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Warm August sunlight slanted across the dusty windshield of Cameron McLendon's blue Ford pickup as he drove south on Highway 93. It was such a beautiful day in Montana's gorgeous Bitterroot Valley that he rolled down the front windows to enjoy the afternoon breeze, redolent with the scent of pine. He released a deep breath and tried to toss aside his worries.
West of the four-lane thoroughfare, the Bitterroot Mountains rose with splendid majesty to the clear blue sky, their glacier-chiseled canyons inviting the eye to delve deeper into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Cam, with a professional background in both fish and game biology, knew a totally different world existed in that remote area, a place so rugged and wild that some people couldn't comprehend it. He kept a close eye on the traffic as he took in the magnificent scenery with quick glances. Someday soon he hoped to have the time to take his son on a hike into those canyons.
His tight grip on the steering wheel relaxed. The tension eased from his neck and shoulders. Then he noticed that a light dusting of snow capped the mountain peaks. Only a little, he reassured himself. Only a freak dusting. But it was still a warning that those locals who were predicting an early winter might be right. Damn. Isn't it just my luck? If winter strikes sooner than anticipated, my mother will have difficulty navigating our camp.
Upset, tired, and hungry, Cam bypassed the turn that led to his new hometown, Rustlers' Gulch, and drove farther south to a place called the Cowboy Tree. A bar-and-eatery combo with rustic decor, it offered only limited menu choices, but the food was tasty and easy on the wallet. After parking in the long rectangular lot, Cam checked his reflection in the rearview mirror to fingercomb his hair. Tiny lines had appeared at the corners of his blue eyes. He was only thirty-five, but it had been a stressful summer, and all the worry had taken its toll.
As he pushed through the double doors of the establishment, he felt the casual, welcoming atmosphere surround him. The walls had been papered here and there with dollar bills autographed by customers. Bistro-height tables, handmade from knotty pine and rectangular in shape, flanked the front windows, while regular tables out of the same wood peppered the inner section of the dining room. A bank of poker machines cozied up to a jukebox at one side. Lighted beer signs offset the darkness of aged wood paneling. Three televisions, kept at a low volume, entertained those interested in sports or a news channel.
Though the establishment was busier than usual at this time of day, Cam found an empty place near a window and swung up onto a stool, allowing the hum of conversation behind him to become white noise. A little girl with golden curls wandered over and said hi. He guessed her to be about three, and she was adorable. Cam returned the greeting and watched her toddle back to her parents' table.
At first it had surprised Cam to see minors in places that served hard liquor. Now he took it in stride. Kids weren't allowed to sit at the bar, but they were welcome to come in with adults to eat. The state of Montana apparently believed it was up to parents to decide if a place of business provided an appropriate environment for their children.
Long ago, the Cowboy Tree had been constructed around a ponderosa pine that had developed an impressive circumference over the years, necessitating periodic enlargements of the hole in the roof that accommodated the conifer's massive trunk. Back in his home state of California, Cam had seen trees inside structures, but for some reason they had never seemed so impressive. This pine and the old building appeared to have sprung up from the earth together. The framed hole in the ceiling allowed precipitation to seep in and collect in the massive rock planter at the base. Staff and patrons added water regularly to keep the roots well hydrated, and Cam believed that water had also been plumbed in under the building.
"Hi, Cam!" Trish, an attractive bartender with curly, shoulder-length red hair, flashed a bright smile. "You snuck in on me. Long day?"
Cam laughed and then groaned. "I showed a ranch north of here. Had breakfast at five and not so much as a sip of water since. The potential buyer wanted to walk the land. It's a twelve-hundred-acre parcel. When I make my first sale, buying a side-by-side will be at the top of my list I can tell you that."
"What's a side-by-side?"
"A powerful ATV that seats five. They're built sort of like a golf cart and are awesome for showing property. Not much will slow them down."
"Ah. I've only ever heard them called mules." Trish chuckled. "So thirst and hunger drove you here. I can't imagine trying to walk every inch of that much land. Sounds to me like you should carry a cooler filled with sandwiches and drinks." She circled the bar to serve him a tall glass of water. "The chicken wings are on special, fifty cents apiece, minimum order of five."
