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"Well, yes, Mr. Jorgenson," Bethany Wilson said as she kicked the stupid broken door propped up against the stupid wall. "Of course I'm upset. You gave" she kicked it again, making sure her voice was modulated at a pleasant pitch "away" one more kick, hard enough to crack the center panel "my lumber."
Her chin dropped to her chest when the older man went into his long monotone spiel again. Verbatim.
Amazing. Yet he couldn't remember that she'd placed her order first. The day before Nathan what's-his-name placed his. Though he was obviously a preferred customer at the local hardware store because he now had possession of her desperately needed order.
"When's the next shipment due?" she asked, cutting in.
His hesitation either meant bad news or he was miffed at the interruption. Or, more likely, he was distracted by one of his regular customers. Beth didn't even rank. Having moved to town only three months ago, she'd been relegated so far to the back of the line she might as well be sitting two states over.
"Let's see," he drawled in his slow, creaky voice. "I suppose I could get you something by Friday."
"Friday? As in four days from now?"
"I believe that's what I just said, young lady."
"Come on, Mr. Jorgenson. This is the second time I've had to wait for materials that you"
"Keep your britches on, Clyde, I'll be with you in a minute." He was obviously holding the receiver away to speak to a customer. Probably wasn't even listening to her. "Now, what's that you were saying?"
Beth sighed. What was the point? Complaining wouldn't get him to move any quicker. Montana was beautiful this far north, but a bit isolated. If the hardware store's next delivery wasn't until the end of the week, there was nothing she could do about it. "Fine. Friday. If anything changes, please let me know."
"You betcha." His dentures clacked. "Have yourself a fine day."
Beth calmly disconnected the call, then dropped the phone on her makeshift plywood desk. That was the trouble with cell phones. You couldn't slam them. Pushing her fingers through her tangled hair, she winced at the tugs on her scalp. God, she used to be so good at getting people to do what she wanted.
Not here, though. Not in Blackfoot Falls.
She could run naked down Main Street and maybe make the headline of the Salina Gazette. Oh, she'd be juicy gossip fodder for weeks and have to suffer indignant glares from the women shopping at the Food Mart. But that would be it. The boardinghouse renovation would still be behind schedule, with workers not showing up, her lumber and other supply orders hijacked
Maybe she was looking at the getting-naked angle all wrong. Maybe if she streaked through town she'd receive her shipments on time and workers would be lining up. But only if the men liked what they saw. She glanced down at her tummy. She'd been born and raised in Billings, Montana. And since returning to her home state she'd enjoyed homemade comfort food a little too much. In a fair world, stress would be eating away the extra pounds she'd gained. But no her jeans had gotten tight.
Yep, lumber and drywall might be in short supply, but stress she had in abundance. Between her flaky sister and rebellious niecefor whom she'd moved to Black-foot Fallsand working like crazy to turn the early-1900s boardinghouse into an inn, she was ready to pop like a damn cork.
At first, reconnecting with her family had been great, everything she'd hoped it would be after receiving the subtle plea for help from her estranged sister. Right before the not-so-subtle SOS text from her fifteen-year-old niece. Beth had been working in Europe at the time but she'd quickly wrapped things up and left her corporate job behind to be the loving aunt who would completely fix things between mother and daughter. Not play referee in a game no one could win.
She looked up. Rachel McAllister stood in the open doorway. It was for her out-of-town wedding guests that Beth had promised to have the inn up and running by the first of February. No pressure.
"What brings you to the big city?" Beth jumped up to move the blueprints and notebooks off the spare folding chair.
"You don't have to get up," Rachel said as she entered the small room that Beth had sectioned off from the original kitchen. "I'm on my way to the market, but I figured I'd see if you had time for coffee."
"Sure. I have a pretty decent Colombian blend if you want to stay here. I can even make espresso." Beth gestured to the silver coffee station she'd ordered a day after she arrived and had one sip of Marge's weak brew. "Or we can hit the diner."
"Yeah, you like the really strong stuff. You must've gotten used to it while working in Europe."
"I did, but I don't mind going over to Marge's either."
"I wonder if she has any cinnamon rolls left," Rachel murmured.
"You already checked?"
"I bought the last one." Beth tugged at her snug waistband. "Don't give me that look. I did you a favor."
Rachel grinned. "You're right. I need to fit into the wedding dress I ordered. Let's stay here."
Beth watched Rachel survey the stripped walls and the sizable holes left from heavy framed pictures that had hung for decades. She had to be worried about whether the place would be finished in time, but she didn't ask.
Until Beth had moved to town, she hadn't known Rachel.
