Montana Hearts: Her Weekend Wrangler (2 page)

BOOK: Montana Hearts: Her Weekend Wrangler
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Bree poked a finger into his chest. “Ma’s going to be mad that you didn’t tell her. Grandma, too.”

“Yeah, I know.” Luke’s
jaw tightened. “But what’s done is done.”

Bree knew that feeling. To lighten the mood, she teased, “You can’t use that short hiking stick as an excuse not to give us a proper greeting. Come here, you.”

Luke didn’t chortle with laughter like he did back in the days before they’d each left home, but he did give her a quick grin, even if it did seem forced. “How about a high five?”

slapped the palm he raised like they’d always done and her heart eased.

Luke gave Delaney a high five next and then his gaze drifted to the little girl still clinging to her mother’s knee. “Would you like a high five, too?”

Meghan hesitated, then a smile stole across her face, puckering her cheeks. “High five!”

“She talks?” Luke asked as they watched their niece reach a stubby hand
in the air to meet his.

“Meghan’s using short sentences and learning more words each day,” Delaney informed them. “Giving high fives is one of her favorite games.”

“Mine, too,” Luke agreed. “It’s one of the things I
still do.”

Bree noticed he still wore his dog tags around his neck. And his honey-­brown hair, a shade darker than her own, wasn’t the short, military cut she remembered.
Now it fell down over his forehead in an unruly shag that was sure to send Ma running for the scissors. He also appeared thinner than she’d last seen him. Grandma would take that as a challenge to fatten him up with homemade breads and meat pies.

They hadn’t seen each other for almost a year, not since they all came home last June for her birthday. Afterward Luke got out of the ser­vice and
went to Florida to live on a boat and do odd jobs. She’d flown back to New York, and Delaney and Meghan had relocated with Steve to California. They’d still kept in touch through phone calls and Skype. But when had they lost touch so much that they’d started keeping secrets from one another?

She glanced at Luke’s cane again. Did he think she wouldn’t care? Or wouldn’t understand? Before she
could question him further, Luke pointed to Delaney’s barren ring finger and asked, “Where’s Steve?”

Bree gasped. She’d been so caught up in their hug and seeing Meghan again, and Luke, that she hadn’t noticed. Now her sister had her full attention.

Delaney hesitated, glanced back and forth between them, then in a quiet voice said, “We’re divorced.”

aunt Mary at the Fox
Creek Café and gave her a kiss on the cheek, a better gift than flowers any day. Besides, once the Montana nighttime chill subsided and gave way to warmer temperatures, his jovial, gray-­haired aunt would have a whole garden of fresh flowers. And he’d really wanted to give the bouquet to Bree.

After he and his aunt were seated and the waitress took their order, Aunt Mary asked, “Where’s Cody?”

“His grandma and grandpa Owens picked him up a few minutes ago,” Ryan informed her. “He’s eating dinner with them.”

“Good,” Aunt Mary said, patting his arm. “We have a chance to talk. I have a favor to ask.”

“A favor?” Ryan raised a brow. “You mean you didn’t invite me to lunch just to enjoy my company?”

“I always enjoy your company,” his aunt assured him with a smile, “and Cody’s,
too. But this favor has to do with my own young one.”

“Your new filly?”

Aunt Mary nodded. “I need you to train her for the upcoming halter class at the fairgrounds.”

“When is it?”

“The third weekend in June.” His aunt gave him a pleading look. “I know that only gives you a little over a month, but I’ve seen how fast you work and I have faith in you.”

Ryan frowned. “You don’t
want to train her yourself?”

“I haven’t the energy to work the horses like I did when I was your age.” She sighed. “But Morning Glory is bright and alert. With a little training she’ll respond beautifully.”

The waitress came by to deliver their glasses of iced tea, and after she left, Aunt Mary leaned toward him and raised her brows, her expression hopeful. “What do you say?”

know I don’t want to disappoint you.” He rubbed his hand over the side of his jaw. “But to be honest, I’m not sure I’ll have the time.”

“Why not? Did you get yourself a girlfriend?”

