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Gabe Chance hadn't expected to get all choked up over riding in Shoshone's annual Fourth of July parade. For the past ten years he'd spent summers competing in cutting-horse events and hadn't been home to take part in this nonsense. But he was home now and it was the first parade without his dad. Milling around the staging area without Jonathan Chance barking orders seemed plain wrong.
His two older brothers were pretending they weren't affected. That was easier for Jack, who was four years ahead of Gabe and eons ahead of the human race in his ability to hide his feelings. Nick was struggling a bit. Gabe could see it in his green eyes. As for their mom—well, Sarah had chosen to wear shades for the occasion. Good call.
Thank God Jack had vetoed Nick's typically sappy idea of tying Gold Rush, their dad's butterscotch paint, behind the Last Chance wagon driven by Emmett Sterling, the ranch foreman. Talk about maudlin. As a compromise, Nick was riding Gold Rush, because a Fourth of July parade wouldn't seem right without that flashy horse prancing down Main Street.
Nick kept close to the wagon because his main squeeze, Dominique Jeffries, was riding in it. She was a photographer based in Indiana and was only here for the long weekend, but from the way those two lovebirds were acting, Gabe predicted she'd soon relocate.
Naturally she was shooting a bunch of pictures of Nick on that horse. She'd never met their dad, so she had no reason to be sentimental today, but every time Gabe looked over at Gold Rush all tricked out in his dad's silver-studded saddle, a baseball-size lump clogged his throat. He needed a distraction and he needed one now.
Well, hallelujah. Just beyond the staging area a gorgeous redhead was struggling to control an Appaloosa. The gelding first tried brushing her off against a post. Then he headed for a patch of grass several yards away and paid no attention as she attempted to steer him back.
Gabe rose in his stirrups and pointed to the redhead as he hollered over at Jack. "I'm gonna help her out. I'll be right back."
Jack gave him a stern look that was pure Jonathan Chance, Senior. "Don't get lost. Parade starts in fifteen minutes."
"I'll be here." Gabe wasn't crazy about the way Jack was issuing orders these days, but their dad's will had put his oldest brother solidly in charge of the ranch. That set Jack and Gabe on a collision course, because suddenly Jack was questioning whether the Last Chance should fund Gabe's cutting-horse events.
Their dad had always said that Gabe's presence on the circuit boosted sales of the ranch's registered paints, and Gabe's horse Top Drawer was only ten grand shy of the required earnings for the American Cutting Horse Association's Hall of Fame. But apparently Jack viewed Gabe's summers away as a drain on the system. Maybe the lack of support was affecting Gabe's concentration, because he wasn't winning as much prize money on Top Drawer this summer, which made for a vicious cycle.
He'd unwittingly brought the issue to a head during an unscheduled trip home with an injured mare he'd saved from the slaughterhouse. Jack had seized the opportunity to keep Gabe at the ranch for a while.
Gabe figured he could change his brother's attitude eventually, but for today he'd set the conflict aside. It was a holiday, one that made them all super-aware that their dad was gone. He'd try to keep the peace, mostly for his mother's sake.
But that didn't mean he couldn't walk Top Drawer over and assist the redhead battling a gelding that didn't seem to like parades. Because Gabe was following the woman, he had a chance to read the embroidered back of her white satin Western shirt. Morgan O'Connelli Real Estate.
He recognized that strange last name from somewhere. He even remembered that it was a weird-ass combination of Irish and Italian created by parents who hadn't wanted to hyphenate their kids' last names. But he wasn't sure why he knew that.
Before he had a chance to reach the woman, the Appaloosa took a notion and started to trot, nearly dislodging her. She lost her cool but not her seat, although clearly she was now merely a passenger and the horse was in charge, probably headed back to the barn.
Gabe nudged Top Drawer into a canter. Luckily he'd chosen to ride this particular horse today. The roan paint had some thoroughbred in him and was much faster than Finicky, Gabe's other cutting horse.
When the Appaloosa gathered his speckled hindquarters and put on his own burst of speed, Gabe decided he was done playing games. Leaning over Top Drawer's neck, he urged his horse on and caught up to the gelding easily. "Hang on!" he called to the woman as he came up on her left.
