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Authors: Darlene Panzera

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BOOK: Montana Hearts
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“Great!” Carol exclaimed. “I'd like you to talk about the horrific scene you witnessed at that rodeo last weekend in Bozeman, the one where Jace Aldridge's horse was hurt.”

Delaney hesitated. “Me?
Wait—­how did you find out I was there?”

Ben held up the latest issue of
True Montana Magazine
and opened to the middle where some of her photos were featured. “They added your name to the photo credits.”

“I'm sorry I went,” Delaney hurried to explain. “You told me not to go, but I—­”

Carol pushed her words aside. “I didn't understand until I saw your photos. Brilliant idea to catch these rodeo riders in the very act for which we are protesting. Great job, Delaney. Your photos are going to bring attention to our cause like no other campaign in the past.”

Delaney swallowed hard. She'd hoped the readers of the magazine would sympathize more to the heartbreak on Jace's face when he saw his horse was lame. Couldn't they see that he cared? And that he'd been hurt almost as much as his horse?

“It was an accident that could have happened to anyone,” Delaney reported.

“Yes, but he's not just anyone, is he?” Carol asked, a sudden gleam coming into her eyes. “Jace Aldridge is famous. And if he hadn't been trying to lean over to grab the steer in the first place, his foot never would have gotten caught and he never would have put extra strain on his horse's leg.”

“It is a rough sport,” Delaney conceded.

“To top it off, the cowboy not only rides rodeo but he
,” Carol exclaimed, and uttered a few words Delaney wouldn't repeat to emphasize her disgust. “Rumor has it that he's staying in Montana until his horse heals, giving us the perfect opportunity to take action and protest against him.”

“I—­I can't speak,” Delaney said, her throat closing up.

“I couldn't speak when I first heard about the accident myself,” Carol agreed. “I was so appalled that for about ten seconds I, too, was speechless.”

“No,” Delaney said, shaking her head. “I mean—­you asked if I could speak about what I saw and . . . I can't. Not in front of a crowd.” She glanced at Mary Ann and Ben for help, but they were in agreement with Carol.

“You have the photos you took to back us up,” Mary Ann reminded her.

“And your own testimony,” Ben added.

Speak out against Jace? The same man from which she was supposed to get an endorsement? Even if she could find the nerve to open her mouth, she couldn't. No matter how much she wanted to protect the animals, she had to protect herself, her child, and her family first.

“You know I have a fear of public speaking,” Delaney said, her voice barely audible.

“If you really want to make a difference you have to take a stand and shout out what you have to say to the world. I know that can seem intimidating, but I'll be right there with you. We all will, won't we?” Carol asked, and Mary Ann and Ben nodded. “You don't even have to stand up on the stage if you don't want to. You can just stand in the spotlight on the floor and we'll hand you a microphone.”

Take a stand? In the spotlight?
With every eye in the crowd staring at her? Judging her? Who would want to listen to
? Delaney brushed her sweaty palms down her jeans and took a ­couple quick, short breaths to quell her queasy stomach—­but failed.

Running to the corner of the room, she grabbed hold of the concrete edge of a large potted plant and puked. Then peering at her three friends from under her arm, she shook her head again and repeated, “I—­can't—­speak.”

but by midmorning his stomach was growling and he needed some food. He thought about calling Delaney to see if Collins Country Cabins offered room ser­vice, then remembered he didn't have any cell phone reception. He'd have to walk down the path to the main house and hope they could cook up something for him.

“I don't cook between meals,” the chubby, round-­cheeked woman in the chef hat chastised him. “Breakfast was over an hour ago and lunch isn't served till noon.”

Jace whipped his wallet out of his pocket and offered, “I could pay you extra.”

“And I won't be bullied or bribed!” she shouted.

Delaney's grandma entered the kitchen, gave the cook a surly look, and demanded, “What's going on?”

“This cowboy here,” the cook said, picking up a spatula and pointing it at him, “thinks he can come in and have me cook for him whenever he wants.”