“No one I’m serious about,” Ryan muttered.

Aunt Mary pressed her lips together and then said, “Not every girl is going to leave you like your ex-­wife did. You need to get on with your life. Find Cody a
new mother. Be happy. Isn’t there
in town who can turn your head?”

Ryan thought of Bree.

“No,” he lied. “No one.”

“Then you should have plenty of time to train my girl. If you see yourself getting behind, tell your brothers to either help you or take on more of the other chores.”

Ryan chuckled. “I’m sure they’d all like to hear that.”

“I’m serious,” his aunt said, and
took his hand. “This filly is special to me and so are you. It would mean . . . so much . . . if you’d agree to train her.”

“All right,” Ryan said. “Just remember who your favorite nephew is the next time you come by with apple cobbler.”

Aunt Mary shot him a teasing smile. “What you need is a girlfriend who can cook so she can make you apple cobbler when I’m not around.”

He winced.
“Can’t we just put some in the freezer?”

“You know as well as I do that baked goods never last in the Tanner household.” She took her checkbook from her purse. “Thank you, Ryan. I can’t
to show my filly in front of the judges. In exchange for your time, not only will I pay you but I’ll give you the filly’s mother, a sturdy chestnut mare.”

“You don’t have to pay me,” Ryan said, leaning
back as the waitress placed their identical plates of tangy, barbequed pulled pork sandwiches in front of them. “And I don’t need another horse.”

Aunt Mary clapped her hands together. “Oh, but you’ll

but feel her family had fallen apart as she followed Luke, Delaney, and Meghan down the hospital corridor. She’d been dealt several work-­related blows in the
past week, but finding out Luke had been injured and Delaney had divorced without telling her hit especially hard. Now she had to enter the room where her father lay in a coma.

Her throat ached just thinking about it. What if her father ended up with brain damage? What would happen to her mother and grandma? Or Collins Country Cabins? Her ma hadn’t given much detail on the phone and what she
say had been disjointed, much like her own thoughts at the moment.

The nurse at the front desk directed them to the proper floor. Bree had expected to see her mother and grandma sitting by his bedside, but when they arrived, no one was in the room.


Thin tubes ran from her father’s nose to a machine beside his bed. An IV tube linked his arm to a clear plastic bag of
liquid hanging from a high metal rack. The pulsing monitors and hushed atmosphere served only to enhance the severity of his condition. He looked pale, strange for mid-­May, when his skin should have already held a slight tan. His hair seemed to have more gray than in the photo her ma had sent just the week before. And his eyes and mouth remained closed.

A quick glance at Luke and Delaney
told her they were as alarmed as she by his present state. This fragile, silent, unmoving ghost of a man was nothing like the robust, loudmouthed, foot-­stomping know-­it-­all they were accustomed to.

They drew closer, arm in arm, as if by some unspoken agreement they needed each other’s support. No one said a word. Bree tried to swallow the lump in the back of her throat. She wasn’t fond
of hospitals with their unnatural sterile smell, nor seeing anyone she knew like this.

Another step forward and they halted at the edge of his bed. Bree bent toward him, studying his face for several long seconds. What if something went wrong? What if he never woke up?

“He looks so peaceful when he’s asleep,” she whispered.

His eyelids lifted. “You think I can sleep with the three
of you staring down at me like that?”

Bree was so startled she screamed. Luke jumped back. Delaney stumbled sideways and knocked a tray of metal instruments to the floor. The clatter brought in a heavyset nurse, who appeared as surprised as they were when she took in the scene. Meghan began to cry.

“What’s going on here?” the nurse demanded.

Bree pointed at her father. “He’s awake!”

“Of course I’m awake,” he barked, his gruff voice as unforgiving as she remembered. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Bree scooped Meghan up in her arms, surprised her niece didn’t protest. The little girl was probably too scared.

Delaney bent down to help the nurse pick up the scattered instruments at their feet, but the nurse waved her away. Good thing, or their mother and grandma would have tripped
over her when they rushed into the room.

