the receiver, almost like a sigh of relief. “That's good. Real good.”

Speaking to
her
was good. He smiled, picturing her pale blond hair and sweet face in his mind. A face with blue eyes, delicate brows, a pert little nose, and lips he'd like to cover with his own.

“So what else did you want to talk to me about?” he prompted.

She cleared her throat. “My—­my family would like to offer you a complimentary two-­week stay at Collins Country Cabins.”

He could hardly believe his ears. “You want me to stay at your ranch? For free?”

“My family would be honored.”

“I'd planned to head back to Arizona, but the vet said Rio can't travel for a few weeks. He needs a quiet, indoor stall where he can rest. Do you have space for him, too?”

“Of
course
!”

Jace chuckled, impressed once again by her compassion for his horse. No doubt seeing Rio again would make her happy. And the prospect of spending two whole weeks with Delaney didn't strike him as a bad thing either.

Her words and her actions were backed by true emotion, as if a fire burned within her heart, driving her forward. Too many ­people he met these days were either robotic or indifferent. Busier than they'd ever been but for no real good reason. He feared he might even be one of them. But maybe Delaney could help change that. Everything she did—­from adjusting her camera lens, to sidestepping his attention, to dropping down on her knees to assist the vet—­was filled with both passion and purpose. Just like this phone call.

Of course he'd accept her invitation, but to uncover the real reason behind it, and he knew there
must
be one, he decided to have a little fun with her first.

“What else do you have to offer?” he asked playfully.

“We'll give you one of our finest luxury cabins with a riverfront view and three home-­style cooked meals a day,” she said, her voice as vibrant as a radio commercial.

“And?” He smiled as he waited for her reaction.

“You can, uh, borrow one of our horses to go on trail rides. There's fishing. And opportunities for other things,” she added with exuberance.

“I hope so.” Jace chuckled, his thoughts taking a more devious turn than he imagined she'd intended. “What else?”

She hesitated. “What else do you want?”

“Your phone number?”

“Oh, you can reach Collins Country Cabins at—­”

“Not your business phone number,” he amended. “I need your personal number.”

Again, she hesitated. “My cell phone number? What for?”

“To send you our photo,” he said, and taking a leap of faith he hoped he didn't regret, he added, “and to ask you out on a proper date.”

“Mr. Aldridge—­”

“The name's Jace,” he reminded her.

“I don't date the guests, no matter how important they are.”

“Bummer,” Jace teased, undeterred, and let out a dramatic sigh for her benefit. “I guess I was hoping in my particular case you'd make an exception. How about it?”

She paused, then sidestepped his question with one of her own. “When can we expect to see you?”

Okay, he'd play her little game her way. “The vet said to give Rio a ­couple more days before I relocate him. How about Thursday?”

“Thursday is perfect.”

“All right, then. I'll be there around four o'clock. I just hope I can get Rio into the trailer without too much strain to his leg.”

“Do you need help?”

Jace didn't think he and the vet would need assistance, but because she offered, he wasn't going to refuse. “Yeah, I could use your help. I'm sure Rio would appreciate it, too.”

“Okay, I'll meet you at the veterinary hospital at three p.m.,” she said cheerfully. Then she gave him her phone number. Her
personal
cell phone number. “In case you have to change the time,” she told him.

Jace grinned, proud of himself for the mini-­victory. Hopefully tomorrow he'd win one more.

 

Chapter Three

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morning, the phone rang and the first thought that ran through Jace's mind was that Delaney had changed her mind and was going to retract her incredible offer. He hoped not. He'd spent half the night thinking about what it would be like to get to know her better.

A knot formed in the pit of his stomach when he rolled out of bed and glanced at the caller ID, but the call wasn't from Delaney. It was from Bozeman Health, the hospital nearest his mother.

“Jace, you should come quick. Mom's in the emergency room,” his older sister said, her voice strained. “She clutched her chest and collapsed in the hallway right in front of me. I thought she was having a heart attack but the doctor says it was just a bad case of anxiety.”

“Anxiety from what?” Jace asked. “Running for governor?”

“No, of course not,” Natalie scoffed. “You know she can handle that.”

Their tough-­as-­nails, persevering mother had overcome many hurdles in the past, including raising two children on her own after their father passed away. Jace didn't remember him—­he'd only been a toddler—­but he did remember how resourceful his mom had been to get the money they needed to put food on the table. Grace Aldridge worked two jobs—­one at the bank, which taught her how to invest, and another typing transcripts for a lawyer, which opened her eyes to the justice system and inspired her to pursue a political career.

“What's wrong, then? Why is she stressed?” Jace held his breath as he waited for his older sister to answer. Was someone trying to blackmail her? Or threatening a new ploy to convince Democrats to vote for the Republican candidate? Did she have a stalker?

“We'll tell you when you get here,” Nat replied.

Women! Why won't they ever say exactly what they mean?

