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Clouds were rolling over the hot afternoon sun as an exhausted Colton Hart pulled up to Thunder Ranch in his brand-new Dodge Ram truck with his weathered 22-foot Airstream in tow. A big party was going on at the Hart ranch house this evening, and Colt was late. Not just a few minutes late, but hours. And it wasn't just any party, but a wedding celebration.
His older brother, Ace, had married local ranching girl Flynn McKinley that afternoon. They were madly in love and already expecting a baby. Well on their way to having a perfect life. Something Coltdespite all the rodeo buckles he kept winningwould never have.
He should have cut out early from the rodeo in Central Point and been here. He knew that. The five thousand dollars he'd won simply wasn't worth the pricethough he did need that money in his checking account before the first of the month. No running from that cold, hard fact.
Of course the hour delay due to construction on I-90 hadn't helped.
Colt parked the new truck in the lot his mother had given him, about three hundred feet west of the homestead property. He didn't bother unhooking the trailer or reconnecting the water and power. No time.
Inside his trailer, he tossed his dead cell phone on the counter, then added his latest buckle to the collection in his bottom bureau drawer. He'd been gone so much lately the calendar taped to the mirror was still on March. He tore off a couple sheets, then pulled the truck keys from his pocket.
Early that spring he'd won the use of the fully loaded 2012 Dodge Ram for an entire year. He'd never driven, let alone owned, a brand-new vehicle before. The luxury was in danger of becoming addicting. He just might have to buy out the lease at the end of this yearif he could afford to.
He took a few steps to the kitchen, where he ducked his head over the sink and splashed water from a plastic jug over his unshaven face. God, but he'd love a shower. Instead, he made due with a change of clothes, clean Wranglers from his closet and his trademark red chambray shirt.
Colt put on his hat, then stepped out of his trailer into the muggy heat, the heel of his boot sinking into the pine-needle-packed earth. The air was rich with the scent of growing things, tinged with the hickory flavor of his mom's famous barbecue beef. Clouds continued to gather and from the far-off distance, he heard the muffled sound of thunder. It had been a wet spring, now it looked like more rain was coming. Hopefully the storm would hold out a little longer. A path led through the Engelmann spruce toward the main house and he followed the well-trod route, ribs complaining with each breath, muscles everywhere sore and achy.
He lived for the thrill of competing in the rodeo arena, but he had to admit the sport was hell on his body.
The path ended at a fork. Ranch house to the left.
Barns and various other outbuildings to the right. Royce, a long-time ranch hand in his sixties, was sitting at one of the picnic tables that the hired help used for breaks, having a smoke.
"Party going on at the main house," Royce said.
"They were expectin' you hours ago."
Royce turned his head, took another pull on his cigarette.
Colt waited a second longer. It would only be courteous of Royce to ask how things had gone in Oregon, but Royce didn't say a word. Probably pissed off, like Ace, that Colt wasn't around more to help out at the ranch. But he had financial obligations none of them knew about, and he had to earn extra money somehow.
Colt continued on his way, coming around the back of the house where sparkly lights framed the outdoor pool and the large flagstone sitting area. Outdoor speakers were playing Lady Antebellum's hit songsomething about a kisswhile Ace and Flynn fed each other pieces from the wedding cake.
They looked good together. Happy. In love.
Captivated by the sight, Colt watched them for several long moments, before he had to turn away. He felt as if he'd landed facedown in the rodeo arena: throat choked, eyes watering. He couldn't say why their happiness moved him so much. He wasn't one for tears. Or so he'd thought.
He switched his attention to the rest of the family. His mom and Uncle Josh sat at the head table with Josh's sons, Beau and Duke, and Colt's sister, Dinah. Missing was younger brother, Tuf, in limbo after serving in the marines. Wouldn't it have been great if Tuf had somehow shown up for the wedding? No one would have paid Colt much mind if his younger brother had finally returned home.
