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A Hearts of Montana Book
By Jennie Marts, Allison Collins
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Jennie Marts
All rights reserved.
Cash Walker pushed up his sleeves and cocked his head as he heard a car pulling down the dirt driveway of Tucked Away. Taking a last look at the laboring ewe he'd been watching, he stepped out of the barn.
He took off his cowboy hat and swiped a sleeve across his forehead. The scents of autumn filled the air, and the nights had started to cool off, but the days still felt like Montana summer. Shading his eyes from the noonday sun, he spied a car heading toward the barn.
A woman sat behind the wheel of the old beat-up blue compact, and a black-and-white goat stood in the passenger seat next to her.
What the hell?
He recognized Clyde, the resident Tucked Away goat. He was a pain in the butt, often getting into trouble and wreaking havoc around the farm.
But who was the woman, and why was Clyde riding shotgun in her front seat?
He couldn't exactly ask her because she was stuck in her car, her path blocked by Tommie Lee, the farm's cantankerous two-ton bull.
This wasn't the first time the bull had escaped through the fence and pulled this particular trick.
Chuckling, Cash replaced his hat and took a step forward, ready to help another woman in need.
She rolled down her window and laid on the horn as she inched her car forward. "Go on, you brute. Get out of the way."
The laughter died on his lips. Hmm. Maybe this damsel wasn't actually in distress.
The bull gave her a fleeting glance of interest, but apparently didn't think she was worth the annoyance, and wandered toward the corrals next to the barn.
He raised a hand to the woman as she got out of the car. "Hey, there. Something I can help you with?"
She took a tiny step back, a frightened look on her face. "I thought this was Tucked Away — Charlie Ryan's farm."
"It is. I'm Cash Walker, her lead ranch hand." He offered her one of his most charming grins, but her expression stayed wary, and she shrank back slightly at his outstretched hand. She reminded him of a skittish colt, with her chestnut-colored hair, pale skin, and large brown eyes dark and sunken in an otherwise pretty face.
Keeping the car door between them, she ignored his hand, looking to the house as if hoping Charlie would appear. Clyde clamored across the seats and hopped out the open door.
"I know who you are," she said. "I'm Emma Frank. I'm staying at my dad's farm down the road, and he said he thought this was your goat. I was just trying to return him."
"I imagine so. Nobody would want to keep that ornery old cuss on purpose." He gave the goat a nudge. "Get on back to the barn, Clyde."
A small grin tugged at the corners of her mouth, and the start of a couple dozen butterflies fluttered in his stomach.
Dang. When was the last time he'd had butterflies? It was more likely the chili he'd slathered on his burger at lunch. "What's so funny?"
"My dad's name is Clyde, too." The grin spread and lit her eyes. "And he can sometimes be a bit of an ornery old cuss himself."
"Well, knowing Gigi, she just might'a named him after your dad." He still missed Gigi — she'd been the mainstay of Tucked Away, and her recent death still hit him hard at times.
"You're right. She could have. They've been neighbors for years." A wistful expression crossed her face. "I miss Gigi. She was always good to me."
He hated to see her smile fade, but instinctively knew he couldn't come on too strong by teasing her too much. Just like he would with a wary animal, he stayed where he was, trying not to spook her. "I remember you now. We went to school together, right? You were a couple years behind me?"
He tried again, doing his best to put her at ease. Usually he had a way with the ladies, flirting and pouring on the charm, but this one was different. It seemed as if even her own shadow might scare her.
Something about her tugged at his heart. She reminded him of — well, never mind — he pushed that thought aside. "Nice job with that old bull. He trapped Charlie in her car like that earlier this summer, but she was stuck for hours. You didn't even bat an eye at the big son of a gun."
She shrugged, a tiny look of pride crossing her face. "I'm pretty good with animals."
Not so good with people, it seemed. But he kept that to himself.
Instead he nodded toward the open barn door. "Listen, you came along at just the right time. I just happen to need someone who's good with animals. I've got a ewe getting ready to drop a lamb. It's the first time she's been in labor, so I'm trying to keep an eye on her." He gestured to the bull. "Would you mind looking after her while I get Tommie Lee put away?"
He watched her look from him to the barn, the indecision apparent on her face.
"It should just take a few minutes. I can usually lure him back to the pasture with a bucket of oats. I think the big oaf gets out on purpose now just because he knows he gets rewarded with an extra bag of chow."
The corners of her lips tipped up again, and his heart warmed at the small victory of earning even a tiny smile. He held up his hands. "I promise I won't bite. But I'm not making any promises about that goat."
He turned his back to her and headed for the barn to get a bucket of oats. He grinned as he heard the creak and clunk of her door closing and the crunch of gravel as her footsteps followed him.
