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There was, as it happened, considerably more timber in and around the town of Three Trees, Montana, than the name would lead a person to believe, and that was fine with Zane Sutton. He'd had enough urban crowds, concrete, steel and pavement to last him a good long whilesay, forever.
Now? Bring on the trees, the blue and purple mountains, the wild rivers and the crystal-clear lakes and streams.
For most of his adult life, Zane had taken each day as it came, content with whatever those twenty-four fleeting hours had to offer, rarely planning anything beyond entering the next rodeo, in the next town over, the next county over, the next state over. Everything elserelationships, off-season jobs, mostly driving, loading or unloading trucks, and even his accidental career in the movieswound behind him, basically meaningless, a long trail of things that had seemed like a good idea at the time.
It wasn't that Zane had a lot of regrets. Recently, though, he'd begun thinking that, at thirty-four, he ought to choose a direction, stop carousing and start acting more like a grown-up. He'd wanted to light somewhere and stay put, see if he couldn't rustle himself up a life with some substance to it.
Now, under a June sun bright as polished brass, with his boots firmly planted on land that belonged to him, mortgage-free, Zane took off his hat, ran the fingers of one hand through his light brown hair, drew a deep, smog-free breath and tilted his head back to admire the cloudless stretch of blue overhead, arching from horizon to horizon. As far as he was concerned, no ceiling in any cathedral anywhere, no matter how grand, could rival that particular patch of big Montana sky.
The sight stirred a certain reverence inside him, and he drank it in whenever he remembered to look up. He felt the tenuous beginnings of restoration in the rocky, parched terrain of his soul, a nurturing process, like a good, steady rain at the end of a long drought.
He'd finally found a home on these acres upon acres of land, and he intended to take root, like the venerable oaks and pines, cottonwoods and firs, all around him. He'd bought Hangman's Bend Ranch as an investment a few years before, in a what-the-hell-why-not kind of mood, going halves with his hotshot investment tycoon brother, Landry, who was a different brand of drifter than Zane, but a drifter just the same.
Neither one of them had bothered to visit the place; they'd just signed the papers and gone on with their lives.
Although Zane couldn't speak for his brother, he himself had been restless for a long time, since boyhood, for sure, but just a few days before, he'd had an epiphany of sorts. Nothing mystical, no blinding light knocking him flat, no angels singing; he'd simply realized he was damn good and fed up with the status quo, glamorous though it was. Acting in movies was all rightmostly easy work, if deadly boring a lot of the timebut lately it had been getting harder and harder to tell the difference between playing a part and the real deal.
The offshoot of all this sudden clarity was that Zane had found himself on a car lot in L.A., trading in his supercharged European ride for a shiny silver pickup truck with an extended cab. In a spate of nonverbal ad-libbing, he'd driven the new truck to the nearest animal shelter, gone inside and adopted a dog, an unprepossessing critter, big and black with floppy ears. He dubbed the animal Slim, mainly because its ribs showed, a consequence of missing a few meals along the way. Leaving pretty much everything else he owned behind, Zane, with Slim, had headed north by northeast, stopping only to grab a couple of drive-through burgers here and there, gas up the truck and snooze a little in rest-stop parking lots.
They'd reached Hangman's Bend late the previous night, camping out in the unfurnished ranch house. That morning, Slim had taken a liking to a certain shady spot on the porch, so he'd stayed behind when Zane set out to get a good look at the wooded section of his land. He was on foot because his horse, Blackjack, was still in transit from the California stables where he'd been boarding the gelding since his move to L.A. several years earlier.
He followed the meandering creek for a bit, enjoying the way it stitched its path through the woods like a wide strand of silver thread, clear and sun-sparkled and almost musical as it rolled over worn stones that resembled jewels under the water, coursed around primordial boulders and tree stumps, some of them petrified, on its way to wherever it was going.
Zane made a mental note to check a map later, when he got back to the house, because he liked knowing the facts about things, liked knowing exactly where he was, both literally and figuratively, but at the moment, he was in no great hurry to turn homeward. He was out to find the southern corner of his property, supposedly staked out and flagged.
At least eight feet wideprobably ten or twelve in some placesthe stream would be difficult to cross, but eventually he came to a natural bridge, a line of six flat stones, small and fairly far apart. Still fit, even after living fancy from the day he signed that first film contract till he left Hollywood behind him, he figured he could make it to the other side without getting his boots wet, let alone taking a header into that glacier-chilled creek water.
With his arms outstretched for balance, the way he and Landry used to do when they walked the top rail of a fence as kids, he moved with relative ease, never setting both feet down on the same rock, since there wasn't room. When he reached the opposite bank, no longer concentrating so hard, he stopped short, startled by what amounted to a vision.
A wood nymph, dressed in faded blue jeans, battered boots and a pale green Western shirt, stood in the center of the small clearing just ahead, both arms wrapped around the trunk of a lone cotton-wood tree. Her hair was brown and shiny and thick, just brushing her shoulders, and it caught the leaf-filtered light, threw it around like colored beams in a prism. Her head was tilted back slightly, her eyes closed, and the expression on her fine-boned face was downright blissful.
What the hell?
Zane could have watched her for hoursjust looking at the woman gave him the same belly-clenching thrill he'd gotten in his bronc-riding days, in that moment before the chute gate swung open and the official eight-second countdown beganbut, suddenly off his game, he took an unintended half step in her direction, a twig snapped under the sole of his boot and the moment was over.
