Authors: Victoria Vane
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Copyright Â© 2014 by Victoria Vane
Cover and internal design Â© 2014 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Dawn Adams
Cover art by Claudio Marinesco
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systemsâexcept in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviewsâwithout permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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Thank you for spurring me into the twenty-first century.
The fasten seat belt sign glared like a malevolent beacon.
Clutching both armrests with clammy palms and white knuckles, Nikki diverted her terrified gaze from the sign to the window, where lightning slashed the black clouds. She then looked in panic to the seat pocket in front of her, vainly seeking the little white paper bag.
God, don't let me get sick! Breathe, Nikki. Just
As if on cue, the plane took another turbulent lurch, sending bile to the back of her throat.
Was this foul weather some kind of dark omen? What would happen if lightning struck the plane? Or would they just run out of fuel while circling the blackened skies above Denver?
She hated flying. Always had. Maybe it was irrational, but she despised any situation that placed her fate under anyone else's control. On a normal day she didn't even like being a passenger in a car. Flying, however, literally put her life in a perfect stranger's hands, so she avoided it at all costs.
But Atlanta to Sheridan, Montana, was over two thousand miles, an impossible drive with only a three-day bereavement leave.
She closed her eyes, willing away the nausea churning her stomach, wishing she had never received the fateful phone call, and hoping that this entire episode was just a very bad dream. She didn't know why she'd felt such a strong obligation to get on the damn plane in the first place. He'd bailed out when she was only seven, after all. Followed by over twenty years of stone-cold silence.
Then the letter arrived.
It had come to her with a Bozeman, Montana, postmark, but no return address. