There's no room in day-care owner Lana Carpenter's life for casual flings. After all, her dream of adopting a baby is closer to becoming a reality than ever. So why is she still mooning over the sexy cowboy who made her forget everything but the strong, sure feel of his arms around her?
It wasn't supposed to be more than one unforgettable night between consenting strangers. But when Sly Pettit spots Lana's photo in the local paper, he grabs at the chance to see her again. The guarded rancher is falling hard for Lana, but it can only end in heartbreak. Unless Sly can trust her with the secrets that keep him from believing that, just maybe, they could have a future together.
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Read an Excerpt
Lana Carpenter woke up with the worst headache ever. With a groan, she cracked one eye open to glance at the clock on the bedside table. But there was no clock, and the dark wood table was nothing like her oak furniture.
She wasn't in her queen-size bed at her town houseshe was in a king-size bed in a hotel room, and judging by the monogram on the sheets, it was the Prosperity Inn, one of Prosperity, Montana's, four-star hotels.
Both eyes were open now. After stealing a peek at the other side of the bedit was empty, but a dented pillow lay close to hersshe sat up quickly, grimacing at the sudden thundering in her temples.
The clock on that side of the bed said it was just after ten. She never slept this lateeven if it was Saturday!
She pulled the dented pillow to her face and the lingering scent of a man's spicy aftershave tickled her nostrils. One whiff and everything flooded back.
Kate picking her up and commiserating with her over the fact that Brent and Julia had had their baby. Driving to the Bitter & Sweet Bar and Grill for dinner and dancing to a live country-and-western band. Consuming too little dinner and too many cocktails in an effort to forget her ex's betrayal. The handsome cowboy at the table across the way, and the strong attraction that had flared between them from the first moment of eye contact.
On the way to the bar, Lana hadn't even thought about meeting a man. She was still recovering from the divorce and had only wanted to forget that Brent's new wife had given him the one thing Lana couldn'ta baby.
Then the sexy cowboy had asked her to dance, and they'd kept on dancing, with short stops for drinks and casual chitchat in between. After a while Kate had grown bored and left. Lana had stayed, with the intention of finding a cab later to take her home. But she'd soon forgotten all about the cab when dancing progressed to long, passionate kisses and the haste to rent a room within walking distance so that she and the cowboy could
"Oh, dear God, I didn't!" she muttered, shattering the quiet.
Her clothes lay in a telltale trail that started just inside the door and ended near the bed. She definitely had.
Which was so unlike her. Another groan escaped from her. Normally, she wasn't much of a drinker. Oh, sure, she enjoyed an occasional glass of wine with dinner, but that was pretty much it. She'd never picked up a stranger, either.
Sly, that was his name, had assured her that he was cleanLana recalled that. She'd stated that she was clean and healthy, too. Shortly after Brent had left her for Julia some eighteen months ago, she'd had herself tested. She hadn't been with a man since.
Until last night.
She and Sly had more than made up for her year and a half of celibacy. Boy, had they.
Her cheeks warmed. Then she remembered that sometime during the night, as they lay tangled together after making love, he'd explained he'd have to leave for work early in the morning. Lana was glad he'd let her sleep instead of waking her to say goodbye, because facing him this morning would have been, at best, uncomfortable.
Mother Nature called. Clutching her head, Lana made her way to the bathroom. There on the counter she found a bottle of aspirin and an unopened half liter of water. Under the water, a note.
Last night was great. This should help with the hangover.
Bless the man for his thoughtfulness. After swallowing several pain tablets with a healthy quantity of water, she studied herself in the mirror. Despite her headache, she looked radiant, as if she was still basking in the afterglow of a night of unbridled passion. Sly was rightlast night had been great.
A long shower helped revive her, and by the time she dried off, fixed her hair and dressed in last night's clothesclean clothes would have been nice, but Lana didn't have any with hershe felt almost normal.
She was shrugging into her coat to leave when her cell phone chirped "It's Raining Men." Kate's favorite song. Lana picked up right away. "Hey there."
"You were supposed to call this morning with the scoop. Tell me that handsome cowboy you were dancing with gave you a ride home."
Lana glanced at the unmade bed, winced and plopped onto a chair. "Not exactly."
"You're saying you turned him down and took a cab instead? That's a crying shame, Lana, because for the first time in forever, you were actually having fun with a really hot guy."