“This cowboy here,” Ruth Collins said, throwing the woman's words back at her, “is a very special guest.”

“If he's so special, you can cook for him yourself,” the chubby woman said, and untying her apron, she threw it down on the counter. “In fact, you can do all the cooking yourself. I quit.”

Ruth raised her chin. “Good riddance.”

The cook slammed the large wooden door shut on her way out and Ruth gave Jace an apologetic look. “Sorry about that.”

Jace's stomach growled from hunger, but he gave Delaney's grandma a partial smile and said, “Not a problem.”

“I didn't want her in my kitchen anyway. I usually do all the cooking and that woman never got my recipes right. She thought she could add in her own ingredients and no one would taste the difference. But I did. She isn't half the cook that I am. Now,” Ruth said, gesturing for him to take a seat at the kitchen table, “tell me what you'd like and I'll fix it for you.”

Before he could respond, a blond toddler came into the room and sat herself beside him. “I want pancakes.”

Ruth glanced at the child and said, “Meghan, you already had pancakes.”

“I want more,” Meghan crooned.

“She didn't eat much earlier,” Ruth explained, then said to the girl, “Okay, I'll make you some just as soon as I cook something for Mr. Aldridge.”

Meghan turned to look at him and smiled. “Do you like pancakes?”

Her curious, wide-­eyed expression made him laugh. “I do,” he said, and glanced at Ruth. “Pancakes sound good.”

The lines around Ruth's face softened and a twinkle entered her eye as she announced, “Pancakes, it is.”

Beside him, Meghan said, “Thanks, Grandma-­ma.”

“Grandma?” Jace asked. “Is she Bree's little girl? Or Luke's?”

“I'm her great-­grandma,” Ruth corrected. “And Meghan's the spitting image of her mommy. Now you tell me, who does she look like?”

He stared at the pale blond hair, blue eyes, and sweet, little mouth. “Delaney? Is she married?”


Jace hesitated, his mind replaying the interaction between his cousin and Delaney the night before. “Not from . . . Zach?”

“Oh, no,” Ruth assured him. “Some guy in San Diego.”

“And my cousin is . . . ?” Jace asked, arching his brow as he probed for answers.

“Just a friend,” Ruth said, and winked at him. “There's nothing really going on there.”

Well, that was a relief.

Delaney couldn't have got divorced too long ago; Meghan wasn't that old. Maybe that's why she'd blown off his advances. She was probably just protecting herself and wanted to make sure she wouldn't make the same mistake twice.

“How old are you?” he asked the little girl.

Meghan held up two fingers. “But soon I'll be this many,” she told him, and held up a third finger.

“It's been nine months since she got rid of that schmuck,” Ruth said, as if reading his thoughts about Delaney and her ex. Then the woman cracked two eggs into a bowl, measured in some flour, and as she stirred the ingredients together with a metal whisk she added, “Believe me, it's for the best. Delaney knows it, too.”

Meghan frowned. “What's a schmuck?”

“Someone who isn't very nice,” Ruth informed her.

Jace watched Meghan give him a wary look, point to him, and ask her great-­grandma, “Is he a schmuck?”

Ruth let out a startled gasp, looked up from her bowl, and met his gaze, then laughed. “I hope not. You're not a schmuck, are you, Jace?”

He grinned. “No. I try not to be.”

“Can you do this?” Meghan asked, tugging on his sleeve.

Jace watched Meghan pick up a spoon and place it on the end of her nose. Then she dropped her hands away, and looked at him expectantly, but the spoon fell off.

“Well, let's see,” he said, and picking another spoon off the table he tried to imitate her. He had to tilt his head back some, to get the spoon to stay, but he managed to keep the spoon on the end of his nose for a good three seconds before his, too, crashed down to the table.

Meghan laughed as if it was the funniest thing she'd ever seen and he couldn't help but laugh with her. When was the last time he'd done anything like this? Or acted silly? As if he didn't have a care in the world?