Rachel's family owned the Sundance ranch, where they raised cattle. Recently they had converted unused space into guest quarters. She'd done a hell of a job cashing in on the popularity of dude ranches. Her success had motivated Beth to buy the boardinghouse and make it into an inn with a bed-and-breakfast feel. As long as her sister and niece lived here, Beth wasn't going anywhere, but she still needed something to do. Once she jumped the remodeling hurdle and got the place running, managing a small inn would suit her perfectly.
"Help yourself," she said, gesturing to the coffee and minifridge. "There's milk and cream. Sugar and sweeteners are in the silver tin."
"How's the work coming?" Rachel grabbed a mug.
"Did Mike Burnett give you a good bid for the finish carpentry?"
"He's putting one together now."
"I heard he's reasonable, especially considering he's the best carpenter around." Rachel fixed her coffee, then sat on the folding chair. "It's awfully quiet. Anyone working?"
Beth sighed. "The plumber's supposed to be here after lunch. I'll believe it when I see him. A lot of guys don't show up they don't even call."
"It'll be better after hunting season," Rachel said. "But you're from Montana, so you know that."
"Actually, I'd forgotten how things slowed to a crawl this time of year. I'm glad you said something." She thought about the two guys who'd sworn they'd report early tomorrow. They'd mentioned something about not having tags, which now made sense. Evidently their names hadn't been drawn in the lottery designed to restrict the number of hunters for certain types of game.
"You were twenty when you left, right?"
Beth nodded. "It seems like a lifetime ago." She and Rachel had grown up in the same state, but any similarity ended there. Rachel had had the life Beth had always wanted. A home in the country, horses, a loving family. Definitely not living in a dusty trailer park with no parental supervision to speak of and a sister who was trouble from the word go.
"So everything else is going okay?"
Beth leaned back with a snort. And then it registered. "Hey you probably know him ." She straightened. "Nathanhis last name starts with an L "
"Landers?" Rachel frowned. "Nathan Landers? Sure, what about him?"
"Either Mr. Jorgenson got our orders mixed up or Landers got pushy so Jorgensen decided to give him the lumber I was supposed to have delivered today."
"Hard to say. I don't think Nathan's the type to strong-arm anyone, but I really don't know him very well. He has a big ranch east of here. I've seen his foreman in town, but not Nathan. Since he lost his wife, he mostly keeps to himself."
A widower? Well, that was just peachyhere she was thinking about driving over to his place to find out just what was going on. It wasn't as if she planned on being mean, but she didn't want to come off as badgering some poor old man in mourning. "I swear his name sounds familiar, but I can't think of any reason it should."
"I can't either. Technically he lives in the next county. Though Blackfoot Falls is closer to him than Twin Creeks."
"You mean he doesn't even use the hardware store in his own town?"
Rachel laughed. "I'm sure there's another shipment arriving soon."
"Not till Friday. And I have two guys who promised me they'd be here tomorrow." Beth picked up a pen and drummed it on the plywood. "So, in your opinion, would it be worth it for me to have a little chat with Mr. Landers? Is he the reasonable sort?"
Rachel pushed her auburn hair back and narrowed her green eyes thoughtfully. "What did you have in mind?"
"Nothing crazy." Beth smiled. "Don't look so worried."
"Oh, I'm not worried," Rachel said, and come to think of it, she actually seemed a bit amused. So maybe Beth was the one who should be concerned. "I think it's worth a shot. He's probably just storing the lumber for winter jobs to keep his men busy."
Beth glanced at her watch. If he agreed to let her have the order, she'd have to pick it up herself. Her truck was small, but she could make two trips. And if she waited for Liberty to be done with school, she'd help. Her niece might whine, but too bad. The budding graffiti artist needed the extra money Beth paid her to cover court costs as part of her probation. Beth really hoped that particular bud had been nipped. "I'll give him a call."
"Better yet, drive out there. It'll be harder for him to say no face-to-face." Rachel smiled. "I can give you directions."
"Good." Beth would still call. She'd never cared for that business of just showing up on someone's doorstep uninvited. Though she'd end up at his ranch whether he said yes or no.
Nine years working all over the globe as a corporate meeting planner had taught Beth tact, grace and the art of persuasion. She'd be damned if Blackfoot Falls was going to teach her patience.
Nathan Landers joined his foreman at the corral fence. "What do you think of him so far?"
"The kid's got grit, I'll tell ya that," Woody said, his gaze glued to the young man stroking the mare's neck.
"He get on her yet?"
"Twice, and ended up with a mouthful of dirt both times."