Luke met their mother’s gaze, and pointed to their father’s bed. “I thought he was in a coma!”

Ma looked almost as pale as their father without makeup and her fair hair pinned in a simple French knot. “After your father fell from the saddle he was unconscious. Within twenty minutes of calling 911, the helicopter flew him from our field straight
to the hospital and I didn’t find out he regained consciousness until the doctor talked to me two hours later. Even then he dozed in and out, and there was a discussion about possible treatment plans—­one of them was the possibility of keeping him in an induced coma if his scans showed brain swelling.”

“Turned out he only has a severe concussion,” Grandma added. “But the doctor decided to
keep him in the hospital twenty-­four hours for observation because he’d been nauseous.”

“You could have told us,” Luke said.

Behind their mother’s back, their spry eighty-­year-­old grandma furrowed her white bushy brows and nodded her head in agreement.

“You were already on your way,” Ma said, her voice taking on that soothing tone she’d used when they were children.

“I have
a cell phone,” Luke retorted. “You could have called.”

Bree nodded.

“Would you still have come?” their mother asked, eyeing each of them.

Luke didn’t answer. Instead, he shot a glance at their father, who glared right back.

Bree didn’t say anything either.

“What’s this you brought,” her father asked, nodding to the bouquet she’d dropped on his bed. “Flowers? Did you think you
were coming to a funeral? Just because a man hangs up his hat and takes off his boots for a nap doesn’t mean he’s dead.”

No, he wasn’t dead. Far from it. In fact, a week from now she wouldn’t be surprised if he were back on his horse and chasing trespassers off the ranch with his trusty Winchester .30-­30.

Her life, however, now that she’d made irreversible choices in order to get here,
would never be the same.

with their father a bit longer, and learned he’d also broken his ankle and would need to wear a cast for the next six weeks, Bree followed her brother and sister outside.

“Did you hear what he said as we left?” Luke demanded.

“ ‘Don’t feel obligated to come back,’ ”
Bree quoted, imitating her father’s low guttural tone. She kicked the dirt
with the toe of her boot. “Ma said he’s in pain. That’s why he’s so cranky.”

Luke scowled. “He’s always cranky. Always complaining. Always telling us we aren’t good enough.”

“You know, Luke, all you have to do is hop on a bus to the airport and fly back to Florida,” Delaney argued. “Some of us don’t have anything to go back to.”

“Sorry,” Luke said, “I didn’t mean—­”

“I can’t afford
my apartment in San Diego,” Delaney continued. “Whether Dad likes it or not, Meghan and I are here to stay. And then there’s Bree.”

Bree stared at her. “Me? What about me?”

“I called your shop in New York yesterday to confirm your arrival time,” Delaney said, her tone sympathetic. “And they said you didn’t work there anymore.”

Luke cocked his head toward her. “Okay, sis. Spill. What’s
secret? Did you get fired?”

Bree froze. She was the oldest, the one who was supposed to always have her act together, the sister who left town for a bright future in the big city, a place where she’d been sure she could make all her dreams come true.

Luke’s teasing grin turned into a frown. “You know I was only joking, right? You
get fired, did you, Bree?”

Both Luke and
Delaney looked at her with wide-­eyed concern.

Her stomach twisted as she lowered her gaze to the tip of Luke’s cane. “Ma called me in a panic and said Dad fell off his horse, was lying in a coma, and she didn’t know if he was going to live. My position at the Manhattan store had reached a critical point as well, and the district boss gave me a choice. Either keep my job or come home.”

Luke scowled. “But I thought you were up for a promotion.”

Bree nodded. “I was.”

“How could you walk out?” Luke demanded. “You’ve worked hard to climb that fashion retail ladder.”

“You don’t know all the details,” Bree choked out.

“And the man in the hospital is still our father,” Delaney added.

Luke shook his head and let out a derisive grunt. “A man who doesn’t want us here.”

“Doesn’t matter now,” Bree said, her heart breaking on both accounts. “I chose to come home.”