Cam thanked her for the drink. "I'll take ten with the apple-cherry glaze. That should hold me until I get supper on the table tonight."
"Your mom still on deadline?" Trish asked.
"Oh, yeah." Cam's mother, Madeline McLendon, was a murder mystery writer of some acclaim. "She'll be too busy killing someone this evening to help me cook. She's always there for cleanup, though."
Trish took a seat across from him. Her green eyes sparkled with amusement. "I finally found time to read one of her books-her most recent, I think, Death by Potato Sprouts. Do you ever worry when she makes you a fruit smoothie that you might not live to drink all of it?"
Cam burst out laughing.
Trish left to place his order, then reappeared behind the bar and held up an empty tumbler. "One for the road?"
"Only one. Make it my usual, please." Cam stood and took his glass of water to the bar, where he could chat with Trish while he ate. Normally a serving of wings arrived quickly, but the cook seemed to be taking his time today. Trish soon grew busy busing tables. One of her helpers, a thin blonde everyone called Cowgirl, refilled Cam's water glass. "How's your day going?" he asked.
"Good," she said without enthusiasm. Cam could tell she hated being there and wondered why she stayed on. Maybe she couldn't find other work. "Not much news to report. Same-old, same-old."
Trish returned, and Cam was glad to see her. At least she knew how to carry on a casual conversation. "I think the cook must have driven to Missoula for more wings," she teased. She made Cam's drink, a dash of Apple Crown over ice, and slid it across the counter to him. Then she held up a leather dice cup. "Want to try your luck while you're waiting?"
The Cowboy Tree ran daily dice games, the details scrawled on a white dry-erase board. The jackpots were often handsome, sometimes as much as a thousand dollars. Cam had won eight hundred one night when his mom had visited Montana to see their land before they purchased it. He'd never thrown a good roll since.
"Nah. I think Mom's my lucky charm. I'll bring her back in for dinner some night and try a few rolls then."
Trish shook the dice, and her cheek dimpled with a saucy grin. "I have a feeling it's your day to win. Roll a full house, and you'll have eight big ones in your pocket."
Cam shrugged, slapped a five-dollar bill on the counter, and stood up. It was only a few bucks, and he rarely gambled. Why not? He took the cup, gave it a shake, and slapped the mouth down on the counter so the dice wouldn't go every which way.
"Oh, my God!" Trish cried in a hushed voice. Then she yelled, "He won. First roll, five of a kind! A thousand bucks, people!"
Cam had four more tries to go. He sensed a crowd gathering behind him. Then, from the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a woman next to him. When he glanced down at her, he felt as if every brain cell he possessed went AWOL. She was beautiful, not the dolled-up kind of beautiful, but naturally lovely. Her straight black hair fell over her slender shoulders like shimmering silk. As far as he could detect, she wore no cosmetics, but that didn't detract from her features, which were delicately molded and enhanced her large dark blue eyes, outlined in long sooty lashes untouched by mascara.
She arched an eyebrow. "Aren't you going to roll again?"
Cam realized that he held the cup frozen at shoulder height. "Sure," he found the presence of mind to say. "You just took the wind out of my sails."
"That's a line that's seen its day," she said with a laugh. "Roll hot, cowboy. I like winners."
Cam shook the dice, and one die shot off the counter. He winced as Trish picked it up, wondering what the hell had gotten into him. He wasn't a hormone-driven teenager.
"Free roll," Trish said.
Cam took another turn. Trish shrieked. When Cam focused, he saw that he'd rolled another five of a kind. He tossed the dice three more times and got zip. After Trish counted his winnings onto the bar, he plucked one bill from the pile and handed it to her.
"You don't have to do that, Cam. A hundred bucks? No way."
"Hey, you're the one who convinced me it might be my lucky day."
As Cam collected his money, the other woman shifted closer and asked, "Would you like to join me at my table?"