Jace scowled. Arguing and trying to pull the information out of his sister over the phone would only waste time. Instead, he told her he'd be there as soon as he could, grabbed his belongings, and checked out of the hotel room. But before he started his truck, his sister called a second time with news the hospital had released their mom and he was to meet them at their house.

A few minutes later, just before nine a.m., Jace made his way up the slate steps of the two-­story Victorian and found he had to whip out his driver's license for the armed security guard stationed outside her door before the guy would let him in. Since when did his mother need a security detail? His pulse quickened as he continued forward and found his mother and sister seated in the living room. He went straight to his mother's side.

“How are you feeling?” he asked, giving her a hug.

“Better,” his mom assured him. “I don't know why I let that letter shake me up like that.”

Jace's studied the pale, gaunt expression on her face and his throat ran dry. “What letter?”

Natalie took a folded piece of paper from an envelope on the coffee table beside her and handed it to him. Assorted letters from the alphabet in all different fonts and sizes had been cut from advertisements and pasted together to form one sentence in the middle of the page.

Step down from the candidacy if you want to live.

“The letter was sent to her in a box with a dead rat inside,” Nat added. “A dead rat in a rat trap. We figure it's from one of the poaching rings she claims she'll abolish when she's elected governor.”

“Did you call the police?” Jace asked. “What did they say?”

His sister shrugged. “They're looking into it.”

“I could stay here for a while, until the election is over,” Jace offered.

“No, absolutely not,” his mother exclaimed. “I won't have you alter your own plans.”

“My plans are already altered, due to my recent mishap in the arena,” Jace said, taking a blanket off a nearby chair and tucking it around her.

“Mishap? Dragged around the arena and almost killed is what I heard,” his mother scolded. “Jace, it's time you took better care of yourself, settled down. There's more to life than rodeo.”

His mother never did share his love of adventure. Or bulldogging. Or horses. That was probably the reason she sold their family's ranch and moved to Bozeman a few years after his father died. But by the age of seven, Jace had already been bit by the rodeo bug and continued to spend as much time as he could after school and on weekends at Bucky's ranch.

Unfortunately, his sister didn't. Natalie had never even ridden a horse. Claimed she didn't want to, which was maybe one more reason why they'd never been extremely close. While he and Bucky were riding and wrestling steer, she'd be at the library with her friends attending writing classes and reading books.

“Mom's also been contacted by some animal rights activists,” Nat said, her tone holding a note of accusation. “They claim rodeos should be banned and are using your accident as a prime example of how the sport endangers animals.”

His mother nodded. “They call themselves Montana Wildlife Rescue and several offshoots of the group have branched out across the state. One of them is located in Fox Creek.”

Jace took a seat across from them. “Is it possible they sent you the threat?”

“They do lead protests from time to time, but I doubt they're dangerous. Mostly, they find homes for abandoned horses, nurse injured wildlife back to health, and write articles to promote public awareness.”

“I was invited for a two-­week stay at a ranch in Fox Creek,” he said, wondering if he should speak to this group, try to get them to leave his mother alone.

“A ranch in Fox Creek?” For a moment his mother looked startled. Her eyes widened and she sat straight up in her chair, dropping the blanket he'd tucked around her to the floor. “
Which
ranch?”

“Collins Country Cabins.”

“I've heard of them.” His mother's expression relaxed, but her tone remained wary. “They're a small ranch with big trouble. Earlier this summer the husband and wife team they'd hired as their ranch managers embezzled their money and fled in the middle of the night when the three adult Collins children came home. They've had trouble staying open for business ever since.”

He didn't know about the embezzlement. Poor Delaney. That must have been hard on her family. No wonder she had to take on extra photography jobs.

“They have a stall where Rio can heal,” Jace said, picking up the blanket and tucking it around her again. “And I can get from Fox Creek to Bozeman in a half hour if you need me.”

“Hopefully we
won't
,” Natalie said with a scowl, then she gave him an apologetic look. “But it sure is good to see you, Jace. I missed you.”

“We both missed you,” his mother said, and arched her brow. “Maybe while you're here you can visit a few realtors and see about buying a ranch up here?”

He grinned. “Instead of going back to Arizona?”

“I can't have you raising my grandchildren three states away,” she warned.

“Mom, I'd bet my best buckle Nat has kids before me.”

“And right now neither one of us is even dating,” Nat chimed in. “Right, Jace?”

“Right,” he agreed. “Although I do have my eye on Delaney Collins, and hope she might help change that status in the near future.”

His mother laughed. “In that case, I like her already. If you won't stay up here in Montana for me, maybe you'll stay here for her.”

Although his mother and sister were all smiles when he left, the threatening letter his mother had received stayed fixed in his mind. Deciding he should do something about it, Jace drove his truck up the familiar dirt lane leading to Bucky Knowles's old ranch just ten minutes away. His best friend's father had been a game warden for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for years, and had recently become an undercover agent. No doubt he'd know the general location of a poacher or two.

