Read Montana Hearts: Her Weekend Wrangler Online
Authors: Darlene Panzera
For Joe, Samantha, Robert, and Jason,
and to Joseph and Rose Panzera for all they do for others.
This one’s for you!
EST WISHES FOR
a speedy recovery, you redneck rascal!’ ”
Bree Collins snorted, slapped the greeting card back onto the display rack, and picked up another
“ ‘Sending up heartfelt prayers that you’ll get well soon.’ ”
She shook her head and tried one more.
“ ‘Dearest Father . . .’ ”
What was with these cards anyway? They were inscribed
with messages that were either too personal, too distant, or completely inappropriate. Maybe she should get her “dear ole dad” a gift instead.
Glancing around the Fox Creek General Store, decorated country-western style for the tourists, Bree spied a rickety old wooden bookcase. A book would be better than a game of marbles, a stuffed jack-a-lope, or a “Welcome to Montana” mug. Her father
could read while his injuries healed.
Except she had no idea what kind of stories he liked. She and her father had never been close. And he’d never had much time to read while running the family’s twenty-four-cabin guest ranch. But now? He’d have to find
to do while he recovered or he’d drive her mother and grandma crazy. Maybe he’d like a volume of crossword puzzles?
over and tugged on
Puzzles and Games
, a newer book wedged tightly between the thick, dusty jackets of
The Secret History of Yellowstone Country
Ranching Ain’t What It Used to Be.
And the entire bookcase leaned toward her.
Catching the frame of the shelves with her hands, she spun around, and used her body weight to shove the burdensome book beast back into position. But every time she
stepped away, the case threatened to fall. Somehow the bottom had become unbalanced. She glanced at the clerk behind the counter and opened her mouth to call for help. Then Ryan Tanner walked toward her and she involuntarily jumped in place.
They’d grown up together, riding the same school bus and sharing the same classes day after day right up through the twelfth grade. But after high school
she’d relocated to New York to attend college. Then she put her business degree and love of fashion together to snatch the assistant managerial position at the Manhattan branch of Silvain’s, a national fashion retail conglomerate that specialized in hip clothing and accessories. Over the years she’d run into Ryan only briefly during her occasional visits home.
And she had no desire to see
Ryan was the kind of guy a girl dreamed about but could never have. At least, not exclusively. He was a charmer who took the opportunity to flirt with every female he met. And he’d tried to charm
the night of their high school senior prom, the night her horse died, in an attempt to delay her from getting home too soon . . . and saying goodbye.
Of course, they were adults now,
both almost twenty-seven, she with her glowing résumé and he with a seven-year-old son. She thought she’d forgiven him and let bygones be bygones.
She was wrong.
finished paying for the floral bouquet tucked under his arm and was headed toward the exit when he noticed her. He’d heard Jed Collins had taken a nasty fall off his horse the day before, planting him in the
hospital. But if Bree was back in Fox Creek, well, then, her father’s condition must be serious. He stole a look at her beautiful face, took another few steps toward the door, then stopped.
It wasn’t the need to offer condolences that made him turn back around. Everyone knew Bree and her two younger siblings, Luke and Delaney, didn’t get on well with their dad. No, it was the doubt he saw
flickering in her eyes that unsettled him. Bree was one of the most confident, capable, career-oriented women he’d ever met. What could have happened to make her change? Had Jed’s condition taken a turn for the worse?
He thought he should at least give her a quick hello. For old times’ sake. Not that they’d ever been best of friends or dated, although . . . he wished they had. Just once.
Before worldly ambitions drove her away to the farthest reaches of the country to pursue her glamorous career.
Ryan tipped his straw Stetson in greeting as he approached. “Brianna Lee Collins, back from the big city?”
She hadn’t seen him coming until he was just a few feet away. Startled, she practically jumped right out of her boots, and the bookcase behind her wobbled. Ryan bolted forward,
ready to offer assistance, but then she leaned back, pushing it upright, and smiled. “Just visiting.”
He nodded to the blue hard-shell suitcase by her feet. “You haven’t been home yet?”