Colt stepped out of the shadows just as the clouds decided to dump buckets of water onto the scene. No mere showerthis was a deluge. Holding his hat with one hand, shielding his eyes with the other, he dashed with the others toward the open doors that led inside.
He noticed Ace grab Flynn's hand.
"Where are we going?" she gasped.
"To the barn."
Strange choice, Colt thought. But Flynn started laughing and the two of them, so crazy-in-love Colt supposed they were beyond logic, dashed off for the stables. At least this way he wouldn't have to face his brother right away. He knew his excuses for missing the wedding were going to sound mighty lame. Maybe it would be better if Ace didn't have to hear them until after his honeymoon.
He grabbed what remained of the wedding cake from the table and stepped into the house. Next thing Colt knew, he was face-to-face with his mother.
"Well. Look what the storm blew in."
His mom brushed back a strand of her dampened, silver hair. When had the color changed? He couldn't remember, but it had been a long time ago. Worries had come early to Sarah Hart's life. A rancher's life was not an easy one and his father's premature death had placed most of the pressure directly on her shoulders.
Apparently, the stress had been hard on her heart, too. About a month ago she'd had a scare that had sent her to the hospital. Colt had been worried sick then, was still worried now. What would he dowhat would any of them dowithout their mother in their lives?
The very idea was unthinkable.
He wanted to hug her, and tell her how much she meant to him. But he'd screwed things up. Again. Her expression was as angry as he'd ever seen it.
"You missed your brother's wedding."
He had to look away from her piercing blue gaze. His relationship with Ace was a complicated thing. There was love, sure. But there was also something darker. Something Colt didn't like thinking about, let alone discussing in the open. "He didn't give me much notice."
"Is that the best excuse you can come up with, Colton Adams Hart?"
Colt held his tongue, acutely aware of the others. The family room where they'd all rushed to escape the rain was large, but not so large that everyone couldn't hear their conversation. Dinah grabbed the cake out of his hands, then shook her head as if to say, You've really done it this time, bro.
Cousins Duke and Beau were looking desperately in opposite directions, clearly wishing they were anyplace but here. While Uncle Josh seemed sad and disappointed, maybe the hardest reaction of all for Colt to deal with.
Dinah set down the cake then whirled on him. "You missed everything. Ace wanted you for best man, you know."
Colt took a deep breath. No sense telling them about the construction delays. Or the meeting that had run late, but would hopefully lead to a lucrative deal for their new bucking stock program. At this point anything he said would just sound like an excuse.
He glanced at his sister, then back to his mother. "Well, clearly I'm not wanted here. If anything comes up, you can try the Open Range Saloon."
"Colt!" Dinah was incredulous. "You wouldn't dare run out on us now. You just got here."
"Yeah? Watch me." No one called out his name a second time, least of all his mother. Not that he expected anyone to. He'd left too much to chance, given himself no cushion for the unexpected. But contingency planning had never been his strong suit.
Leah Stockton couldn't remember the last time she'd been in a bar alone. Certainly before the kids. Probably before her marriage, too. She looked at her finger, where once she'd worn a thin band of gold embedded with chip diamonds. That finger had been bare for more than a year now.
And still her mother refused to accept the divorce.
"I'll have another, Ted." Leah held up her glass to the bartender. He'd owned the Open Range Saloon for as long as she'd been old enough to drink here and he had a disconcerting way of looking at his patrons when he figured they ought to consider slowing down on the alcoholic intake.
Ted was giving her that look now.
"What? This is only my third beer."
"And you weigh all of whata hundred and ten pounds?"
"It's called being willowy, thank you very much. And it doesn't mean I can't hold my alcoholthough if it eases your conscience, I didn't drive. I'll be walking home."
If she went back.
Silly thought. Of course she'd be going back. Her children were her life now and she was determined to put them first. She just needed a breather for a few hours, that was all. Fortunately they'd already been asleep when she and her mother had their fight. And she'd kept a cool enough head not to slam the door on her way out at the end of it.
Thankfully tomorrow the house she'd rented would be ready for her and the kids to move into. With any luck once they were no longer under the same roof, she and her mom would find it easier to get along.