When he knocked at the door, both Buck and his father invited him in for coffee. It didn't take long for Jace to explain why he was there. “If you hear of any poachers who might be responsible for the threat to my mother, you'll let me know?”

“Of course,” Eli Knowles said, and leaned forward, placing his hand on Jace's shoulder. “But you might be able to help me as well.”

“Help you?” Jace looked the man straight in the eye. “How?”

“You said you're going to be staying in Fox Creek?” When Jace nodded, Eli continued. “I've been hearing rumors about a big poaching ring in that area. And you—­a wealthy rodeo star who's known to love a good hunt—­are exactly the kind of person these outfitters like to lure in with promises of catching big game. You could do some investigating, keep your eyes and ears open as you visit a few of the neighboring ranches.”

Jace nodded. “I could find out who threatened my mother.”

“Maybe,” Eli agreed. “But poaching is a huge problem across the entire state, not just in Fox Creek. There's just not enough game wardens to uncover them all. The threat to your mother could have come from any of them.”

“I know,” Jace said. “But if I manage to find one illegal outfitting operation, they might have information on some of the others.”

“Now don't go getting yourself into any trouble,” Eli warned.

Jace grinned. “Do I ever?”

Buck laughed. “Always.”

“Remember, if you come across anything, you need to contact
me
,” Eli said, giving him a stern look.

Jace gave the man an affirmative nod. “Understood, sir.”

“Guess that means traveling with me down to the rodeo in Reno this weekend is out of the question,” Bucky said, and slapped Jace on the shoulder. “I wish you luck.”

“You, too,” he told him, and with a pang of regret Jace realized this would be the first big rodeo he'd miss in over five years. “Win one for the both of us.”

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rode her copper-­colored horse, Fireball, back to the stable after a glorious walk around the property. She'd checked on the horses in the outdoor paddocks, the cows in the pasture, and the injured animals she'd secretly bandaged and tucked away in the old abandoned toolshed along the far border. Meghan sat in front of her in the saddle and together they waved to the guests as they passed by the cabins lining the river.

“Again!” Meghan exclaimed.

“I'd love to circle around again,” Del said, kissing the top of her daughter's blond head. “But I promised Bree I'd get dressed for the special guest we have coming this afternoon.”

“Again!” Meghan repeated, and giving in, Delaney smiled.

“All right,” she said, wrapping her arms around her child and giving her a hug. “How about this time, you let go of the saddle horn and help me hold on to the reins?”

“C'mon, Fireball,” Meghan commanded in her soft, high-­pitched, squeaky voice. “Giddyup!”

She'd be a fine, young, talented cowgirl someday, Delaney mused. And meet a handsome cowboy who would sweep her off her feet and take her to live on the finest ranch in the Great Northwest. Just like Bree and Sammy Jo, who were both busy planning their weddings.

Delaney had never cared much about finding that special someone for herself until just a few years ago, and now that she'd survived that disaster, she was content to stay single. She gave the quarter horse beneath her a gentle pat. Fireball would be the only male she'd ever need. She was only sorry she'd ever left him at all. While she'd been living in San Diego, she'd missed him terrible. And now that she was back she vowed never to leave him again. She could always count on Fireball to love her unconditionally—­with no strings attached.

“Delaney get in here,” Bree shouted from the doorway of the main house after they'd circled around a second time. “You're late!”

“And you promised to let us help you,” Sammy Jo said, peeking her head over Bree's shoulder.

Delaney handed Meghan off to her mother, who promised to put her daughter down for a nap, then dismounted and looked at Luke. “Can you un-­tack Rio for me?”

Luke gave her a warm smile. “Sammy Jo would have my head if I didn't. Go on. They're waiting for you.”

No more excuses. Drawing in a deep breath, Delaney followed Bree and Sammy Jo up the stairs of the main house to Bree's bedroom.

Bree had been a fashion designer in New York before coming back home to manage the ranch this summer. Now in addition to balancing the ranch's financial ledgers, she created her own boot bling jewelry and cowgirl clothing fashions and sold them in their ranch office, in a shop in town, and in an online store on the internet. Delaney considered Bree to be the expert in both business and fashion, so who was
she
to argue with her sister's choices?

But she couldn't help but tremble as she gazed at the assortment of floral, plaid, and paisley dresses laid out on the bed, the collection of cosmetics spread out on top of the dresser next to Bree's jewelry, and the dozens of magazines on the end table offering corporate advice on how to woo a client. Was she ready for this?

“First, ditch the overalls,” Bree instructed.

Delaney did as she was told and slipped on the first dress her sister handed her, the white floral print donned with miniature roses. The V-­necked bodice hugged her figure, and the attached flirty skirt flounced around her thighs. “I don't have to wear these things the whole time he's here, do I?”

BOOK: Montana Hearts
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