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Authors: Darlene Panzera

Montana Hearts (6 page)

BOOK: Montana Hearts
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Sammy Jo laughed and swiped a fat, soft brush tipped with pink powder over her cheeks. “Consider them work clothes. As a public relations representative you need to look professional, not like you just milked a cow.”

“Then the sooner I get the endorsement, the better,” Delaney said as she looked longingly at the faded denim overalls that Bree had kicked into the corner.

Bree raised her brows. “I thought you could look at this as a permanent position. Growing our relationship with the public and the guests who visit our ranch is an ongoing need.”

“But I don't even know what to do,” Delaney protested.

“First you'll want to give Jace a tour of the ranch,” Bree said, handing her a clipboard of statistical information she could rattle off to him. “Then you'll want to check in with him every day to make sure he is engaging in some of the ranch activities and having a good time.”

“There are worse jobs than spending time with a handsome man,” Sammy Jo teased.

“He's handsome from a distance,” Delaney admitted, “but up close his smile is too wide and his eyes are too sharp.”

“How can eyes be sharp?” Sammy Jo demanded.

Delaney shrugged. “I don't know. Maybe it's the angle of those dark brows, or his dark lashes that create the look, but all I do know is that it's too intense, like a hunter with his gaze on the tip of the arrow.”

“Or on his prey.” Bree laughed. “I love it when Ryan looks at me like that. That's when I know I have his full attention.”

Delaney frowned. “I don't want anyone's attention. Especially not his.”

“You used to think Jace Aldridge was the most handsome man you ever laid eyes on,” Bree teased. “You even had a poster of him on the wall in your room.”

“That was years ago, when he was just starting out in rodeo,
before
I knew he was a hunter.”

Her sister gave her a pleading look. “We need you, Del. The whole family is counting on you.”

“I know.” However, in the back of her mind, Delaney couldn't help thinking about that time in middle school when she'd been forced into a part for the school play. Thankfully the teacher hadn't cast her into a starring role, but during the performance she'd tripped and fallen off the stage. Everyone laughed, except the cute boy she secretly had a crush on. He accused her of ruining the whole show and scoffed, “Stay in the background where you belong.”

His words had haunted her ever since.

“Now for the hair,” Bree said, pulling the bands off the ends of Delaney's braids and spreading her hair apart. “I think we need to go for a looser, more sophisticated look.”

“Sophisticated?” Delaney cringed. “I thought you told Ma I should just be myself? Now here you are trying to turn me into some kind of corporate Cinderella.”

“We
do
want you to be yourself. We're just polishing up the outside,” Sammy Jo said, smiling and picking up a slim black-­and-­gold tube. “Here, open your mouth.”

Delaney tried not to panic as her friend rolled a sticky substance over her lips. “What is it?”

Sammy Jo rolled her eyes. “Lipstick, of course. The color is pink champagne. I think it will go nice with the blush on your cheeks.”

Ugh.
She'd never worn lipstick in her life. “It doesn't taste very good.”

“You're not supposed to eat it, you goose!” Sammy Jo said, shaking her head. “Sorry, I didn't have time to buy any flavored lip gloss to wear over it at the store.”

A soft knock rapped on the door and Grandma walked in. “I can't let you girls have all the fun,” she said in her gravelly voice. “I have something for her, too.”

Moving behind her, Delaney's grandma slipped a silver chain necklace around her throat, and when Delaney looked in the mirror, she saw it held a dark, hook-­shaped object.

“Is this what I think it is?” she asked.

“The claw of a bear,” her grandma confirmed, “given to me from my father.”

Delaney stiffened. “He didn't kill it, did he?”

“No. He found it down by the river. A mama bear tried to protect her cubs, attacked another bear, and chased it away. She lost a toe in the process, but she won. That mama bear did what she had to do to protect her family.”

Relaxing, Delaney said, “Now I'm the mama bear?”

“Oh, no,” Bree protested. “That necklace won't go with the look I had in mind for her at all!”

“I like it,” Delaney said, smiling. “Thank you, Grandma.”