If only everyone could be that free. He signed autographs for children at the rodeos, let them pet his horse, but he'd never spent much one-­on-­one time with any of them. He was always hanging out with adult crowds and on the road driving from one rodeo to the next. His mother's words floated back to him.
“There's more to life than rodeo.”

Picking up his spoon, he clinked it against Meghan's in a mock sword fight and thought maybe, just maybe, his mother was right.

from the wildlife rescue clinic, Bree pulled her aside out of earshot from the assorted guests engaged in activities about the property. “I just heard from the PI we hired to track down Susan and Wade Randall. He says they were seen crossing the border. They're here, back in Montana.”

Delaney gasped. After their former ranch managers had run with the money they'd embezzled from them, the ­couple had reportedly been heading south. Their PI, Doug Kelly, had tracked them from state to state, but the husband and wife team continued to elude both him and the authorities. Then last month the Randalls had been caught on a surveillance camera when they'd attempted to rob a bank in Wyoming. The PI suspected the Randalls were returning home because they'd run out of money and wanted to use their connections to get some more.

“Does the rest of the family know about this?” Delaney asked, keeping her voice to a whisper.

Bree nodded. “I just told them.”

“What did they say?”

“Dad's worried they'll cause trouble for us all over again—­and that it might ruin our chances of getting an endorsement from Jace.” Bree gave her a questioning look. “Have you talked with him?”

Delaney had helped Jace unload his horse and had made a weak promise of friendship but that was it. “I'll go talk to him now.”

“You need to find a way to keep him busy so he's not distracted by anything else that may be going on. If he talks to too many other ­people he may hear rumors and start asking questions. Or be deceived by someone the Randalls have hired to sabotage our business.”

“Someone like Gavin McKinley?” Delaney asked, wondering if he was on the Randalls' payroll, but Bree shook her head.

“Our rival may be a pain in the butt,” Bree said, smiling, “but he's also the sheriff's son. He oversteps his boundaries sometimes thinking he can get away with it, but I doubt he'd ever do anything illegal.”

“The Randalls would more likely hire someone new,” Delaney agreed, and looked around at all the ­people. “Like one of our other guests?”

“Exactly,” Bree agreed. “So the more time he spends with you, the better.”

After checking in with her mother and finding out that Sammy Jo and Luke had taken Meghan on a pony ride, Delaney scoured the property in search of Jace. He wasn't in his cabin, although she'd discovered five women hanging out on his porch awaiting his return. He wasn't with the twins, who tried to apologize to her for mentioning the endorsement the day before. And he wasn't in the barn, the arena, or in the stable with Rio. His truck was still parked in the driveway, so where could he be? Had he saddled one of their horses and gone on a trail ride?

She walked out to the edge of their property to peer down the trail and stopped up short. Jace Aldridge was standing there talking to Gavin McKinley, of all ­people, who sat smugly up on his gray horse as if he were king of the county.
Was she too late? Before she was spotted, Delaney ducked behind a large round bale of rolled hay determined to find out what the two men were saying.

“I can show you places where you can find elk the size of your truck,” Gavin boasted.

Jace appeared interested. “Oh, yeah? I'd like to see that.”

Gavin was offering to take him on a

“A good hunt may help take your mind off your horse,” Gavin continued. “If you come over to my place, I can show you our wall of trophy heads and outfit you with a bow, a quiver of our finest arrows, and anything else you could possibly need.”

Jace smiled. “I
use a good distraction.”

Delaney winced.
So could she.
Drawing in a nervous breath, she touched the bear paw necklace about her neck for courage. She had to do something quick. She had to step out.

“He can't visit your place today,” Delaney said, walking around the hay bale into their view. She looked straight at Jace, who seemed happy to see her, and reminded him, “The vet is coming to check on Rio.”

BOOK: Montana Hearts
2.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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