Wild spirit Jolie Brody never dreamed her new boss at the ranch supply store would be Dylan Culver. They haven't seen each other since high school, but he's just as straitlaced as ever. Good thing it's only temporary; Mr. Uptight is in town nursing an injury before he goes back to law enforcement.
As they work togethersurprisingly wellthey can't deny their attraction. Letting a kiss lead to love is a commitment Jolie has never had to risk. So why is she now flirting with the possibility of a future with Dylan a man with a dangerous job that makes everything complicated?
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Dylan Culver maneuvered his beat-up Chevy truck between the stacks of hay and straw behind the family feed store and parked in his old spot next to the grain shed. He'd never in a million years thought he'd be back in Montana, back at the store. Back at the place his dad had worked so hard to keep him away from.
At least it was temporary. Four months until his cousin Finn returned from his National Guard deployment. Four months to focus on something other than the aftermath of his failed marriage or the accident that had put him on desk duty. By the time Finn took over the reins again, Dylan would be fully healed and ready to get the hell out of Dodge.
Okay he was ready now, but he'd promised Finn he'd take care of Mike, their grandfather, and the store and that was exactly what he was going to do. The unsettled business he'd left in Washington State could wait.
Grabbing his granddad's dented metal lunch pail from the seat beside him, he opened the door and stepped out into the driving rain. Unlike the grain shed siding, which was now flapping in the wind, the tarps covering the hay seemed to be secure. Good, because he couldn't afford having hay returned due to mold.
In fact, after looking over the profit-and-loss sheets Finn had left with Mike, he was glad he'd become used to living frugally over the past couple months. Not that Finn hadn't done a decent job running the place, but with two chain ranch stores opening up within easy driving distance, they'd lost clienteleand employees. Their longtime cashier had left to go to work for Western World, and their bookkeeper had recently retired. Now with Finn deployed and his grandfather recovering from hip surgery and about to move into a smaller house, Dylan and the new bookkeeper had some challenges ahead of them.
Bowing his head against the rain, he started to jog as he rounded the corner to the main entrance, gritting his teeth against the residual pain in his injured leg. The lights were on inside the old building but the door held fast when he pulled on the handle. He reached into his pocket for his keys, but the door swung open before his fingers touched metal. "Thanks," he said, stepping inside and shaking the rain off before glancing at the woman who stood there.
"Jolie?" He had the odd sensation of his blood freezing. Perhaps one of the warning signs of a heart attack?
"Hi, Dylan." Her voice was still husky, her hair still long and reddish blond, her eyes the greenest he'd ever seen. "Long time."
Not long enough.
When Finn had said he'd hired an assistant to help with the store, Dylan had somehow assumed he'd hired someone Dylan could work with. Well, now he knew why his cousin had been shifty about the new hire. What in the hell had Finn been thinking? And, yes, he definitely felt a strong squeezing sensation in the middle of his chest.
"You're dripping," Jolie said, interrupting his heart attack.
Dylan glanced down. There was water falling from the brim of his ball cap onto the floor near his boots. He pulled off the hat, gave it a shake. When he looked up, she was regarding him with an ironic half smile.
"You didn't know I worked for you, did you?"
"No." Dylan moved forward to set the lunch pail on the counter, trying not to notice that she looked even better than she had back in high school when she'd made his life miserable by not taking anything seriously. That wouldn't have bothered him if she hadn't been his chemistry partner for the year and if he hadn't needed a strong A to sew up some much-needed scholarships.
"I moved back to the Lightning Creek about six weeks ago." She leaned an elbow on the tall counter next to him, looking relaxed, as she always had during situations that'd sent his blood pressure skyrocketing. After nearly a decade of being a patrol cop, his blood pressure rarely triggered anymore except, obviously, when he discovered that his nemesis was his employee. "This was the only job I could get close to home," she continued.
He noticed that while she'd sounded cool and confident, she was watching him carefully.
"Imagine that," Dylan said.
"It isn't because I'm unemployable," she said smoothly. "It's because it's the end of winter and no one is hiring."
"Except Finn." Bless his black heart.
"I might have reeled in a favor," Jolie said, and even though she spoke matter-of-factly, Dylan didn't want to know what kind of favor. "I needed the job and, frankly, I think this place needs someone like me."
