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Authors: Darlene Panzera

Montana Hearts (9 page)

BOOK: Montana Hearts
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Jace tilted his head back and sighed. “Oh, that's right. Sorry, Gavin. Maybe another time?”

Gavin McKinley cast her a swift, aggravated glance, then returned his attention back to Jace. “How about tomorrow? It's opening day of bow season. What better day to test the equipment?”

“No!”
Delaney swallowed hard. “I mean, he's—­he's going on a trail ride with
me
tomorrow.”

Gavin scoffed, “Going after a trophy head is more fun than a trail ride.”

Delaney disagreed with that statement on so many levels she could have spoken from sunup to sundown—­if only she had the courage. Which she didn't. But she could try to
flirt.
What had those magazines Sammy Jo brought her said? To lean in, smile, tilt her head to the side, and look up at him, batting her lashes? Okay, so she wouldn't go that far. But she could smile. Hopefully that would be enough.

“If you come on a trail ride with me, I promise we'll have some fun,” Delaney said, giving Jace the biggest smile she could muster.

He rewarded her efforts with a smile of his own. “I'd love to go on a trail ride with you.”

“Well, how about the next day?” Gavin asked, his voice faltering. “I could reserve a spot for you on one of our expeditions the next day.”

“He just got here. Let him relax first,” Delaney said, and leaning in, she tilted her head to the side and gave Jace another smile.

Jace quirked a brow as if to ask what she was up to, then gave Gavin a nod. “I'll let you know.”

Gavin looked as if he was about to press him further when all of the sudden a loud rumble to their right turned his head. Jace and Delaney turned their heads, too, and Delaney frowned, wondering what was going on as she watched the large truck and trailer pull up the driveway of the abandoned property next door.

The land used to belong to the Owenses, but when Mrs. Owens went into a mental hospital, it was sold to a wealthy developer who brought in a bulldozer to knock all the buildings down. Both the Owenses and the developer had been suspected of being in tight with the embezzling Randalls. And when the connections between them were revealed, the developer had also left town. Another For Sale sign had been erected, but the land had sat empty now for over a month.

Gavin frowned. “Delaney, who are those ­people?”

Delaney gasped. “I don't know but they have horses. Lots and lots of horses.”

“It's another outfitter,” Jace said, his voice low. “The sign on the side of the truck says Woolly Outfitters.”

“Another outfitter!” Gavin scowled with disgust. “This area can barely support one, let alone
three
.”

“I wouldn't consider Collins Country Cabins a true outfitter,” Delaney said, shaking her head. “We don't lead our guests on pack trips or wilderness hunts.”

“That's not what your father told me,” Gavin said, and spit on the ground beside him. “Jed and I exchanged a few words earlier this morning and your old man made it quite clear that the reason Collins Country Cabins is staying open for fall is so that he and your brother, Luke, can take your guests on hunting trips.”

“What?”
Delaney demanded, unable to believe her father and brother would do such a thing. Then she caught a glimpse of surprise on Jace's face and remembered she couldn't reveal her views on hunting until
after
she got the endorsement. “I mean,” she quickly amended, “I didn't realize that's what my family had in mind.”

Gavin glanced once again at the new arrivals next door and sat back in his saddle, puffing out his chest. “Mark my words, only one of us will survive,” Gavin warned, his voice animated as if the challenge excited him. Then he tipped his hat and gave Delaney a broad smile. “May the best outfitter win.”

 

Chapter Five

J
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D
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L
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K
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D
G
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McKinley more and more each time they met. However, he'd promised Bucky's father, Eli, he'd look into the neighboring outfitters for him to see if they might be involved in one of the area's poaching rings. He kind of liked the idea of being an “unofficial” undercover agent for the Fish and Wildlife department. At least it gave him something to do while Rio healed. After that he'd have to decide whether he wanted to continue with rodeo or find another career.

He'd decided to play up to Gavin to see if he could extract some information, but hadn't expected a new outfitter to arrive next door. The property still had a few fenced corrals but no buildings for hunters to sign up for guided wilderness trips. He supposed they'd see some construction activity over there within the next few days.

Jace hadn't expected the Collinses to become an outdoor outfitter either. While he doubted his hosts could be part of the poaching ring Eli Knowles and his fellow game wardens were after, to be fair, he'd have to keep an eye on them, too.

Right now he had his eye on Delaney as he followed her from the edge of the property line over to the brown weathered stable.

“Gavin is trying to steal you away from me,” Delaney said, giving him a sidelong glance. Her tone was flirtatious but the tight expression on her face suggested it was forced.

“Are you jealous?” he asked, hoping if he teased her back she'd loosen up and flirt with him for real.

“I am.” She turned toward him and gave a half smile. “We're all afraid you'll leave our ranch and go stay with him.”

At least she was being honest. Jace arched his brow. “He
is
the owner of Fox Creek Outfitting, one of the largest outfitters in the county, and his lodge is a hunter's dream, or so he says. What does Collins Country Cabins have to offer if I stay?”