Kate was right about the hot part. Tall, lean and muscled, with startling silvery-blue eyes and a killer smile, Sly was every woman's cowboy fantasy. Lana caught herself in a dreamy sigh and frowned. "He never offered me a ride."
"Well, shoot. And he seemed so into you. How much longer did you dance before you parted company?"
"Um actually, we didn't part company. I'm at the Prosperity Inn." Which was only a few short blocks from the Bitter & Sweet.
"What are you doing at a hotel?" Kate asked, then answered her own question with a singsong "Oh." Her voice softened to an excited whisper. "You should have said something sooner. Call me later."
"It's okayhe's not here."
"You mean he's in the shower?"
"No, I mean he had to leave early this morning to go to work. I slept in."
"It's not like you to spend the night with a guy you just met."
"Tell me about it." As a rule, Lana waited for that level of intimacy until she was in a relationship. "I can't believe I did this."
"Hey, it happens. Did you at least enjoy yourself?"
Lana didn't have to think long about that. Now that her headache was all but gone, other things bubbled into her mind. Good memories that made her whole body hum. "It was pretty special."
"Ooh. Gonna share some details?"
"At least give me his name? Maybe what he does for a living?"
"His name is Sly and I assume he's a rancher. He must be, right? Who else has to get up at the crack of dawn to go to work on a Saturday? I don't know his last name or anything else about him, except that he's never been married. I said I was divorced."
In the heat of the moment, she'd also mentioned that she couldn't have kids. "We agreed that this was a night to forget our troubles and keep things fun and light." They'd accomplished both goals, in spades. "I don't think we'll ever see each other again."
"That's so unlike you."
"So you said." As unforgettable as last night had been, Lana regretted what she'd done. She massaged the space between her eyes. "Remind me to never drink again."
"Don't be so hard on yourself. Look on the positive sideyou're back in the saddle, and a darned handsome cowboy put you there." Kate hooted at her joke. "Besides, you needed to be wild for one night. Once you adopt a baby, you won't be able to overdo the alcohol or stay out all night on a whim."
"I never do either of those things."
"You did last night. Listen, I have to leave for my mani-pedi, but if you need a ride, I can come pick you up in an hour or so."
Lana supposed she could order breakfast downstairs and wait, but she wanted to change into fresh clothes. She also had a jillion things to do todayclean her house, grocery shop, do laundry, et cetera. "I'll take a cab, thanks. Send me a picture of your nails."
"Will do. Talk to you later."
Early April in western Montana usually brought mornings cold enough to see your own breath. Yet this morning, Sly Pettit was sweating like a son of a dog. He also felt like crap. At thirty-five he was no longer able to shake off a hangover with a couple of aspirin as easily as he'd done at thirty.
"Sly? I said, if you're feelin' poorly, Ollie, Bean and I can handle the rest of the branding."
Ace, Sly's longtime foreman, was staring at him oddly, and Bean, a grizzled cowhand, wore a frown. Ollie, a rangy twenty-year-old kid Sly had hired for the spring and summer, shot him a curious glance.
Sly realized he was grimacing and smoothed his expression. When he'd met his attorney at the Bitter & Sweet Bar and Grill for dinner last night, he'd planned on staying about an hour, then heading home. Instead, he'd arrived home just shy of dawn. "I'm okay," he said.
"Well, you look like you've been run over by a tractor and left for dead." Ace blew on his hands to warm them and then shook his head. "It's that trouble with Tim Carpenter, isn't it?"
Bean said nothing, but now he appeared intrigued. Ollie, too.
Sly and his lawyer, Dave Swain, had met to discuss whether Sly should sue Carpenter. The whole idea left a bad taste in Sly's mouth. Dave didn't enjoy it either, and thought Sly should try to work things out with his neighbor, who owned the Lazy C Ranch, which was adjacent to Pettit Ranch. But Carpenter's refusal to sit down and talk had left Sly without much choice.
"I'm not happy about it," Sly said. "But that's not why I look like hell. I'm hungover."
The crew members chuckled.
"Been there more than a few times myself," Ace said. "The way you're sweatin' out that alcohol, you're sure to feel better in no time."
Sly lifted the gate of the holding pen and Ace slapped the rump of one of the January calves they'd culled from the herd earlier.