"This place needs you?" She looked about as out of place therewith her form-fitting, blinged-out white shirt tied at the waist and short denim skirtas a rosebush in a hay field. Easy on the eyes, but somehow didn't belong.
"Look at it," Jolie said, making a sweeping gesture. "Dark, depressing." She ran a finger over the counter next to her. "Dusty."
"It's a feed and seed store," he said as if she were dense, which he knew she wasn't.
"A depressing feed store. Why would anyone come here"
"To buy feed?"
"when they could go to a more modern place and get the same thing and a whole lot more?"
"Because we're a local institution."
"That would be the only reason as far as I can see. Your prices are barely competitive."
"Well, maybe if you took a job elsewhere you wouldn't have to be stuck in this dark, depressing " He paused, trying to recall the third D she'd mentioned in her unsolicited critique.
"Dusty," she supplied. "And at the moment, I don't want a job elsewhere."
"Why not? Surely your talents could be better used in a less dusty environment."
"The employee discount. I buy a lot of feed."
"And you can't get a job anywhere else?"
"I could if I wanted to travel. I don't." She sauntered a step closer, her full lips curving into a half smile that didn't reach her eyes. "I can get something else when the market opens up. I have experience." She said the word in a way that sent his imagination shooting into areas it probably shouldn't travel, even if that hadn't been her intention. He yanked it back to where it was supposed to be. When had he ever reacted like that to Jolie Brody?
"However, the market is tight. I now have a job close to home and I'm sticking with it." Her smile became a touch warmer. "I promised Finn."
He and Finn were going to have a talk as soon as he could get him on the phone.
The bell rang over the front door and Morley Ames walked in, kind of. The old guy, a close friend of his grandfather's, was stooped over and skinnier than the last time he'd seen him, but his voice was just as booming as ever as he hailed Dylan.
Jolie smiled at Dylan and went behind the counter where she'd apparently been cleaning, since she quickly moved a bottle of spray cleaner out of sight.
"Morley," Dylan said, moving forward to shake the man's hand. "Good to see you."
"So it's trueyou've given up law enforcement and moved home. I didn't believe it when Gina told me at the cafe."
"I'm just on leave," Dylan said, noting that Jolie gave him a quick, curious glance before settling herself in front of the computer. "I thought I'd come here to escape all the rain," he said with a smile, indicating the puddle that was forming around Morley's feet as water dripped off his black hat and raincoat.
The old man looked up at him with an appreciative smile. "We all need a change sometimes," he said.
"Can I help you with something?" Dylan asked before Morley launched into personal questions he'd have to deflect.
Morley pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it, squinting through his fogged glasses as he read, "Hen scratch. Rolled oatstwo bags. Salt block"
"Do you want minerals in that?" Jolie asked as she came to stand next to the old man, cocking her head to see his list. He beamed and handed it to her. She took it gently and squinted a little herself at the light-penciled script on the sheet of pale blue paper. "Lillian wrote this, didn't she?"
"Woman can't put pressure on a pencil," Morley muttered. "Arthritis."
"I have something for her," Jolie said. "A special cream that just came in. I'll see if I can find a sample while Dylan loads your truck." She handed Dylan the paper.
Way to give orders, Jolie.
Dylan frowned as he took the list, suddenly understanding why they were both squinting. It was as if Morley's wife had written in faint code. "Do you need this to write the ticket?" he asked Jolie, hoping she would decode it for him.
"Nope. I got it. Hen scratch, twenty-five pounds. Two fifty-pound bags of rolled oats. One salt block"
"No minerals," Morley added.
"No minerals," she repeated with a smile. "Three ivermectin, bag balm and a fly spray." Jolie reached out to gently take Morley's hand in hers, examining it. "Are you using bag balm for your hands?"
"Yeah." Chapped and cracked hands were a mainstay of ranching life, particularly in winter. The ointment used to heal milk cows' chapped utters was the go-to remedy.
"It works," Jolie said. "But I have something else you could try if you wanted."
"Will it make me smell like a whorehouse?"
"Unscented," Jolie said. "And it doesn't stay greasy like bag balm, so the hay and dirt won't stick to your hands."
"Throw it in. Maybe Lillian will like it."
Dylan loaded the truck and then came back inside the store as Morley drove away. "Are you in some kind of hand cream business?"
"What if I am?"
"I guess my question is more along the lines of should you be hawking your wares in my store?"
