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He was known as a major player who'd left a swath of broken hearts across the Teton Valley. Yet when single mother Jenny Boyer saw the tenderness in Seth Dalton's eyes when he looked at her children—not to mention her—it was impossible for her to believe it was all a game.
She was new to this small town, a school principal who needed to be respected. The last man she should be getting involved with was the Hunk of Cold Creek! But every time Seth came near, Jenny could feel herself falling…like all of the women who'd come before her. So why did she hope that her story would have a different ending—as in, happily ever after?
Originally published in 2006.
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Some little punk was stealing his car.
Seth Dalton stood on the sidewalk in front of his mother's house, the puppy leashes in his hand forgotten, and watched three years of sweat, passion and hard work take off down the road with a flash of tail lights and the squeal of rubber.
Son of a bitch.
He stood looking after it for maybe fifteen seconds, trying to comprehend how anybody in Podunk Pine Gulch would have the stones to steal his 1969 Matador red GTO convertible.
Who in town could possibly be stupid enough to dream he could get more than a block or two without somebody sitting up and taking notice that Seth wasn't the one behind the wheel and raising the alarm?
Just how far did the bastard think he would get? Not very, if Seth had anything to say about it. He'd worked too hard on his baby to let some sleazebag drive her away.
"Come on, kids. Fun's over." He jerked the leashes, grateful the dogs weren't in midpee, and dragged the two brindle Australian herder pups up the sidewalk and back into the house.
Inside, the members of his family were crowded around his mother's dining-room table playing one of their cutthroat games of Risk.
Looked like Jake and Maggie were kicking butt. No surprise there, with his middle brother's conniving brain and his wife's military experience. The Dalton clan was in its usual teams, Jake and Maggie against his mother and stepfather, with his oldest brother, Wade, and wife, Caroline, making up the third team.
That was the very reason he'd volunteered to take the puppies out for their business in the first place. It was a little lonely being the solitary player on his side of the table. Usually he teamed up with Natalie — but it was a little disheartening to find his nine-year-old niece made a more cutthroat general than he. She was in the family room watching a video with her brothers, anyway.
The only one who looked up from strategizing was his mother.
"Back so soon? That was fast!" Marjorie crooned the words, not to him but to the puppies — or her half of the dynamic duo anyway. She picked up the birthday gift he'd given her and nuzzled the little male pup.
"You're so good. Aren't you so good? Yes, you are. Come give Mommy a birthday kiss."
"Don't have time, sorry," Seth said drily.
He ignored the face she made at him and reached for the keys to Wade's pickup from the breakfast bar. "I'm taking your truck," he called on his way out the door.
Wade looked up, a frown of concentration on his tough features. "You're what?"
He paused at the door. "Don't have time to explain, but I need your truck. I'll be back. Mom, keep an eye on Lucy for me."
"I just washed that truck," his brother growled.
"Don't bring it back all muddy and skanky."
He wasn't even going to dignify that with a response, he decided, as he headed down the stairs. He didn't have the time, even if he could have come up with a sharp response.
Wade's truck rumbled to life, smooth and well-tuned like everything in Seth's oldest brother's life. He threw it in gear and roared off in the direction the punk had taken his car.
If he were stealing a car, which road would he take? Pine Gulch didn't offer a lot of escape routes. Turning south would lead him through the houses and small business district of Pine Gulch. To the east was the rugged western slope of the Teton Mountains, which left him north and west.
He took a chance and opted to head north, where the quiet road stretched past ranches and farms with little traffic to notice someone in a red muscle car.
He ought to just call the police and report the theft. Chasing after a car thief on his own like this was probably crazy, but he wasn't in the mood to be sensible, not with thirty thousand dollars' worth of sheer horsepower disappearing before his eyes.
He pushed Wade's truck to sixty-five, keeping his eye out in the gathering twilight for any sign of another vehicle.
His efforts were rewarded just a moment later when he followed the curve of the road past Sam Purdy's pond and saw a flash of red up ahead.
His brother's one-ton pickup rumbled as he poured on the juice and accelerated to catch the little bugger.
With its 400-cubic-inch V8 and the three hundred and fifty horses straining under the hood, the GTO could go a hundred and thirty without breaking a sweat. Oddly enough, whoever had boosted it wasn't pushing her harder than maybe forty.
His baby puttered along fifteen miles below the speed limit and Seth had no problem catching up with her, wondering as he did if there was some kind of roving gang of senior-citizen car thieves on the loose he hadn't heard about.
He kept a respectable two-car length between them as the road twisted again. He knew this road and knew that just ahead was a straightaway that ran a couple of miles past farmland with no houses.
He couldn't see any oncoming traffic so he pulled into the other lane as if to pass and drew up alongside his baby, intent on getting a look at the thief.
He was a punk, nothing more. The kid behind the wheel was skinny, dark-haired, maybe fifteen, sixteen. He looked over at the big rumbling pickup beside him and he looked scared to death, eyes huge and wild in a narrow face.
Good. He should be, the little dickhead. Seth rolled the window down, wishing he could reach across, pluck the kid out of the car and wring his scrawny little neck.
"Pull over," he shouted through the window, even though he knew the kid wouldn't be able to hear him.