The nymph's eyes were wide, hazel or maybe green or pale gray, and at the moment, seeing him, they were shooting fire. She backed away from the tree, and Zane noticed that her shirt was open and she was wearing a tank top underneath. She had great breasts, neither too big nor too small, and bits of bark clung to her clothes. As she glared at him, she let her arms drop briefly to her sides, then fisted up both hands and pressed the knuckles hard against her well-made hips. He knew she recognized him when he saw her jawbones lock together, and that struck a wistful note somewhere in the vicinity of his heart. He'd have given a lot, in that moment, to be his pre-Hollywood self, just another cowboy with a cocky grin, an attitude and a line or two.
"What are you doing here?" the sprite demanded, finding her voice at last. She took a few marching steps toward him, evidently thought better of coming too close and stopped while there was still a safe distance between them. Her emphasis on the word you, though slight, chapped Zane's hide a little, since, after all, he wasn't the one trespassing on somebody else's land, now was he?
"I live here," he replied reasonably, in his own good time, standing with his feet planted slightly apart and his arms folded. The irritation he'd felt was short-lived, quickly replaced by a sort of amused delight. Whoever the lady was, the fact that she might have rescued those clean but otherwise shabby clothes of hers from somebody's ragbag notwithstanding, she was most definitely a looker.
She didn't come any closer, nor did she say anything, but it did seem that she'd lost some of her zip.
And Zane couldn't resist adding, "Were you just hugging that tree, or was I imagining things?"
She blushed then, her cheeks going a glorious, peachy shade of pink. Her mouth was wide and expressiveinherently kissable. And, now that they weren't standing so far apart, he could see that her eyes were hazel. The color probably changed, depending on what she was wearing, her present mood or even the weather.
"I was doing a personal-growth exercise," she informed him stiffly, as though any idiot would have known that without asking, and Zane could tell she resented telling him even that much. She was proud and stubborn, he decided, and competent at everything she did.
But what the devil was a "personal-growth exercise," exactly? Something she'd picked up watching the Oprah Winfrey Network?
He walked slowly toward her, put out his hand for a friendly shake, hoping she'd get the message that he wasn't fixing to pounce. "Zane Sutton," he said, by way of introduction.
She looked at his hand, then at his face, then ran both palms down the thighs of her jeans before shaking the offered hand for a full nanosecond. "Brylee Parrish." She gave up the name grudgingly, like it was a state secret. "And I knew who you were without being told, thanks."
Clearly, Brylee Parrish was not impressed by stardom, his or anyone else's.
And he liked that, liked it a lot, because he'd never been all that dazzled by the phenomenon himself, based as it was on appearances instead of reality.
"Then you had an advantage," Zane replied mildly.
Brylee cocked her head to one side, studying him skeptically. "You actors," she finally said, not quite scoffing, but coming real close.
Zane chuckled. "I like to consider myself a recovering actor," he said.
"Please," she said, and though there was mockery in her tone, she wasn't being sarcastic. Her hands were still on her hips, though, and her chin still jutted out, and everything about her warned, Stay back.
"You don't think we can recover?"
She sighed, considering the question. "I'd say it's unlikely," she decided, at some length. "Show business people areshow business people."
"You come and go. You buy or build ridiculously big, elaborate houses, not just in Montana, but in Colorado and New Mexico and Arizona, tooall over the West, in fact, basically scarring the landscape and squandering natural resources. You get on your high horse and boycott thingsbeef, for instancethereby putting good people out of business after generations of honest effort. You get involved in local politics just long enough to cause lasting problems, maybe start a few bitter feuds among the local yokels, and then you sell your property to some other famous so-called idealist know-itall and move merrily on to ruin yet another community."
Zane gave a long, low whistle of amused exclamation. There was some truth to her wordsmaybe a lot of itbut he didn't like being lumped in with all those well-meaning but too-often fickle celebrities. Hello? He was a rodeo cowboy at heart, raised country by a woman who waited on tables for a livingthe movie stuff had been thrust upon him, greatness not included. "Why not just come right out and say what you mean, instead of sugarcoating your opinions so I'll feel all warm and toasty and welcome?" he gibed.
Brylee sagged a little at the shoulders, as though sighing with her whole body. "Most of us were hoping you wouldn't show up," she said. "That you'd just let the ranch sit there, instead of hitting Three Trees like some kind of consumer storm trooper, putting in media rooms, restaurant-style kitchens the Food Channel would envy, tennis courts and indoor swimming poolsOlympic-size, of course."
"Gee," Zane answered dryly. "Thanks for the generous assessment. Seems like you're assuming a lot, though."
"Yes," he said. "I believe you are. You don't know a damn thing about me, Ms. Parrish, except that I used to live and work in Hollywood. And I happen to like the house I'm in now, pretty much the way it is. Except, of course, for the antiquated plumbing, the dry-rot in some of the walls, the missing floorboards and the sagging roof. Oh, and I'll be glad when they switch the electricity on later today, I admit. But you'd probably view any improvements as conspicuous consumption, unless I miss my guess."
"You won't stay," Brylee said flatly, after giving his words due consideration and then, obviously, dismissing them. And him.
"You'll see," he replied, every bit as nettled as he was intrigued.
And that was the end of their first conversation. She went one way, and he went the other.
Hardly an encouraging start, in Zane's opinion, but a start, nonetheless.
SomethingGod knew what, but something had just begun, he knew that by the strange tightening in his gut, and whatever it was, there would be no stopping it.
By the time he'd crossed the creek again, he was grinning.