Chapter Two

rocking trailer, listened to the thunderous kicks against the sidewalls, and knew in his gut that he was going to regret saying yes to his aunt’s “simple request.”

The bay filly came with her mother, and the chestnut quarter horse hated him on sight. Nostrils flared, she showed him the whites of her eyes, tossed her head, and snorted. Then she pawed
the floor, and the entire trailer swayed with her shifting weight.

Ryan called out to his father and three brothers, “We better use the chute.”

Careful to stay left, away from the back end of the angled dividers so he wouldn’t be kicked, Ryan moved forward to untie the lead rope from the metal ring attached to the interior wall.

“Ready?” he called.

“Let her loose,” his older brother,
Dean, shot back.

Ryan released the rope holding the horses, intending for them to run out of the trailer, through the enclosed chute, and straight into the fenced corral. But he hadn’t pulled his arm away in time. The mare lunged forward, opened her jaws, and clamped down on his upper arm, making him howl in pain. Then with a sharp toss of her head, the mare spun and bolted out of the trailer,
the filly by her side.

The next yell came from his father. “Watch out!”

Ryan swung his head to see that the chute had come unsecured, leaving a five-­foot gap between the end and the open gate. His brothers stretched their arms wide to guide the mutinous pair through, but Zach, his youngest brother, stood a little too close and the mare stepped on his foot before he could jump back.

Zach cried out, and hopped up and down on one foot, his expression as hostile as the horse’s.

“Lucky she didn’t run you right over,” Dean teased, latching the gate. “Teaches you not to get too close to a woman.”

“You got that right,” Ryan agreed, jumping off the back end of the chute and thinking of all the trouble his ex-­wife had caused him.

His younger brother, Josh, asked,
“Dean, how did you load them in the trailer?”

“Aunt Mary called to them and they just walked right in.”

“How did she call to them?” Ryan demanded, rubbing his sore arm.

“Like this,” Dean said, and tried to imitate their aunt’s soft, sweetie pie voice.
“ ‘Come, Angel, and bring your little darling along with you. That’s my good girl.’ ”

Ryan grimaced. “
You’ve got to be kidding

“They followed Aunt Mary in like the Pied Piper. She didn’t even offer them any carrots.”

Ryan shook his head. “Okay, the trailer isn’t the issue. Maybe the mare isn’t used to strangers?”

“A woman stopped by Aunt Mary’s while I was there, lost and asking for directions,” Dean informed him. “The mare had never seen her before and didn’t react.”

Ryan narrowed his gaze. “Where
were you?”

His brother shrugged. “I thought I had an oil leak and was under the hood of the truck checking it out. Turns out it was radiator fluid. I dumped in a gallon of water to get home, but we’ll have to put it on the list for repair.”

“So the horse never saw you until now?”

“No.” Dean shook his head.

“Any history of abuse?”

“No records. Aunt Mary got her from a rescue
shelter. But from the scars running across her shoulder I’d say that sometime in the past she’d been whipped pretty good.”

Ryan nodded. “No doubt the person responsible was a guy. There’s no way I can work with the filly if the mare won’t let me near her.”

Zach gave him a big, saucy grin. “Never knew you to give up so easily. Lost your touch with women?”

“Nah,” Josh joined in. “Ryan’s
just not used to handling
women at once.”

Ryan scowled. “Do
want this job?”

“No way,” Josh said, hooking a thumb through his belt loop. “You’re the best, the one the newspaper hailed ‘the king of natural horsemanship.’ That’s why Aunt Mary asked

“She didn’t tell me I’d be working with a man-­hating mare.”

“I don’t think she knows,” his father told them. “I’ve seen
this in the past—­horses taken to women only.”

“Looks like you’re going to need a female to help you.” Zach snapped his fingers. “Didn’t you say earlier that Bree Collins is back in town?”

Josh nodded. “She’s the best when it comes to working with young ones.”

Ryan frowned. “I thought you said that
was the best.”

“You are,” his brother amended, giving him a sly grin. “Whenever
Bree isn’t around.”