“The claw on this necklace symbolizes courage,” the older woman informed them. “And it's going to take more courage than you can imagine for our young Delaney to stand up to that high profile rodeo star and demand he give us an endorsement at the end of his two-­week stay.”

Delaney gasped. Stand up to him?
Demand
an endorsement? She clutched the bear claw in the palm of her hand and held it tight. “I don't think I can do this.”

“Okay, keep the bear claw,” Bree conceded, and bit her lip. “We can work around it. Maybe we can give you more of a rustic, romantic look.”

“I gave Bree a teal scarf to give her courage when she faced down Ryan Tanner,” Grandma told Delaney. “And I gave Luke the engagement ring he used to propose to Sammy Jo.”

“Luke needed lots of courage for that,” Sammy Jo confided. “Having the ring in his pocket definitely helped.”

“And now you think this bear claw will give me the courage I need?” Delaney asked, glancing at each of their faces.

“They say,
‘
Courage can only truly come from within,'
” Grandma quoted. “But yes, that necklace gave me the courage I needed when I first met your grandfather and I am sure it will give you the courage you need to face your young man, too.”

Delaney's mouth dropped open. “But—­I'm not looking to get engaged.”

“Of course not,” Grandma said with a nod, and smiled. “The best relationships are those we never see coming. Makes us appreciate them all the more when they arrive.”

Grandma tapped her wrist and then pointed to the clock on the wall and recited another of her famous quotes,
“ ‘Don't waste time you won't get back.' ”

Delaney suppressed an inward groan. Yes, she'd already done enough of that in her life.

Lifting her chin, she vowed to remain positive, just like her grandma. After all, she was doing this for her family. For Meghan. And for herself. The fate of their ranch rested on her and she would not disappoint them or let fear make her back down. She could do this. She would look her best, act her best, make sure Jace Aldridge had the absolute best time while he was here, and hopefully convince him to give Collins Country Cabins the best endorsement they'd ever had.

At the very least . . . she'd give it her best shot.

J
A
C
E
W
A
I
T
E
D
O
U
T
S
I
D
E
the animal hospital, and at three p.m., Delaney Collins met him as promised. She arrived in a dusty old red pickup with several dents in the side. But when she opened the creaky door and stepped out, he could see there was nothing wrong with
her.

She wore a white flowery dress with not a speck of dust on it. Her hair fell loose over her shoulders in shiny, soft waves, and her face was alive with color accenting her natural beauty. She was beautiful. Perfect. A little
too
perfect. She hadn't been wearing that much makeup when he'd last seen her. Someone as pretty as her didn't need to wear makeup at all, but he didn't mind. Especially since she must have taken the time to spruce herself up for
him
. She probably had wanted to make a good impression.

A warm thrill of anticipation shot up his spine and he grinned. “You dressed up pretty fancy to help load a horse.”

The rosy color on her cheeks deepened but she didn't comment. Instead, she glanced toward the building and asked, “Is he ready?”

Jace didn't know about the horse, but knew
he
was. Ready to spend time with her. Lots of time. “Rio is inside. The vet is giving him a final look before we leave and said he'd drive out to your place to check on him again tomorrow to see how he's settling in.”

Delaney shook her head and frowned. “He doesn't have to do that.”

“I asked him to,” Jace said, his voice coming out raspy and uncomfortably low. A flood of guilt continued to engulf him every time he thought of the accident and his injured pal. He was afraid that animal rights group might be right. He shouldn't have been so confident about his own performance. He should have cut the leathers when he had the chance.
Before
his ride.

Delaney's expression softened and although she didn't touch him, or even come near, the look of compassion in her eyes reached out and drew him to her more than any amount of dressin' up ever could.

He cleared his throat and opened the wide side door to the hospital. “Shall we?”

Rio hobbled along step by slow step, but other than a few seconds of hesitation here and there, he gave Jace and Delaney next to no trouble when they went to load him into the back of the horse trailer. It was almost as if all his fight was concentrated on supporting his leg as he moved forward. Jace gave him an affectionate pat on the neck and whispered a few lines of encouragement into his dark mane before locking him in.