As the calf loped from the pen and Sly herded her toward the calf table, he thought about the mess with his neighbor. Tim Carpenter had a chip on his shoulder a mile wide, mainly because Pettit Ranch was profitable. Not enough to replenish Sly's all-but-empty savings, but enough to pay the bills. It wasn't his fault the Lazy C continually struggled to stay solvent.
He and Carpenter had never been friends. Now they were enemies. All because a few months back, someone had poisoned Sly's cattle. Two of his heifers had miscarried and had lost any chance of future pregnancies, and three others had died. As a grown man, Sly rarely felt powerless, but he had then. He hated his inability to help his animals as they sickened, as he'd watched them die and feared that others could, too.
Autopsies and tests had proved that his animals had been poisoned with arsenic. Neither Sly nor his crew had any idea who'd do something so heinous. Then by chance, Ace had spotted a small pile of white powder just inside the northernmost pasture fence off the private service road that ran between Pettit Ranch and the Lazy C. He'd tested the powder and determined it to be arsenic. Both ranches shared the road, and no one else had access. Who else but Carpenter could have set the arsenic there?
Still, Sly had given his neighbor the benefit of the doubt. He'd driven to Carpenter's and attempted to question him. The first time Carpenter had ordered him off his land. On Sly's next try, he'd pulled out a rifle and aimed it at Sly's chest.
Which sure made it seem as if the man had something to hide. That was when Sly had quit trying to straighten things out himself and hired a lawyer. Not with the intention of suing, but to get Carpenter to cough up information that could shed light on what had happened. That plan had also failed, and now he really was on the verge of suing.
"Sly?" Ace was waiting for Sly to say something.
"I need to get to the bottom of this poisoning."
Ace rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger. "You're suing, then?"
Ollie and Bean looked down, as if the subject made them uncomfortable.
Join the crowd, Sly thought. "You all know how much those vet bills, tests and autopsies cost, and the cows we lost " Sly shook his head. He wanted to be reimbursed for his losses.
The money he'd spent on all those things had been earmarked for a badly needed new drainage system. The existing one, installed some thirty years ago, functioned on a wing and a prayer. The next big rain could result in heavy flooding and wreak havoc on valuable low-lying pasture-land. Sly and his men could do some of the grunt work, but they needed to bring in an expert. He'd considered taking out a loan to cover the costs, but as it was, the monthly payment on his mortgage was a strain. Any more debt and he'd be in over his head. He wasn't about to jeopardize everything he'd worked for by borrowing more.
"The way things stand," he said, "I don't see any other options."
"He's a tough nut to crack, all right." Ace pulled off his baseball cap and scratched one of his sideburns. "The Bitter & Sweet always brings in a live band on Friday and Saturday nights. I hope you spent some of the evening dancing off your troubles with a pretty girl."
Lana was no girl. She was all woman. "I danced a time or two," Sly admitted.
His foreman, who'd been married umpteen years, nodded approvingly. "Now and then a man's got to cut loose and have some fun."
Ollie, who knew his way around branding and, according to him, around women, too, grinned. "Me and my girlfriend, Tiff? We sure put the f-u-n in our Friday night." He made a lewd gesture with his hands. "But we're doin' that almost every night."
Fun didn't come close to describing Sly's night with Lana, but he wasn't about to talk about that. "Let's get this job done so Ace can take the rest of the weekend off," he said. When time and weather allowed, Sly and his foreman alternated weekends off. This was Ace's weekend, and he and his wife had planned a trip to Billings to visit their college-age son at Montana State.
"Ready with that iron?" Sly asked Ollie.
The four of them spent the next few hours herding the calves one by one to the calf table so that the cows could be marked with the Pettit Ranch brand and then vaccinated. It wasn't exactly rocket science, allowing Sly's mind to replay the previous evening.
Over dinner, Dave had reluctantly agreed to prepare and file the lawsuit, but he was tying up loose ends for several other clients and needed ten days to put the suit together and file the papers. Shortly after the lawyer had finished his coffee and dessert, he'd left to get home to his wife and kids.
Sly didn't have a wife or kids, or anyone to hurry home to. His life was uncomplicated, which was exactly how he liked it. He spent his days working hard to keep his ranch profitable and successful, and enjoyed spending his evenings either going out or relaxing alone in his quiet house. But the whole lawsuit business was unsettling, and last night he'd wanted to take his mind off his troubles. So he'd hung around the Bitter & Sweet, waiting for the band to play.