He must have looked like the Grim Reaper, Freddy Kruger and the guy from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all rolled up into one, he realized later, and he should have predicted what happened next. If he'd been thinking straight, he would have handled the whole thing differently and saved himself a hell of a lot of trouble.
Even if the car thief couldn't hear Seth's words, obviously the message got through loud and clear. The kid sent him another wild, scared look and yanked the wheel to the right.
Seth growled out a raw epithet at the hideous sound of metal grinding against metal as the GTO scraped a mile marker post on the right. In reaction, the kid panicked and swerved too hard to the left and Seth groaned as his baby nosedived across the road and landed in an irrigation ditch.
At least it was blessedly empty this time of year. The sun was just a sliver above the horizon and the November air was cold as Seth hurriedly parked the pickup and rushed to his car to make sure the kid was okay.
He jerked open the door and was petty enough for just a moment to enjoy the way the kid cringed against the seat like he thought Seth was ready to break his neck with his bare hands.
He felt like it, he had to admit. He had no doubt the GTO's paint was scraped all to hell from the run-in with the mile marker post and the left fender looked to be crumpled where she'd hit a concrete gate structure in the ditch.
He held on to his anger while he checked the thief for any sign of injury.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Yeah. I...think so." The boy's voice shook a little but he warily took Seth's hand and climbed out of the car.
Seth revised downward his estimate of the boy's age, figuring him to be no older than thirteen or fourteen. Just old enough to start shaving more than once a month, by the look of it.
He had choppy dark hair worn longer than Hank Dalton would ever have let his sons get away with and he was dressed in jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt about four sizes too big with some logo of a wild-looking music group Seth didn't recognize.
The kid seemed familiar but Seth couldn't immediately place him — odd, since he knew just about every kid in the small community. Maybe he was the son of one of the dozen or so Hollywood types buying up good grazing land for their faux ranches. They tended to stay away from the general population, maybe afraid the down-home friendliness and family-centered values would rub off.
"My mom is gonna kill me," the kid moaned, burying his head in his hands.
"She can stand in line," Seth growled. "You have any idea how much work I've put into this car?"
The kid dropped his hands. Though he still looked terrified, he managed to cover it with a thin veneer of bravado. "You'll be sorry if you mess with me. My grandpa's a lawyer and he'll fry your ass if you try to lay a single hand on me."
Seth couldn't help a short, appreciative laugh even as the pieces clicked into place and he registered who the kid must be and why he had looked familiar.
With a grandfather who was a lawyer, he had to be the son of the new elementary school principal. Boylan. Boyer. Something like that.
He didn't exactly hang around with the elementary-school crowd but Natalie had pointed out her new principal and the woman's two kids one night shortly after school started when he'd taken his niece and nephews out to Stoney's, the pizza place in town.
His grandfather would be Jason Chambers, an attorney who had retired to Pine Gulch for the fishing five or six years back. His daughter had moved out to join him with her kids — no husband that Seth had heard about — when the principal position opened up at the elementary school.
"That lawyer in the family will probably come in handy, kid," he said now.
The punk groaned and his head sagged into his hands once more. "I am so dead."
He wasn't quite sure why but Seth was surprised to feel a few little pangs of sympathy for the kid. He remembered all too well the purgatory of this age. Hormones firing, emotions jerking around wildly. Too much juice and nothing to do with it.
"Am I going to jail?"
"You boosted a car. That's a pretty serious crime. And you're a lousy driver, which is worse, in my book."
"I wasn't going to take her far. You've got to believe me. Just to the reservoir and back, I swear. That's all. When I saw the keys inside, I couldn't resist."
Damn. Had he really left the keys in the ignition? He looked inside and, sure enough, there they were, dangling from the steering column.
How had that happened? He remembered pulling up to his mother's house for her birthday dinner, then rushing out to take care of business when Lucy started to squat on the floor mats. Maybe in all the confusion, he had been in such a hurry to find a patch of grass before his puppy busted her bladder that he'd forgotten his keys.
What kind of idiot left his keys in a ride like this, just begging for the first testosterone-crazed teenager to lift her?
Him. He mentally groaned, grateful at least that the boy hadn't been hurt by their combined stupidity. "What's your name, kid?"
The boy clamped his teeth together and Seth sighed.
"You might as well tell me. I know your last name is Boyer and Jason Chambers is your grandpa. I'll figure out the rest."
"Cole," he muttered after a long pause.
"Come on, Cole. I'll give you a lift to your grandpa's house, then I'll come back and pull her out with one of my brothers."
"I can walk." He hunched his shoulders and shoved his hands in the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt.
"You think I'm going to leave you and your sticky fingers running free out here? What if you happen to find another idiot who's left his keys in his ride? Get in."
Though Cole still looked belligerent, he climbed into the passenger side of the pickup.
Seth had just started to walk around the truck to get in the driver's side when he saw flashing lights behind him.
Instead of driving past, the sheriff's deputy slowed and pulled up behind the GTO. Seth glanced at the boy and saw he'd turned deathly white and his breathing was coming fast enough Seth worried about him hyperventilating.
"Relax, kid," he muttered.
"I am relaxed." He lifted his chin and tried for a cool look that came out looking more like a constipated rabbit.
Seth sighed and closed his door again as he watched the deputy climb out of the vehicle. Before he even saw her face, he knew by the curvy shape that the officer had to be Polly Jardine, the only female deputy in the small sheriff's department.