Josh was right. Back in their younger days, Ryan had seen Bree train several different foals. Didn’t matter if the young horse needed to be halter broke, introduced to the bit, or saddled for the first time, Bree could lure them into doing her bidding with her soft caress and silky smooth voice every time. Quite different from the tone of voice she used with him.

is no way I would ever ask
for help,” he said, his jaw tightening.

“Why not?” Dean asked.

“For one thing,” Ryan said, “she came home because her father got hurt, not to prep our aunt’s filly for a horse show.”

“But it might help Bree get her mind off things for a few hours,” Dean offered.

Training this filly was going to take more than just a few hours. He shook his head. “No.”

Zach smirked. “Ryan, you need a woman.”

“Not that one,” Ryan insisted. “I can ask Sammy Jo.”

Josh arched his brow. “Isn’t she busy with preparations for the rodeo circuit?”

“This is a mistake.” Ryan whipped his hat off his head. “I’m calling Aunt Mary right now to tell her—­”

“You can’t back out now, Ry,” his father said, cutting him off.

“Why not?”

His father gave him
a solemn look. “What
Aunt Mary say when you met her?”

“She said that I would
that horse.” He scowled again. “She wants me to keep her.”

“Anything else?” his father prodded.

Ryan hesitated. Was there something Aunt Mary had held back? Something she’d told his dad and not told

His thoughts drifted back to the day before. “She said the filly was skittish without her
mother and needed to be halter broke.”

Their father waved them in, and Ryan and his brothers drew into a circle. “Aunt Mary’s doc says her stomach cancer has spread. The herbs she’s been taking haven’t helped, and since she refuses to expose her body to drugs or any other thing she deems unnatural, she won’t consider any other treatment.”

. Ryan clenched his jaw to keep his
emotions at bay, but his brothers voiced their anguish with a series of moans and groans. Their father’s sister had lived with them for several years after her husband died, and helped raise them. Even after all this time, Aunt Mary was like a second mother.

“She still has some time yet,” their father continued. “And before she gets too sick to stand she wants to enter one last show.”

Ryan swallowed hard. “The halter class.”

His father nodded. “She wants to take her filly, Morning Glory, the last young’un sired by that stud she loved, and win the blue ribbon.”

“There’s no guarantee she’ll win,” Ryan warned.

“Win or lose,” his father said, nodding toward the pasture, “I think Aunt Mary just wants to know her legacy will continue on through that filly.”

Ryan gave
the mare and filly another look. Feeding off her mother’s anxiety, the three-­month-­old let out a shrill whinny, and continued to cling to her side. How could he separate them? Was a woman’s touch really the key to overcoming the horses’ fears?

With an inward groan, Ryan steeled himself for the upcoming battle. If he didn’t train this filly, his aunt Mary’s request would haunt him the rest
of his days.

the wide path on her family’s property and reacquainted herself with each of the old familiar buildings that made up Collins Country Cabins. The first ten guest cabins had been put together using real logs, but the other fourteen were wood framed with cedar shingles. Construction on two new ones had been started, but remained unfinished.

The cowshed housed
two dozen Black Angus steer when they weren’t grazing in the cow pen or being used for the weekend mini-­roundups. The staging area outside the hay barn and the open arena used for horseback riding lessons had seen better days, but was still as sturdy as when she used to ride.

She’d been summoning her courage to enter the horse barn when a shrill
yip! yip!
stopped her in her tracks. She recognized
that voice. Spinning around, she glanced across the neighboring field and saw her best friend, Sammy Jo Macpherson, racing toward her on a palomino quarter horse at a near gallop. Her friend’s hat flew off her dark, curly head as she came to an abrupt stop and Bree bent down to pick it up.

“Nice beadwork on the band,” she said, twirling the natural-­colored straw hat around in her hands. “Very

Sammy Jo slid from the saddle and wrapped her in a quick hug. “I knew you’d like it. Remember how you used to make your own boot bling jewelry?”

Bree laughed. “I found some scattered beads in my old dresser this morning.”

“I always thought you should open your own business.”

“Might be a good idea,” Bree agreed. Especially since she no longer had a job.