Delaney's mouth fell open as if she thought he was serious. Then she swallowed hard and raised her chin like he'd seen her sister do a few times when making a point, and said, “Me.”

“What?” Jace choked back a laugh. He hadn't been expecting that. Especially because she looked as if the word tasted bitter on her tongue. “Delaney, if you're going to flirt at least
pretend
you're having fun doing it.”

“I really don't know how to flirt,” she admitted. “My ma said it might help our cause, but I don't know what I'm doing.”

More direct honesty.
Refreshing.
But she'd been married. He scratched the back of his head as he studied her. “Didn't you ever flirt with your ex-­husband?”

Whoops.
Too personal.
By the dark, stormy look on her face, it was clear he shouldn't have said that. “Sorry,” he apologized. “Didn't mean to bring up bad memories.”

“Who said it was bad?” she asked, shrinking back. “Who have you been talking to?”

“Cupid?” he teased. Okay, it was a lame answer that grew even more lame with every passing second.
Geez.
He hadn't felt this awkward with a woman in years. Letting out a small chuckle to release some of the tension, he gave her a rueful grin. “Guess I'm not good at flirting either. Every time I'm around you I either say or do something incredibly stupid.”

She looked down for a moment, but when she looked up at him again, she smiled. A
real
smile. One that lit her blue eyes and wiped the troubled expression off her face.

“Have I finally said something right?” Jace asked, grinning back at her.

“Look,” she said, evading the question and pointing to the white truck parked beside the stable in front of them. “The vet is here.”

“In other words, you're not going to answer my question?” he teased.

“No,” she said, and let out a small laugh. “I'm not.”

Well, he didn't exactly win
her
endorsement, but it was a start. He glanced at the three figures standing off to their right as he and Delaney passed by. Ryan Tanner had his arm around Bree and beside them a young brown-­haired boy played with a pack of black-­and-­white border collie pups. They all looked so content, so happy—­that is, until Ryan caught sight of him. His cousin froze and held his gaze for a long moment until Jace finally looked away.

Bree had said his cousins meant to apologize for giving him such a cold reception, but so far . . . they hadn't. And Jace wasn't sure they ever would.

“Have you ever had someone hold a grudge against you for something that wasn't your fault?” Jace muttered.

To his surprise, Delaney nodded. “Yeah,” she said, and let out a sigh. “My father.”

He didn't know what she meant by that, but didn't ask, fearing he'd ruin the progress they'd already made. But maybe in time, if she continued to talk to him, she'd tell him.

Delaney entered the stable first and greeted the vet as if he were an old friend. “I wrapped his leg with some of the special herbs you gave me for some of our other horses,” she said, bending down beside him as he removed the gauze around Rio's lower leg.

“I see that,” the vet replied. “Great job, Del, as always.”

Jace drew close and gave Rio an affectionate gentle scratch behind an ear. “How's it look?”

“Better each time I see him,” the vet reported. “I won't need to come out again unless there's a problem.” Then after giving Delaney a wink, he added, “He's being well cared for.”

After the veterinarian left, Jace helped Delaney fill the grain buckets so when the other horses who spent most of their daylight hours out in the pasture were brought in for the night, their dinner would be ready for them.

“Why didn't you become a vet?” Jace asked, scooping a measured amount of grain into the last bucket and closing the stall door.

Delaney pressed her lips together and didn't reply.

“Another bad subject?” he asked, searching her face for a sign.

“The two are tied together,” she said, and dragged a hose over to start filling secondary buckets with water.

Jace figured that was all he was going to get out of her, but then she continued. “You see, I failed chemistry.”

He shook his head to indicate he didn't understand, and truly he didn't. He thought they had
great
chemistry together—­when she let her guard down.

“I'm not good at math either—­equations, formulas, or any kind of measurements.” Her gaze drifted toward the grain they'd just measured out. “That's why I use a scoop. It's premeasured.”

“Math just happens to be my strong suit. I'm usually pretty good at putting two and two together.” He took the hose from her hands to take over the watering. “I could teach you.”

“It's too late now,” Delaney said, and shrugged. “I don't have time to go back to school. I'd been going to the University of Southern California until my chemistry professor gave me a big fat
F
. My roommate thought a trip to Las Vegas would cheer me up. I'm not impulsive and I don't like to gamble, but that night I was too upset to care. The next thing I know—­” She broke off and frowned.

“What?” Jace prompted. “You woke up with a hangover?”

“No, something worse,” Delaney grumbled under her breath. “We'd met these guys and one of them took an instant liking to me, and somehow convinced me to enter one of those little chapels that stay open all night and—­” She broke off again and scowled.

“You woke up married,” he finished. “Why didn't you get it annulled?”

“Because at the time, he seemed nice enough,” she said, then drew in a deep breath. “And a few weeks later I found I was pregnant.”

Jace raised his brows.
“Oh.”