She abandoned the reins and gripped the saddle horn.
Grabbing the Appaloosa's bridle, Gabe braced himself. "Whoa, son! Whoa, there!"
The horse slowed in tandem with Top Drawer, proving that he was schooled well enough, but had chosen to take advantage of an inexperienced rider. The two horses stopped in the middle of the empty street.
"That's better." Switching his grip from the Appaloosa's bridle to the knotted reins hanging around the horse's neck, Gabe glanced over at the redhead to see how she was holding up. "You okay?"
She flashed him a big smile, but her jaw was clenched tighter than a strap on a hay bale and her face was almost as white as her shirt. "Fine!" She barely moved her lips.
He decided she was in shock. "Stay right there and I'll come get you."
"Fine!" She had a deer-in-the-headlights look and only a faint ring of blue-green showed around her dilated pupils.
Keeping a firm grip on the Appaloosa's reins, Gabe maneuvered Top Drawer until he had room to dismount. Then he ground-tied his horse so he could concentrate on helping the redhead out of the saddle.
She had a death-grip on the saddle horn and was breathing fast, fast enough that she drew Gabe's attention to the front of her shirt. He had a special fondness for big-breasted women, but he knew it was politically incorrect, not to mention rude, to let his gaze linger there. Still, he couldn't help noticing that the top three snaps were undone and a fourth was threatening to pop any minute.
He glanced up at her. "Ready to come down?"
"Sure!" She favored him with another big smile.
"Want any help?"
"No, thanks!" Without any preliminaries she swung her right leg over the horse's spotted rump. But the Ap-paloosa was tall and she wasn't, so unless she loosened her grip on that horn…
As the dismount started going bad, Gabe stepped in and caught her around the waist. "Easy does it."
Just then he heard a pop and figured the fourth snap had given up the ghost.
He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing as he set her on her booted feet with her back to him. Then he stepped away so she had the privacy to refasten her shirt.
In between muttered swear words, she clicked the snap. "Stupid shirt's one size smaller than I ordered. By the time it came in the mail, I didn't have time to get another one."
"These things happen," he murmured.
"There!" She spun to face him and she most definitely had her game face on. "Now I can properly thank you for riding to my rescue, Gabriel Chance. That was awesome."
"You know my name?" He gazed into eyes that were neither green nor blue. He was reminded of the turquoise of tribal jewelry, and again, a memory stirred. He'd swear they'd met before.
"Everybody knows the Chance boys. But besides that, we had one semester together at JHHS our junior year."
"You're Morgan O'Connelli!" He pronounced her surname with an emphasis on the last two syllables, as an Italian would.
"That's me. The daughter of Seamus O'Conner and Bianca Spinelli, the infamous pair who created the confusing last name of O'Connelli, thereby assuring that their children would suffer through each and every class roll call."
"But it's distinctive." She hadn't changed it, either, so she must not hate it that much. Now that he knew who she was, Gabe started sifting back through his memories. "Didn't we work on the junior-senior prom together?"
"We did. We spent the afternoon before the prom blowing up helium balloons and sniffing a little gas now and then so we could sing like the Chipmunks."
"Yeah." He laughed. Just like that, everything about her came back to him—vagabond parents, modern-day gypsies, really, who drifted from one place to another in an old van. A passel of kids, maybe seven or eight. Morgan had been the oldest. Enrolling in the middle of junior year, when most of the class had lived in the Jackson Hole area all their lives, must have been tough.
But she'd thrown herself into school activities with a vengeance, volunteering for all the little jobs nobody else wanted. He'd been going steady with someone at the time, so he couldn't ask her out. Besides, the word around school was that she couldn't date much because she babysat her younger brothers and sisters.
Gabe hadn't allowed himself to think about her in romantic terms, yet he remembered those eyes and that flame-red hair. If he wanted to be perfectly honest with himself, he'd have to admit he also remembered her rack. She'd almost been accepted as part of the gang, and then…she was gone.
"I remember you worked at the diner for a while after school was out that summer."