Cam swept his gaze downward from her remarkable face to take in the rest of her. She wore a fitted plaid Western shirt that had endured some wear, faded Wrangler jeans, and scuffed riding boots, the toe of one sporting a piece of hay. He also caught the familiar scent of horses mingling faintly with her perfume. He grabbed his drink. Just my kind of gal, he thought. Maybe it really is my lucky day.
As Kirstin Conacher led the way to her table, she was acutely aware of the man behind her. HeÕd caught her attention the moment he entered the building-muscular, six feet of handsome, with tousled hair that gleamed like the well-varnished knotty pine bar. His eyes were a radiant sky blue, and he had a burnished tone to his skin that pegged him as an outdoor enthusiast. She could tell with only a look that he was no stranger to physical labor, and sheÕd been impressed by the easy, warm way he conversed with Trish. No fake charm, no canned lines. She found the sense of authenticity that he gave off very refreshing. There was also something vaguely familiar about him, but she couldnÕt recall ever having met him.
Oh, Kirstin, she mentally scolded herself, what on earth were you thinking to hit on him like that? Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. So what if she'd been searching for the right guy for six years and could hear her biological clock ticking? That was no excuse for her to be so forward. Normally she waited for a man to hit on her, not the other way around.
She resumed her seat, where a martini, extra dirty and straight up, still awaited her. In Kirstin's opinion, Trish made the best one in the valley. Only she hadn't come here for an afternoon drink. The martini was merely one of her stage props. She'd learned over time that men in bars tended to steer clear of a lone woman having a soda. A recognizable mixed drink seemed to spur on conversation.
Cam took a stool across from her. "Have you already ordered?"
She met his gaze, and a tingling sensation moved up her spine. That surprised her. She'd met dozens of handsome men, but she'd never felt like this. "Yes. The cook seems to be dragging his feet today."
"Come here often?"
"Not that often." Liar, liar, boots on fire. She came to the Cowboy Tree as often as she was able to escape from her dad's ranch for a couple of hours. The male patrons tended to be landowners who put in an honest day's work. She knew most of them, and unfortunately, they also knew her. Local men didn't mess with Sam Conacher's daughter. She kept hoping for a stranger to drop in, someone wonderful who wouldn't know about her dad. "Are you new to the valley?"
"Oh, yeah." He flashed a dazzling grin that creased his lean cheeks and displayed straight white teeth. "Anyone whose family hasn't been in the valley for three generations is a newcomer, or so I'm told. It'll be years before I earn the privilege of being recognized as a Bitterrooter."
She bent her head and toyed with her olive pick. Her cheeks went warm again. When she looked up, she said, "I hope I didn't give you the wrong impression. I don't habitually hit on guys."
A twinkle danced in his eyes. "Did you hit on me? It went over my head. I guess I need to get out more."
"My name's Kirstin."
"I know. I heard Trish talking with you after you came in. Short for Cameron?"
"Yep. Cameron McLendon."
Her fingers tightened on the olive pick. "Scottish?"
"Only half. My mom's Irish."
Kirstin's father was a Scot, and he was the most stubborn, irascible man she'd ever known. He hadn't always been that way, though. The death of her mother six years earlier had changed him. "Well, half Scottish or not, you seem nice."
He chuckled. "I take it you have a low opinion of Scots."
"Not really. Just a difficult experience with one in particular." She took a sip of her drink. "So, Cameron McLendon, tell me about yourself."
He smiled. "Boring story."
"So is mine, I'm afraid, but to get acquainted, we have to start somewhere, and I asked first."
He chuckled. "Want me to get two toothpicks so you can prop your eyelids open?" He followed the question with a sigh. "Okay, here goes. I got a job opportunity with Long Barrel Ranches, and I've wanted to live here or in northern Idaho most of my adult life. It was finally my chance to chase my dreams, so I took the position."
"I'm not bored yet. Keep talking."
He shrugged. "For a long time, my dreams took second seat to my responsibilities, and I got stuck in Northern California. It's not that I dislike California, but after a couple of trips to this area, I fell in love. I kept hoping I might settle here, but life kept throwing me curveballs."