“We didn't even know each other,” Delaney said, her voice filled with regret. “He flirted, but I didn't. We weren't even friends.”

“I've made a few mistakes in my life,” Jace admitted. “I think we all have.”

“We stuck together for two years and tried to make it work, but one thing's for sure,” she said, her tone hardening, “I'll never marry again unless it's to someone I really know, who also knows me, someone I'd consider my best friend.” She placed her hands on her hips and gave him a direct look as he hung up the watering hose. “So you see, that's why I don't know how to flirt. I've never really done it. I'm not even sure I can. And that's also why I don't trust a guy I've just met who flirts with
me
.”

“Well, then, we'll have to get to know each other,” Jace teased. “Would that be okay with you?”

Delaney rolled her eyes, but instead of being annoyed, she laughed.

Jace drew closer. “Can I take that as a ‘yes'?”

“I—­I have to take care of a few more chores and then I'll see you at dinner.”

“Evading my questions again?” he asked, watching her cheeks turn a rosy pink. “How about you let me help you?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head, then smiled. “I mean, no thank you. After all, you are our guest, and are supposed to be relaxing, not working, and enjoying yourself during your stay.”

“I
am
,” Jace assured her, and brushed a finger softly over her cheek. “Believe me, I am.”

D
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L
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Y
L
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F
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stable, and when she was sure no one was watching, she hurried down the path, past all the cabins, past the open field, and into the grove of trees where she had hidden her own private animal clinic. She went into the old toolshed first and checked on the raccoon with the broken leg. Another portioned-­off section housed a pheasant with an injured wing. Walking outside, she unlatched the gate to the square, wood fenced enclosure where she'd kept the young doe and after a quick examination decided it was time to set her free.

The arrow wound did not get infected, which had been her main concern, and was already scabbing over. The doe could rejoin her kin back in the woods and heal the rest of the way on her own. Leaving the gate open, she walked behind the doe and shooed it out of the fenced pen.

Part of her wished she could keep the doe locked up safe forever, where no hunters could ever do her harm, but she also knew the deer was a wild animal who would never be happy unless it was free.

Whew!
She'd had a close call with Jace back there at the stable. He'd wanted to come but she couldn't bring a
hunter
along. She didn't think he'd kill a confined animal, but who knew? She didn't really know what kind of man he was. Except that he was flirtatious. And persistent. Who knew what else she might say, if she'd extended their time together? Yes, it was best for all their sakes not to let him too close.

A loud ring echoed across the land, and Delaney jumped with a start. The familiar sound was from Grandma ringing the triangular metal dinner bell and no doubt, if she didn't hurry, she'd be late for dinner once again.

Back at the house, she ran into the kitchen, washed her hands, then picked up an apron and joined her mother and the Walford twins behind the serving counter.

Her mother clucked her tongue and said, “Delaney, if your father finds out you were late—­”

“He won't, unless you tell him,” she said, and glanced toward the twins for backup. “Isn't that right, girls?”

“Yes! Yes!” Nora agreed. “Del, you aren't still mad at us for spilling the beans about wanting the endorsement, are you?”

“We didn't know we weren't supposed to say anything,” Nadine explained. “We thought Mr. Aldridge already knew that's why you invited him here.”

“Speaking of our famous cowboy,” Nora said, leaning into Delaney's ear. “He's looking at you.”

She followed the teenager's gaze. Dozens of guests filled the seats of the rectangular wood tables, but at the far end of the room, Jace leaned against the far wall. “Why isn't he eating?”

“He told us he was waiting for you,” Nadine said, and wiggled her brows.

Delaney proceeded to serve the line of carnivorous guests who had yet to get their evening meal, which tonight was hamburgers, made from ninety-­seven percent lean choice beef from a Black Angus she'd named Gabe.

“Can you believe Grandma fired our cook?” Ma demanded, her voice rising higher and higher in pitch. “Now she's back in the kitchen and I'm afraid she's going to cook herself into the grave.”

“She loves cooking,” Delaney said loyally.

Nora and Nadine both giggled, and Nora said, “We think she loves the sheriff. He came over to see her today and—­”

“She blushed every time he looked at her!” Nadine finished.

Delaney laughed. “How did the sheriff look at her?”

“Just like Jace is looking at you!” the twins chorused in unison.

Del glanced over toward the wall and her heart skipped a beat. He
was
looking at her. The dark-­haired cowboy with the straw hat didn't take his eyes off her.
Oh, no.
He was making her feel incredibly self-­conscious and flattered all at the same time. And if she was honest, she'd have to admit . . . she kind of liked it. But what did he want with her? From the way some of the other women at the tables were looking at him, it seemed as if he could have the pick of the litter.

“Don't be silly,” Delaney's ma scolded the twins. “Mr. Aldridge is
not
looking at . . . well, goodness! It looks like he is. Careful you don't get emotionally involved, Del. You know he's only here for two weeks.”

BOOK: Montana Hearts
3.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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