"Uh-huh. I loved making shakes. And it was a great excuse to get out of babysitting."
He'd loved watching her in that little white uniform, but he didn't say that. "I went in there one day and they said you'd left."
"That was right before the Fourth of July celebration," she said. "And speaking of that, you'd better get back or you'll be late." She unclipped a cell phone from her tooled leather belt. "I'll call the stable and tell them to come get this nag. I'm afraid Geronimo is a parade washout, at least with me on board. Oh, well." She shrugged. "Chi non risica, non rosica."
He knew absolutely no Italian. "Which means?"
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Gabe wasn't fooled. Her cheerful acceptance of her fate didn't ring true. From what he remembered of her, she loved to be part of things and a Fourth-of-July parade would be right up her alley.
"Don't call them," he said. "We'll just switch horses."
She paused in the act of dialing. "That's very generous, but I couldn't possibly accept."
"Don't you want to ride in the parade?"
"Well, sure, but I don't think I quite realized how tricky it would be."
"So this is your first parade?"
She smiled. "Yep. I'm a parade virgin."
"Then we need to change your status today." And if their discussion had sexual overtones, he didn't mind a bit. She'd started it.
Still smiling, she shook her head. "I'll bet your horse is worth a gazillion dollars."
"Doesn't matter." Gabe thought Jack might say it mattered a lot, but Top Drawer was Gabe's horse and he could loan out the roan paint if he wanted to. That meant Gabe would be riding an Appaloosa instead of one of the Last Chance paints, and Jack might not like that, either. The ranch used the parade to showcase their registered horses, so in the past their entry had been all paints, all the time. But Gabe wasn't in the mood to please Jack right now.
"No, really, Gabe. If anything were to happen to him, or to someone in the parade while I'm riding him, I'd never forgive myself."
"Nothing will happen." Gabe gestured toward his horse. Top Drawer hadn't moved since Gabe had dropped the reins to the ground. "He's trained within an inch of his life. You won't have a single problem, but if you're worried, you can ride next to me."
Eagerness gleamed in her eyes for a moment before she looked away. "I really appreciate the offer. You don't know how much." She glanced back at him. "But it wouldn't be right."
"I'd be horning in on your parade entry, interrupting your family event, insinuating myself into a situation that isn't my—"
"Aw, hell, Morgan. You know you want to do it, so just get on my horse and make it snappy or we'll both be late."
She hesitated another second and then grinned. "Okay, Gabe. You're right. I really do want to be in this parade. I've been thinking about it ever since… well, since I was sixteen, I guess."
Thank God he'd offered. "Then let's do it."
"I'll be forever in your debt."
"Yeah? That sounds promising."
She laughed. "Don't get all excited. Opening a business has sucked up most of my capital. But I might be able to swing dinner at Spirits and Spurs if you avoid the steak." She walked over to Top Drawer and scrambled aboard. The fourth snap on her shirt popped open again.
Instantly Gabe thought of another way she could show her gratitude, and immediately felt like a jerk. He was doing a good deed and expected nothing in return. Absolutely nothing.
"Damnation." She pulled the shirt together and snapped it.
Doing his level best not to stare, Gabe led the Ap-paloosa over so he could hold on to the wayward horse while he adjusted her stirrups. No doubt being turned on by a glimpse of her spectacular cleavage reflected poorly on his character.
But there you had it. He was superficial and immature enough to wish that snap would stay open.
"Oh, would you please get my little purse?" she asked. "I left it tied around the saddle horn, and I doubt you'll want to ride in the parade with it hanging there in full view."
"That would be a negative." He fetched the small leather purse, no bigger than a wallet, and handed it up to her.
As she reached for it, the snap popped again. "This is getting annoying."
"Maybe you should give up and leave it undone." He figured every guy along the parade route would be grateful.
She looped the purse strap over the saddle horn and snapped her shirt together again. "Now you sound like my mother—if you've got it, flaunt it."
"Your mom said that?" Gabe couldn't imagine that sentence ever crossing his mother's lips, especially in relation to one of her kids.
"She's Italian," Morgan said, as if that explained everything.