That didn't surprise Nathan. He'd known the horse wouldn't be easy when he bought her. She'd taken the bridle just fine, and the bit hadn't seemed to bother her. But she sure hadn't liked being saddled.
He watched Brian give the mare's neck a final stroke, then slowly fit his booted foot into the stirrup. With impressive grace, the kid swung into the saddle.
For a moment the mare just stood there, almost as if in shock that the fool had climbed on again. The second it wore off she burst into motion, rearing up on her back legs, then twisting and bucking. Nathan and Woody both moved back when the mare came close to the fence, trying to brush the kid off.
She bucked a few more times, then came down hard, lifting her hindquarters and sending Brian over her head. He hit the dirt in a cloud of dust and with a string of cusses. The kid was only eighteen, and easily sprang to his feet. The mare eyed him warily and shied to the other end of the corral.
Woody yanked off his hat and waved away the dust. "He ain't bashful about getting right back on."
Nathan nodded. He'd heard that Brian was good with animals, and he'd obviously already passed the test or Woody would've sent him on his way by now. "I'm assuming you want to hire him."
"Up to you, boss." Woody scratched his balding head, then slapped the battered tan Stetson back on.
Nathan just smiled. He might own the Lucky 7 but very little was up to him anymore. Woody Knudsen held the reins when it came to the cattle operation. Ever since Anne's death, Nathan had lost interest. He still kept abreast of what was going on, met with the accountant quarterly and signed the checks, but the daily stuff was all Woody's.
Now, the two Arabians that Nathan had recently purchased were a different story. He still had a lot to learn about breeding them, but at least the idea sparked some life inside him. Three years was a long time to feel nothing.
"Bad time to be hiring with winter coming, but I say we bring him on." Woody propped his arms on the fence while he watched Brian go another round with the stubborn mare. "You're gonna need help with those Arabians at some point. Might as well see what the kid's made of."
Nathan should've known this was about Woody looking out for him. Woody had worked on Nathan's parents' ranch as a wrangler and eventually the foreman. He'd been there for Nathan's first step and when he'd climbed onto his first horse. And when Nathan had returned from college full of determination and too much ego, dead set on turning his own meager seven acres into one of the largest ranches in northern Montana, Woody had never doubted him.
Much as Nathan loved his parentsgood, salt-of-the-earth, hardworking peoplehe hadn't seen the faith in their eyes that he had in Woody's. Now, at the wiser age of thirty-four, Nathan understood they'd had reason to be skeptical. But that took nothing away from Woody's unwavering support.
"He might wanna start right away," Woody said. "Unless you have a problem with that."
"Nope." Nathan used his sleeve to blot the sweat on his forehead, then readjusted his Stetson. October mornings and evenings were nice and cool, but the direct afternoon sun could still be sweltering some days.
"You expecting company?" Woody stared past him toward the driveway.
Only if hell had frozen over. Nathan turned and saw the small blue pickup. It was too far away to see who was driving, though it didn't matter. He hadn't invited anyone, and folks who knew him knew better than to show up without being asked.
A minute later he saw a woman behind the wheel wearing sunglasses, her blond hair pulled back in a po-nytail. She parked the truck close to the bunkhouse where the men kept their vehicles, then climbed out. Her legs were long, her jeans tight and she was wearing funny-looking boots.
"You know her?" Woody asked, squinting against the sun's glare.
Nathan shook his head, not that Woody noticed. He hadn't taken his eyes off the woman. Working in front of the east barn, Scotty and Justin stopped fueling the ATVs to watch her walk across the gravel. Even Big John pulled his head out from under the hood of the bale retriever. If that wasn't enough of a shock, since the guy had no use for women since his divorce, he grinned at her.
"Did you see that?" Woody muttered, brushing the dust off his shoulders when she veered toward them.
She wasn't dressed to call attention to herself, not in that oversize blue T-shirt, but she got it all the same. It was those legs. Damn, they were long. She had to be about five-nine, even without those silly boots. And she had just enough sway in her hips to fire up a man's pulse without letting him think he was being played. But a woman who looked like her? Who was used to men staring and not being bothered by it? Nathan had a feeling she knew what she was doing. Woody thought Nathan was cynical when it came to women, implied he was getting to be as bad as Big John. Nathan just hadn't forgotten how complicated they were.
"Hi," she said as she got closer, putting her hand out and smiling at Woody. "Mr. Landers? I'm Bethany Wilson."
"No, ma'am, I'm Woodrow Knudsen." He yanked off his hat. "You can call me Woody, same as everyone else."
Nathan folded his arms across his chest, though she hadn't even glanced at him. He'd finally realized who she was, right before she'd given her name.