Sammy Jo
flashed a wide smile, her teeth perfect from years of braces. “Consider the hat an early birthday present.”

“This is for me?” Bree settled the stylish hat on her own head. “Thanks. I love it.”

“Figured I’d give you something to remember where you came from.”

“Ouch.” Guilt assaulted Bree’s conscience and she winced. “I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch. Work has been crazy the last few

“It’s okay. I’m on the local rodeo planning committee and I’ve been teaching at a horse camp, helping the high school kids get ready for the upcoming season,” Sammy Jo said, and pointed to her shiny, silver belt buckle. “You don’t have to tell me about busy.”

Bree smiled. “Are you and Tango planning to go out on the pro circuit this year?”

Sammy Jo nodded, her eyes shining
as she gave her horse a pat on the neck. “Tango loves barrel racing.”

Bree watched the palomino nuzzle Sammy Jo’s hand, and her chest grew tight as she remembered the bond she’d had with her own horse. “He likes you.”

“Yes, he does, a whole lot more than your brother, or so it seems. I came over earlier, and when I asked Luke about his leg injury he gave me the brush-­off.”

Bree looked
down the aisle of the barn in front of them. Her brother sat on an overturned bucket by the tack room, his cane propped against his knee as he rubbed leather polish on an old bridle.

Bree sighed. “He’s going through a rough patch right now. Like the rest of us.”

“Sorry about your dad, but I’m so glad to see you,” Sammy Jo said, her face brightening. “How long are you all staying?”

“Delaney and her daughter plan to stay permanently, I’m here for a week, and Luke’s just here for the weekend.”

“I’m only around for a few days myself before I’m off to the camp again, but when I heard the three of you were all coming home, I had to come back, too, so we could catch up.” Sammy Jo gave her an eager look. “Want to go on a trail ride?”

“No, I still haven’t ridden. Not since—­”
Bree hated to disappoint her. “Not since—­” She could barely bring herself to say it, even after all this time.

After Serenity passed away while in labor that long ago night in early June, Bree hadn’t been able to go back into the barn. Even though she knew the bay quarter horse was in a good place and the good Lord must be watching over her, the pain of separation was still much too hard.

Sammy Jo’s expression softened as she caught on. “Maybe some other time?”

Bree nodded. “I was going to pay a visit to Serenity’s stall.”

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“No. I need to do this alone.”

“I’ll catch up with you later, then,” her friend promised. “Send me a text when you’re done.”

took off toward the house to find Delaney, Bree forced her feet
down the long corridor looming before her.

The horse barn at her family’s guest ranch held sixteen stalls, each one made of wide wooden planks with a see-­through upper steel grill. Hearing her approach, every horse leaned its head over the sliding half door. She glanced at the assortment before her with their different colors and markings. Luke’s horse was still there, and Delaney’s, her
mother’s, her father’s, and even her grandmother’s miniature pony, Party Marty. But the one horse that was not there was Serenity.

Her own.

Nine years earlier, while she was at her high school senior prom, Serenity had gone into premature labor. Her father, assisted by Luke and Delaney, tried to save her, and her father, like always, thought he had the situation under control. She later
learned the reason he didn’t call her was because he didn’t want to ruin her big night. Didn’t want her to

Then Serenity’s condition grew worse, and her father still didn’t call. Instead, he tried to call her date, Josh Tanner, to let him know what was going on. And when Josh didn’t answer, her father’s natural second choice was to call Ryan, who he knew was also at the dance.

Her father’s instructions had been simple: stall Bree any way you can.

She had to admit, Ryan did a good job, almost fulfilled his mission, but eventually she caught on, and when she returned home . . . it was to witness a bloody burial.

Serenity’s death was hard not only because she hadn’t been there to say goodbye, but because she believed deep in her heart that if her father had called
. . . and Ryan hadn’t stopped her . . . and she
been there that night . . . she would have made different choices than her father.

Choices that would have saved her precious mare. And her unborn filly.

BOOK: Montana Hearts: Her Weekend Wrangler
2.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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