After filling an old coffee can from the feed sack, he turned to point her in the direction of the ewe's stall, but she'd already found it and was leaning over the side of the fence cooing encouragement to the mama sheep.
Her faded jeans were loose fitting as if she'd recently lost weight, but he could still admire her assets. The soft pink T-shirt she wore hugged her ample bust, and her hair fell in long loose natural curls down her back. The scuffed cowboy boots on her feet told him that she was a true country girl.
Tearing his gaze away from her, he headed outside to chase down Tommie Lee, wondering what it was about this woman that had his hands sweating and his heart pounding a little harder in his chest.
His mom had always accused him of having a soft spot for injured animals, and this woman had "wounded sparrow" written all over her.
Best to focus on the animal that he could manage with a simple can of oats.
It took him about five minutes of coaxing the old bull to get him secured in the pasture, and he stepped back into the barn just in time to see Emma climbing over the rails of the fence and into the ewe's stall.
"Hey, wait. Don't go in there." Rushing forward, he saw her lean down and pick up a newly born lamb and cradle it against her chest. "What are you doing?"
She turned to him, and he saw the thick film of membrane covering the lamb's head. "He can't breathe." Heedlessly disregarding the bloody mess covering her shirt, she pulled the membrane free of the lamb's face and was rewarded with a deep breath and tiny bleat from the baby's mouth.
Emma looked up at him, a victorious smile breaking free. "He's okay."
This woman was full of surprises.
Too skittish to shake his hand, but not afraid to go up against a two-ton bull or get her hands dirty peeling birthing membrane from a baby lamb. He had a feeling animals weren't the source of her fear. At least not the four-legged kind.
Before he could answer, the ewe cried out with a painful maw. A tiny face appeared and the ewe pushed another lamb out, its head slowly sinking to the hay, followed by its body flopping after it. The new baby wriggled and mewled, and Emma set the other lamb down next to it.
They watched in silence as the lambs squirmed and struggled, adjusting to their surroundings, as the ewe licked and cleaned their skinny bodies. Bits of hay stuck to their wet, wrinkled skin as they nuzzled against their mother's side.
Within a few minutes the babies got their feet under them and found their mother's teats, their tiny mouths noisily suckling for milk.
Emma's hand covered her mouth as she watched in amazement. "They're so sweet. Look at their ears."
"You did pretty well with them. I'm awful glad you were here. How'd you know to do that thing with the membrane on its face?"
She shrugged. "We had a few sheep on the farm growing up. I had a couple that I was in charge of for a 4-H project."
He grimaced. "Yeah, that's what these started out as — a 4-H project for our neighbor girl, Sophie. Then somehow we ended up with a dozen, and now I'm in charge of them."
"I'm surprised you're having lambs in the fall. Don't sheep usually have their birthing season in the winter?"
He arched an eyebrow at her and passed her a clean handkerchief from his pocket. "You do know your sheep. You must have done well in 4-H instead of dropping out like me. And yeah, you're right, most sheep do lamb in the winter, but we purposely do ours in the fall. With so few, it's nice to have it done while it's still warm, and we can keep an eye on them."
After wiping her messy hands clean on the handkerchief, she folded it up and apologetically passed it back to him. "Sorry."
"No problem. That's what it's for." He held out his hand to help her from the stall, but she ignored it again and climbed over the fence railing on her own. He nodded to the baby lambs. "They are cute little boogers."
Her face broke into a smile, transforming her features, and his heart did a tiny thump. Dang, she was pretty. Not drop-dead gorgeous, but pretty in a natural way. She wore no makeup, but her cheeks were tinged with color from helping the baby lamb, and her smile reached all the way to her eyes, turning her face radiant.
"I don't recall seeing you around much. You back home for a visit?"
Her open smile shut down, and he instantly regretted his words. "I just moved back in with my dad. It's only temporary, until I can find a place of my own." She stared at the fence railing as she picked at a small splinter of wood. "I recently got a divorce."
He knew she looked familiar. It just took him a while to remember. "Oh, yeah, I know you. I was at Taylor and Cherry's engagement party." No sooner had he said the words than he wished he could take them back. She'd been a guest at the party, and her ex had shown up, drunk and sloppy, and took a shot at her father. He'd heard Leroy Purvis was currently cooling his heels in county lockup for attempted murder.
"I remember seeing you there." She peeled another splinter from the fencing. "It's so embarrassing."
"Hey, now. You've got nothing to be embarrassed about. Except maybe poor taste. Leroy is responsible for his own actions. That's on him. Not on you."
She sighed — breathed out as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders. "Tell that to his family. His brothers blame me for everything."
