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Montana Wrangler

Montana Wrangler

by Charlotte Carter

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Big Sky vs. Big City

With a high-flying career in the big city, Paige Barclay rarely finds her way back to the homestead in Bear Lake, Montana. But then a terrible accident leaves Paige in charge of her orphaned nephew. She's prepared to take Bryan back to Seattle, far from the home he loves. Wrangler Jay Red Elk loves Bryan like a son and


Big Sky vs. Big City

With a high-flying career in the big city, Paige Barclay rarely finds her way back to the homestead in Bear Lake, Montana. But then a terrible accident leaves Paige in charge of her orphaned nephew. She's prepared to take Bryan back to Seattle, far from the home he loves. Wrangler Jay Red Elk loves Bryan like a son and knows the boy belongs in Montana. He won't let Bryan go without a fight. But as Paige grows closer to the handsome, determined cowboy, she begins to wonder whether she, too, belongs here—in Bear Lake by Jay's side.

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Tears blurred Paige Barclay's vision as she stood on the wide plank porch of her grandpa Henry's house in the high country of western Montana not far from Glacier National Park.

She hadn't cried at her sister's funeral that morning. Their mother had always said crying was a waste of time and energy. Now, alone with her thoughts and her sense of guilt and regret, Paige's tears were hard to hold back.

Paige eyed the horses shifting around in the nearby corral—her grandfather's stable of horses used in his Bear Lake Outfitters operation. Their tails flashed as they flicked flies away. They stomped their feet. Occasionally they snorted or tossed their heads from side to side as though warning Paige to keep her distance.

Even from several hundred feet, she caught the earthy animal scent, which almost overwhelmed the more pleasant perfume of pine trees.

She wrinkled her nose. Did everyone in Montana have to own a horse?

She'd been terrified of horses almost as long as she could remember. Their size. Their big teeth. And that she'd been dumped from the saddle when she was five years old. A memory she couldn't forget and one that still gave her nightmares. A broken leg. Pain. Surgery that left a scar she could still see.

Her mother upset and angry because she had to stay home to take care of Paige instead of working at the family's hardware store.

Everything about Bear Lake and the outfitting business was entirely different from Paige's life and her career in Seattle. In the same way, Paige and her younger sister Krissy had had little in common.

Krissy had loved horses, loved riding them, the faster the better. Four days ago, not far from here, riding a horse too fast, jumping the horse too far, had killed Krissy.

Growing up, everyone had said Krissy was the pretty sister. The fun-loving sister. Paige was the good sister. The plain sister.

Being pretty hadn't done Krissy much good.

"My sister shouldn't have died so young," she said aloud, as though accusing the horses in the corral.

"If she hadn't been riding so recklessly," a smooth baritone voice announced, "Krissy wouldn't have died, and I wouldn't have had to put a good horse down."

Thinking that she'd been alone, she started. Turning, she discovered Jay Red Elk had walked silently up onto the porch and was now looming over her. Considering she was a good five foot seven or eight, depending on which pair of high heels she wore, that was quite a feat.

Of course, her grandfather's wrangler and trail guide stood well over six feet. His unreadable expression and more than a hint of his Blackfoot heritage in his chiseled cheekbones made him an intimidating figure. Not that she had any intention of backing down to him.

She realized during her occasional visits to Montana in the past few years she hadn't paid much attention to Jay and had purposefully kept her distance from him and his horses. Mostly his horses, she realized.

Now she took a closer look at his hard, potently masculine physique, his closed expression and felt a shiver of awareness scurry down her spine.

"Krissy was reckless from the day she was born," Paige admitted, her throat tight with the tears she hadn't shed. The wildness and rebellion ingrained in Krissy's personality had culminated in her pregnancy at age fifteen. Their parents had sent her here to live with their grandparents and to raise her son, Bryan. Apparently the change of scenery hadn't tamed her spirit.

Jay rested his lean hips on the rustic porch railing and folded his arms across his broad chest. "She didn't respect her horse or the land that is God's gift to us. Perhaps if she had lived longer, she might have grown more wise."

Shaking her head, Paige wasn't at all sure age would have changed her sister. She was surprised, however, to hear the depth of caring in Jay's voice. Perhaps living so close to the land, guiding others through the nearby wilderness areas, had given him a respect for both his horses and the rest of the Lord's creations. She could admire that in a man.

"There were quite a few people at the funeral this morning. She must have had a lot of friends." Paige, who often found herself in her sister's shadow, had envied Krissy her popularity, but not the arguments and fights she perpetually had with their parents. Those battles had sent Paige fleeing to the safety of her room to hide behind a closed door.

"Bear Lake's a small town," Jay said. "Friendly, for the most part. Everyone knew Krissy. Some more than others."