"I'm not selling the stuff," Jolie said. "I gave him samples."
"Am I selling the stuff?"
"You could be."
"I don't think so."
Jolie gave him a long look and he had the impression that he'd reacted exactly as she'd expected him to.
"If you diversify a little, or try some new sales gimmicks, you might bring in more customers."
"Our customers come here to buy feed, and I'm not into gimmicks." Thinking that he needed to get out of there, Dylan grabbed his lunch pail and headed for his cousin'snow hisprivate office. His father, uncle and grandfather had always subscribed to the theory that you stocked what the majority of your customers needed. Money spent on inventory that took forever to sell was money that could be in the bank, drawing interest. He may not have anticipated a future in business, but he did recall that particular facet of the sales game being discussed often and at length as the brothers debated what merchandise to carry beyond feed and seed.
Mike had even repeated his business theory a few times that morning before Dylan left for work, as if Dylan were going to start ordering useless items as soon as he got close to a computer.
He closed the door and stood for a moment, shoving thoughts of Jolie aside as he took in the familiar cluttered space that was now his center of operations. The desk was clean and the computer was almost new, but the counter and the top of the file cabinet were stacked high with old catalogs and an assortment of junk, as they had always been.
Piles had also accumulated along the wall under the old calendar, which featured a woman in Daisy Duke shorts kneeling on a tractor seat while holding a big wrench and wearing a come-hither smile. It'd been there for as long as Dylan could remember. As a boy, he'd been perplexed by the idea of a scantily clad woman kneeling on the tractor. Every woman he'd ever seen on a tractor had worn jeans and a T-shirt and sat in the seat so that she could drive the thing. And what was with the wrench?
He smiled a little as he put the lunch pail down next to the desk, remembering when he'd come to appreciate those Daisy Dukes and realized that the woman had no interest in plowing fields. He'd barely booted up the computer when the old-fashioned intercom buzzed and Jolie said, "Could you load up this customer?"
He went out into the rain to squeeze three bags of grain into the rear of a Subaru Forester, then decided to shift a pallet of grain for easier access. A few minutes later he came back into the store, shaking water off his hair, his leg giving a little as he turned to close the door.
"Who usually loads?" he asked Jolie, who glanced up from her computer screen.
"Who loaded customers during the past week?" The transition time between his arrival and Finn's departure. He knew it wasn't his grandfather, who'd had a hip replacement a month ago.
"Was the forklift having problems?"
"The engine has been missing, and I had a hard time starting it." She tilted her head. "Why?"
"It won't start at all now."
"I had a feeling this day was coming." She reached for the phone. "Do you want me to call Bobeck's? See if they can send someone over to take a look?"
"I'll do it." It'd been a while since he'd ripped into an engine, but it'd be cheaper than paying Bobeck's mechanics rate. He took a few steps toward the counter and Jolie frowned.
"Did you hurt yourself?"
He'd figured the question would come up since his limp was still noticeable when his leg got tired and he'd made the mistake of overdoing his physical therapy that morning. "Banged up my leg in an accident."
Go ahead, Jolie. Ask what kind of accident. She'd always been brimming with questions about his personal life and comments about his lack of social life. But this time she said only, "Nothing permanent, I hope."
"No. It's almost healed." In a few weeks' time he'd head back to his doctor in Lanesburg, Washington, to get the release he needed to go back to work once Finn returned home, which was why he'd overdone his PT. He had to get that release to continue his career.
"So you can still load the feed? Because if not I'll do it."
"I'm capable." And, besides, there was no way he was going to stand back and let Jolie do it.
"The offer stands," Jolie said, running her gaze over him as if assessing his capabilities.
She was enjoying this. He told himself to walk away, to let it be for now, but instead he said, "We need to talk about working together."
She looked surprised. "In what way? You're the boss, and I'm the employee."
Her matter of fact words felt like a trap.
"In the way that this is not going to be a replay of chem class." She had never understood how important it had been for him to do well in that class, in all his classes. To get those scholarships for his dad, even though it hadn't really mattered in the long run. His dad had passed away before he'd completed his schooling and he'd ended up being a patrol cop instead of a forensic specialist.
She stared at him for a long moment. "That's kind of insulting."
He flattened both palms on the counter in front of him. "I just want us to understand each other."
"Then understand that I'm insulted."
"That wasn't my intention."
"What was your intention?"