Ted popped the lid off a bottle of Big Sky and replaced her empty with the full one. She took a long swallow, just daring him to make another comment. But when she glanced at him again, he was looking at someone behind her.
Next thing she knew that someone was setting three darts on the bar next to her glass. The hand holding them was masculine. And his shirt sleeve was red.
A long-ago memory surfaced, of a man who had favored red chambray shirts. Her heart started beating fastershe just couldn't help it. Subtly, she tilted her head so she could check him out.
Tousled sandy hair, nice face, mouth with that adorable, kissable quality that she knew got him into so much trouble. But not with her.
"Well, well, well. Colton Hart. It's been a while."
He touched the brim of his hat. "Indeed it has, Miss Barrel Racing Champion of Roundup High School."
She choked back her smile. Those days seemed so long ago now. "Hardly the highlight of my barrel racing career. I have won a few championships since then."
"I know you have. I was there for a couple. Let me see.. " He seated himself on the stool next to hers and she couldn't help noticing the breadth of his shoulders, the girth of his biceps. The boy had manned up in the years she'd seen him. And how. Or did she mean wow?
Colt didn't seem to notice her checking him out. His mind was still on rodeos, trying to recall when he'd last seen her. Finally he snapped his fingers. "The Pace Challenge in Omaha back in 2004."
She nodded. "I came in first. And you won best all-around."
He shrugged off his own accomplishment. "You did well at the Snake River Stampede in Nampa, too, as I recall. Was that 2005?"
"And that's about the last I remember seeing you." He gave her a steady, serious look. "Rumor had it you met a fellow from Calgary at the Stampede."
She took another long drink of her beer, while he watched thoughtfully.
"But we don't want to talk about that, I'm guessing?"
"You guess correctly."
"So." He tapped the darts he'd placed on the counter. "You game?"
She so was. But strategy dictated she not let him know this. "Why bother? I always beat you."
"Really? Is that how you remember it?" He picked up her half-empty beer and downed the remainder. Then he signaled to the bartender, who'd been listening into their exchange while polishing already-clean glasses. "Ted, we'll need two more of these."
"With a whiskey chaser," Leah added, before Colt escorted her to the dartboard at the back of the bar.
They passed by a table with some people Colt knew, a mixture of guys and women about their age. Leah didn't recognize any faces, but they sure knew Colt.
"Hey, buddy, come and join us," said a dark-haired cowboy, with a nose that had once been very badly broken. "Bring your pretty new friend, too."
Colt waved him off. "Another night, Darcy. Leah and mewe've got business to attend to."
Everyone at the table hooted at that and Leah could feel herself blushing as a result. What was up with that? She was not the sort of woman who blushedwas she? But then, it had been a long time since she'd been the focus of this sort of attention. When you normally had a toddler and a preschooler in tow, men tended to keep a polite distance.
The dartboard was at the back of the bar. A throwing line had been etched onto the wooden floor a little less than eight feet away from the board. Colt placed the darts on a nearby table, and they were soon joined by the beer and shooters that they'd ordered.
He took a long drink of the ale then handed her a dart. "Ladies first. Want to play down from 501?"
"Make it 301." Leah removed her light sweater and hung it carefully on the back of her stool. Then she studied the board, trying to decide what strategy to use. In her younger, rodeoing years, she'd spent so much time in bars that she'd been damn near perfect at this game. But now she figured she'd be lucky to hit the bull's-eye. So she took aim, threw and missed her target by a fraction of an inch. Just enough for the dart to hit a wire and bounce, uselessly, to the floor.
"Out of practice?" Colt asked, his voice all innocent concern.
At a lot of things, Leah thought. Not the least of which was hanging out with an attractive man who was focusing all his attention on her. Not that Colt was hitting on her, or anything. They'd been friends too long for that. But there was a light in his eyes that told her he found her desirable. And that was more than a little distracting for a woman who had spent the past five years mashing baby food and changing diapers.