She winced, suspecting those who knew Krissy the best were men eager to take advantage of her. The few relationships Krissy had talked about during Paige's infrequent visits had seemed like disasters in the making.

Despite herself, Paige wondered what the relationship had been between Jay and her sister. Had he succumbed to Krissy's charms? Not that it was any of her concern.

"I would have thought you and Krissy would have had a lot in common." Two attractive people. Horse lovers. How could they not have found themselves drawn to each other?

She felt his eyes, shadowed beneath the brim of his hat, surveying her. "Krissy wasn't my type."

No? What was his type, she wondered.

"Bryan seems pretty quiet for a kid," she said, intentionally shifting her thoughts away from Krissy. Although Paige always sent Bryan birthday and Christmas gifts, she hadn't spent too much time one-on-one with him. In recent years during her short visits, he much preferred to be outside with the horses than visiting with Aunt Paige. Now she wished she'd tried harder to get to know him. "How do you think he's taking his mom's death?"

"Like any twelve-year-old, I guess. He loved his mother." Pushing away from the railing, he shoved his fingertips in the hip pockets of his new jeans and stood looking past Paige toward the corral. Instead of his usual dusty work clothes, he'd worn a turquoise western-cut shirt with a silver bolo tie and a dressy black Stetson to the funeral service at the community church in town. He hadn't changed yet. He thumbed his hat back to a rakish angle. "He's confused. Missing her, I suppose. He spends most of his time either at school or with the horses anyway. He's getting to be quite a good trail hand."

She shuddered at the thought of her young nephew spending so much of his time on a horse. Raised in Lewiston, in a small town in Montana prairie country, Paige was now a full-fledged city girl.

"I hope Grandpa Henry doesn't let Bryan go riding off by himself," she said.

Shifting his attention back to her, Jay's startling blue-green eyes widened and his dark brows lifted. "Why not?"

"Well, because he could get lost. Or hurt." That seemed perfectly obvious to her. This was wilderness country.

"If he got lost, he'd follow his own tracks back to where he started just like I've taught him." Jay shrugged. "As for getting hurt, that can happen to any kid, even ones who live in a big city like Seattle. If you ask me, a kid's better off living here than most any other place I could think of."

She disagreed, and certainly didn't care for his attitude about the city she now called home. After all, Seattle had wonderful parks and schools, top-notch cultural activities and every sporting event imaginable.

She lifted her chin. "I'm going to check on Grandpa. See if I can fix him something to eat." The ladies of the church had provided a buffet lunch following the funeral service even though they hadn't known Krissy well. But she'd noticed Grandpa had barely touched any of the salads or casseroles. "If you could round up Bryan, I'll fix him something, too. Of course, you're welcome to join us."

One corner of his firm lips lifted into an imitation of a smile. "Thanks. I'll come in later."

Jay waited a moment after Paige went inside, then stepped off the porch. He strolled to the bunkhouse where he had his private quarters.

Whenever Paige had shown up at Bear Lake, she'd made no secret of her feelings about Henry's outfitting business. Or her sister's behavior. Granted, she'd been polite, and she'd tried to make friends with Bryan. But a career woman like Paige, who had some hotsy-totsy corporate job with a big hotel chain, had no clue what little boys liked to do.

She'd kept her distance from Jay. Unlike Krissy, who had fallen all over herself trying to seduce him with her bubbly personality and seductive body. He'd known right off that Krissy wasn't a woman interested in a long-term commitment. Once he'd made it clear that he was having none of it, she had moved on to someone more accommodating.

In the process, she often left Bryan's parenting needs to Henry and his late wife, Lisbeth. Over time, Jay had simply picked up some of the slack with Bryan—a good kid who needed a bit of encouragement and guidance.

Oddly, he'd always found Paige more physically appealing than Krissy. Paige seemed more natural than her younger sister, for all that she'd traded a small town for a big city. Instead of bleaching her hair nearly white like Krissy, she'd left it the color she'd been born with, a shade that reminded him of the sleek strands of a palomino's mane. A straight nose and a cute little chin gave her an innocent look. Not as curvaceous as her sister, Paige was a more petite package, yet still feminine.

Not that he ever intended to act on his attraction to Paige. Like always, she'd be gone in a few days. Back to the crowds, traffic congestion and wealthy guests who stayed at her hotel. He wouldn't even try to compete with that.

Jay's apartment consisted of a living room, one bedroom, a bath with a claw-foot tub and a kitchen that was barely big enough to turn around in. Most of the time he ate in the big house with the family, so about all he did in his kitchen was brew coffee, which he drank black and potent.

For an emergency, he kept a jar of peanut butter on hand and some bread in the freezer.

His mother, who lived in Browning on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, kept him well supplied with photos of his nieces and nephews, which he propped on the end table next to the broken-down couch.