She shook her head. “I took a cab from the airport. Luke’s coming by bus and Delaney flew in last night. She’s picking us up so we can meet my ma and grandma at the hospital and go in to see my father
Bree’s honey-brown hair was shorter, just past her shoulders instead of the waist length he remembered. And in the past she’d always worn beaded earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings, but today she wore no jewelry. Even her plain, white sleeveless blouse and jeans were different from the sparkly clothes she used to wear. And yet, she was still just as beautiful. Maybe even
She gave him a quizzical look, and with a jolt, he realized he was staring.
Bree nodded toward the flowers. “Hot date?”
He grinned. “Something like that.”
Then he switched the cream-colored rose bouquet from one hand to the other and the crinkle from the cellophane wrapper filled the awkward silence. He knew he should go, but didn’t want to. Not yet.
his throat and asked, “How
“Ma says his condition is stable. Scans showed some brain-swelling, so the doctors put him into an induced coma for a few days. But they think—”
Her shoulder slid down a notch and . . . so did the bookcase. A couple of books from the highest shelf flew past her head and hit the hardwood floor with a
Ryan stepped closer. “Need help?”
Bree’s gaze shot to the top of the teetering case. “Nope.” She gave him another smile. “I’ve got it.”
She sure did. He could see now it was her body holding the bookcase up. The thing moved every time she did, which meant—Bree was trapped. But one would never know it from her expression or from her calm, upbeat tone.
Yep, instead of accepting his help, Bree Collins held up the heavy
monstrosity and stood there smiling as if she didn’t have a care in the world. He swallowed a laugh and grinned. He doubted Bree would ever admit she
anyone. He’d heard from mutual friends she was a top dog in the corporate world and no doubt it was that
attitude that led to her success. However, he wasn’t the type to leave a damsel in distress. Whether she wanted his help
Tossing the bouquet aside, he reached forward to place an arm on either side of her to steady the unit, and Bree yelled, “Close enough, Tanner!”
His face just a foot away from her own, he looked straight into her dark sapphire eyes. “What did you think I was going to do, kiss you?”
She lifted a brow. “Don’t you kiss all the girls?”
He dipped his gaze toward her soft pink
lips and he lowered his head even closer. “For your information,
, ” he drawled, “I save my kisses only for the best.”
got her attention. She gasped, her mouth forming a perfect O.
“Now duck,” he instructed.
“I’ll hold up the bookcase while you duck under my arm and get out of there.”
She locked gazes with him for a fraction of a second, then brushed her
head against him as she moved under his arm to escape her awkward position. Her hair was so silky soft it tickled and sent a jolt of awareness coursing through him. And as she stood up on the other side, her eyes widened as if she, too, had been uncomfortably aware of their close proximity.
He waited until she’d stepped back a safe distance, then rocked the shelves until a marble rolled out
from beneath the bottom of the unit.
She gasped. “No wonder I couldn’t get it to stay up.”
Ryan retrieved the flowers he’d intended to give his aunt, and to prove he was a true gentleman, and not the kiss-’em and leave-’em cowboy Bree implied, he handed the roses over to her with a mock bow. “If you needed help, all you had to do was ask.”
To his satisfaction he didn’t think he ever
remembered Bree looking so flustered.
“I—” Her mouth formed that tantalizing O again. “I suppose I should thank you.”
He waited, and when she didn’t say anything he prompted her with a wink.
Just when he thought he’d seen it all, Bree blushed. “
He tipped his hat and grinned. “Nice to see you, Bree.”
Then he took his departure, finally heading in the
direction—toward his son, who licked an ice cream cone and stood waiting for him by the door.
REE’S FACE CONTINUED
to flame as she stared at the father and son duo. Cody looked just like Ryan, same brown hair and brown eyes. She’d never met him, but her friend Sammy Jo kept her updated on all the local info and had sent her a picture when he was a baby. Now seven years old, he was a solid,
sturdy, little boy. With that same heart-melting grin.