Yeah, he knew the Purvis boys, and all of them were bad news. "Not a one of them has a lick of sense between 'em so I wouldn't put too much stock in what they think anyhow."
She looked up, offering him another small smile, and all he wanted to do was keep that smile on her face. "Thank you. That's nice of you to say."
"I mean it." And he did. He'd had his share of run-ins with bullies, and the Purvis boys were a nasty bunch. And he knew all too well the courage it took for a woman to walk away from a man who abused her.
Now he understood the skittish behavior and the wary looks. "You were really brave to ask him for a divorce. That took guts."
"I don't feel very brave. But I keep trying. I've found two different jobs and been laid off from both, thanks to Leroy's idiot brothers."
"Leroy's brothers? I don't get it. How could they could get you laid off?"
She let out another heavy sigh. "First, I tried working at a fast food place, you know that Happy Burger on Tenth Ave? In Great Falls?"
"Yeah, I know the place." Great Falls was the closest town to theirs, and it was forty-five minutes away. Their small town of Broken Falls had a population of a little over twelve hundred people, and everyone knew just enough of everyone else's business.
"Well, within a few days of me starting there, Earl and Junior started showing up, ordering small stuff, then hanging out in the lobby and making general nuisances of themselves. You know how they are, mean and kind of intimidating. I'm sure the boss figured it was easier to find a new employee than go up against them."
"Asshats. Pardon my language." He offered her an apologetic grin and was rewarded with the slightest of smiles in return. That small upturn of her lips was doing funny things to his gut, and all he wanted to do was keep that smile on her face.
"The second job was worse. Not the job itself — that was great. I got hired in a little drugstore downtown and for the first few weeks, everything went smoothly. The manager liked me. I worked hard — cleaning up the shelves, organizing, offering to work extra hours — trying to be a model employee. Ya know?"
He nodded, imagining Emma giving the job her all, working hard to please the manager who'd offered her a chance at a new beginning.
"I think it must have taken Earl and Junior a couple of weeks to find me, but eventually they did. My heart sank that first day when I heard the bell ring above the door and looked up to see them walk in. They pulled the same stuff, but worse. Angie, the manager, offered to call the police. But I didn't want to cause her any more trouble. Calling the police would only make it worse, and I knew it would be easier on her if I just quit."
"That's too bad. It sounds like that was a good fit for you."
"It was. I loved that job. I didn't want to leave. But I didn't want Angie's business to suffer because of me. So I saved her the trouble of firing me and quit. She was really nice about it, said how sorry she was and all, but I could see the relief on her face."
"I bet," he said.
"I don't know why I told you all that stuff." She looked at the ground, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "I don't usually talk this much."
"It's okay. I'm happy to listen. But if you're back living with your dad, does that mean you're looking for a job in Broken Falls?"
She shrugged and rubbed at a white line of scar tissue that crossed her lower arm.
He wondered if Leroy had given her the scar. He'd take a bet that he had.
"I guess. I don't know where to look though. It's not fair to the business to have those two — what'd you call 'em — asshats — showing up and causing them to lose customers." The corner of her lips curved up again at the slang term.
"You just need to find a place that won't put up with that nonsense. A place where you feel safe."
She blinked back sudden tears, and it almost tore his heart in two. Maybe that hadn't been the best word. Did she really feel safe anywhere? Having Leroy behind bars should have given her some peace, but instead his two idiot brothers were now following her around and intimidating her.
A notion sparked in his mind. "I have an idea. You free later this afternoon? Can you come into town with me say around three o'clock or so? I might have just the place for you to work. It might only be part-time hours, though."
"That would be okay. I'd take anything right now." Her look of fear turned to one of barely disguised hope, then changed to an expression of wariness. "Why would you want to help me? You barely know me."
His chin dropped, and he raised an eyebrow, ready to lay on the charm and the slow grin that came so naturally to him when it came to pleasing women. But something in him held back, kept his flirty smile in check.
He knew his charm worked on women, young and old, gorgeous and plain. Hell, he'd been using it since he was a teenager and realized a well-placed compliment and a seductive smile could open doors for him and literally charm the pants off some women.
But Emma wasn't some woman. He'd only been in her presence less than an hour, but he recognized something in her. Not just the fact that they'd gone to school together — he barely remembered her from then — but the fear in her eyes was something he knew. The way she tried to be brave, but shied away from trouble, smoothing things over and not causing waves.
Those were things he recognized — things he remembered from a past long ago — from a time that he'd put behind him, sealed up in tight boxes and shut behind a locked door.
Excerpted from Stolen Away by Jennie Marts, Allison Collins. Copyright © 2016 Jennie Marts. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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