A photograph of his wife, Annie, took center stage among the other pictures. Annie had died trying to give birth to their stillborn son nearly six years ago. Annie had been everything a man could want—smart, funny, with dark eyes that sparkled when she smiled, and she rode a horse like she'd been born in the saddle.

Ignoring the familiar tightness in his chest, he went into the bedroom to change into a pair of well-worn jeans, scuffed boots and a comfortable shirt. Although he had a local kid who took care of the horses and was learning to be a trail guide, Jay never took that for granted. The animals were his responsibility.

Paige found her grandfather sitting in his recliner in the living room staring off into space. At eighty-five, he was still lean, his arms striped with ropy muscles, but his hair had thinned, revealing brown age spots the gray strands barely covered. From years in the sun, his face had taken on the look of a topographical map crisscrossed by rivers and canyons.

The room itself was familiar to Paige: the knotty-pine paneling, overstuffed furniture, photographs of Bear Lake on the wall and the upright piano she used to play with Grandma Lisbeth when her family came to visit. Those visits had been rare, her father reluctant to close the hardware store for even a few days.

No wonder she had dreamed of trips abroad, places far from Lewiston and the endless Montana prairie.

"Grandpa, are you hungry? I can fix you something to eat."

Blinking, he turned his watery blue eyes toward her. "I'm going to miss that girl."

"I know." Paige sat on the arm of the couch next to him and took his hand, his fingers gnarled and callused from hard work. Given his age, she wondered if he'd be up to raising Bryan on his own now without Krissy around to help out. Or perhaps he'd been doing exactly that since Grandma Lisbeth passed on.

"She could be a wild one, I'll grant you, but she never hurt anybody," Grandpa said. "Me and Grandma kept thinking having a baby would settle her some. Never did happen." He wiped the back of his age-spotted hand across his mouth. "Still, she had a good heart."

"I know she loved living here with you and Grandma." Her grandparents' unconditional love had given Krissy the freedom to be herself, unlike the strict regimen imposed by their workaholic parents.

But Paige had thought by the age of twenty-seven Krissy should have become a responsible adult.

Five years older than Krissy, Paige wondered if she had paid more attention to her younger sister she might have grown up better. Might have understood how to live within the restraints their parents had demanded. But by the time Paige was ten, she was helping out at the hardware store after school and weekends. At the same time, five-year-old Krissy had hated the store, hated that Mom and Dad had spent so much time there instead of catering to her demands for attention. If only Krissy had tried to think of someone besides herself.

A rush of regret assailed Paige, and she shook the thought aside. No point in dwelling on the past, as her mother would say.

"There's some leftover roast beef from last night. I could make you a sandwich. We've got more macaroni and potato salads in the fridge than we could possibly eat in a lifetime."

"You go ahead and eat something. I just don't have an appetite, child."

Paige found it endearing that Grandpa still called her a child when she'd reached the ripe old age of thirty-two.

"How about coffee and a cookie or two? We ended up with plenty of those, too."

He patted her hand. "Guess I could handle that."

"It'll just take me a minute." She kissed the top of his head.

The kitchen had been updated about ten years ago with granite counters, extra-deep sinks and a double-door refrigerator. The six-burner stove ran on propane and had an oven big enough to roast two turkeys side by side. Grandma Lisbeth had loved to cook for a crowd, including the hired hands they put to work during the summer months.

The kitchen, with its long butcher block table that could seat ten and walls of walnut cabinets, was about as big as Paige's whole condo. Which, since cooking and entertaining at home weren't on her list of talents, was perfectly fine with her.

She was preparing a pot of coffee when Bryan strolled into the kitchen, letting the screen door bang shut behind him.

Paige flinched, nearly dumping coffee grounds all over the counter. She recalled there was a locked gun cabinet in the mudroom filled with rifles and shotguns. She'd never gone near those guns and hoped to goodness Grandpa was careful to keep it locked when Bryan was around.

"Jay said you were fixing something to eat." The boy was nearly as tall as Paige and whip-thin. His blond hair and delicate features made him resemble Krissy. She'd never revealed who Bryan's father was—maybe she didn't know—so there was no way to tell what genes the man had contributed to the boy's appearance.

"Grandpa isn't hungry, but I can fix you a roast beef sandwich, and there are lots of salads crammed in the refrigerator."

"The same stuff they had at the church?"

"Yes. The ladies were very nice to let us bring the leftovers home."

He made a gagging noise. "I'll fix my own sandwich."

Meet the Author

A multi-published author of more than fifty romance, cozy mystery and inspirational titles, Charlotte Carter lives in Southern California with her husband of 50 years and their cat Mittens. They have two married daughters and five grandchildren, who Charlotte is occasionally allowed to babysit. When she's not writing, Charlotte does a little stand-up comedy, G-Rated Humor for Grownups, and teaches workshops on the craft of writing. Visit her website: www.CharlotteCarter.com

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