“He'll be all right,” Delaney assured him.

Jace nodded. “I'll drive slow.”

This time she
did
touch him. On the arm. “Slow is best,” she agreed.

Other trucks on the road passed him, including Delaney's, but Jace didn't care. His only concern was for Rio and his injured leg. He didn't want to take any sharp turns or hit any potholes too fast. Just one hard stumble could damage Rio's injury beyond repair. And he wouldn't let that happen. From now on, Rio's well-­being would come before anyone else's, including himself.

He didn't realize how tight he'd been clenching his knuckles until he came to a stop in the parking lot of Collins Country Cabins and pulled his hands off the steering wheel. His fingers ached, the muscles in his jaw ached, and his gut felt as if he'd taken a punch. Stepping down from the truck, his legs almost buckled. He'd been
that
stiff. Stiff with worry.

Now that they'd made it, Jace relaxed, and took a deep breath. The crisp clean air cleared his lungs and refreshed his brain. He'd had a lot on his mind the last few days. It would be good to get away for a while, away from the circuit, schedules, long drives, flashing cameras, and the limelight. Not only would he have time to spend with Delaney but he'd also have a chance to decide what he wanted to do if Rio couldn't return to rodeo.

“Look! It's
Jace Aldridge
!”

“He's here! Oh my gosh, pinch me! I can't believe this is real!”

“As real as you and me!”

Jace turned his head toward the series of squeals that followed and saw the two redheaded girls just two seconds before they had their hands on him. They each grabbed an arm and gazed up at him with identical sets of starstruck hazel eyes.

“Oh, Mr. Jace, can I have your autograph?” one of the twins asked.

“You can sign your name on my arm,” said the other.

Thankfully Delaney appeared. “Nora and Nadine, let the man be.”

However, the twins either didn't pay attention to her or didn't care to listen.

“I'm Nora,” the first introduced. “And—­”

“I'm Nadine!” finished the second. “We're going to be cover models for the new flyers advertising the ranch. Your endorsement will go right beneath our picture on the front page.”

“Good to know,” Jace replied.
Indeed.
Delaney didn't mention an endorsement when she'd invited him here. He'd thought it was because she wanted to spend time with him. He'd thought she'd only used the
“I'm calling for business purposes”
as a ruse to get him to agree to come. He'd also assumed that maybe she'd just been playing “hard to get.”

Disappointment hit him in the chest and it took a moment for him to recover. “Is it true?” he asked, giving Delaney his attention, instead of the girls. “Did you invite me here hoping to get an endorsement for your ranch?”

He had his answer the minute all the rosy color drained from Delaney's face.

“Yes,” she admitted. “We
are
hoping. Of course we'd like your honest opinion of Collins Country Cabins. But in the meantime, we hope you enjoy your stay.”

Jace winced. Bucky would slap him on the back and laugh his ear off right now if he were here beside him. He'd say,
“Good one, Jace!”
in that mocking draw of his, and continue with,
“I can tell she's really fallen for you—­in your dreams.”

He wouldn't have blamed Buck for saying it either, because he would have said the same to him if their positions were reversed. There was no denying the truth.

Once again, he'd been too confident in himself.

“So how did you two meet?” Nora prodded.

Seemingly unaware that she'd exposed the Collinses' motives, her sister Nadine added, “Are you two dating?”

Delaney glared at the two of them and said, “No, we're just—­”

Jace waited to see what she'd answer. Exactly what
were
they? He watched Delaney frown, as if even she didn't know.

“We're just—­” Delaney repeated, and her voice faltered.

“Friends,”
Jace finished for her.

Delaney gave him a startled look but didn't correct him, and he grinned. The fact she needed his endorsement gave him the upper hand, which he fully intended to use to his advantage. She'd have to spend time with him, plain and simple. Lots and lots of time, during which he hoped to become
more
than friends.

BOOK: Montana Hearts
4.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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