She raised the delicate bouquet of cream-colored roses to her nose and their beautiful fragrant scent took her back to her teens, a time when she’d been a starry-eyed, hopeful romantic with endless possibilities for the future spread out before her.
No man had made her feel that way in a long time, certainly not her two-timing
ex-boyfriend she’d left behind in New York. He’d been a charmer, too . . . and had hurt her almost as much. Yes, she was
with romantic relationships. At least for a while. She needed to find a new job now that she’d been unexpectedly cut—one of the dangers of dating the boss. And handsome, knock-your-socks-off charmers like Ryan Tanner would be strictly off-limits.
a good ten minutes to make sure he was gone before she left the store. She’d had every intention of asking for help with the bookcase—but she would
ask for help from a Tanner, especially
. She’d had enough of his kind of “help.”
Besides, she’d once heard him say to another,
“Bree Collins isn’t worth my time.”
If he didn’t think she was worth his time, then she certainly wasn’t going
to trouble him or allow him to tarry any longer than necessary on her account.
She rubbed a hand down each of her arms, soothing her sore muscles. Then she realized she’d been so disturbed by Ryan and the wobbly bookcase that she’d forgotten to buy her father a gift. She glanced at the flowers in her hand. They would do.
Outside, she scanned the single street running through the mite-sized
Montana town for a sign of her siblings. She glanced at her watch and a few minutes later her slender, blond sister pulled up to the curb in a red, paint-peeled pickup truck.
Delaney’s face broke into a huge smile as she jumped out of the driver’s side and ran around the front to give her a big hug. “It’s been too long.”
Bree smiled and, despite the too-tight squeeze, fiercely
hugged her younger sister back. Then she choked out, “Del, I can’t breathe.”
“Sorry.” Delaney loosened her grip and laughed. “Didn’t mean to strangle you.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Bree teased, and laughed along with her. It
been too long. Almost an entire year. She glanced back at the truck. “Where’s the baby?”
“No baby,” Delaney said, opening the side door and helping
her daughter out. “She’s two and a half, a ‘big girl’ if you ask her.”
Meghan, wearing a pretty strawberry print sundress, nodded and pointed to herself. She looked a lot like Delaney. Same fair hair, skin, and sprinkling of freckles across the nose.
“Look how you’ve grown.” Bree dropped to her knees beside the little girl, wishing she’d bought a gift for her as well. “Meghan, do you remember
Meghan shook her head, making her blond ponytails swing back and forth, and wrapped her arms tight around her mother’s leg.
“How could she?” Delaney asked with an amused grin. “She was only eighteen months old the last time she saw you.”
“She saw me a week ago on Skype.”
“Images through the computer aren’t the same.”
No, they weren’t. Bree bit down on her lip. She should
have purchased an airline ticket to see her niece sooner. Instead, she’d let her crazy busy work schedule get in the way.
“And Steve? Where’s he? Couldn’t your husband get off work?”
Her sister shook her head, the laughter fading from her eyes. “He didn’t come.”
Delaney shrugged and Bree suspected there was something her sister wasn’t telling her, but they would have
time to talk later. Right now a bus approached and the rumble of the motor drowned out all other sound.
The bus let out a loud
as the door opened to let off passengers. One of them was their brother, Luke, the middle child of the family, a year younger than Bree and two years older than Delaney. Luke spotted them, and slowly crossed the street, hobbling along with the help of what looked
to be a hand-carved wooden cane.
“Did you know Luke was hurt?” Bree hissed in a sharp whisper.
Delaney gasped. “No. I—I didn’t.”
Not waiting for him to reach them, Bree asked, “What happened?”
“Motorcycle accident,” he replied, taking the last few steps. “Right after I got out of the army.”
“Last July? That was ten months ago,” Delaney accused. “Why didn’t you tell us you’d
“What, this?” Luke leaned on his good foot and lifted his injured leg. “This is just a scratch. I took more of a beating in Iraq.” He gave them a look that said he really didn’t want to talk about it and shrugged. “I figured no sense worrying anyone.”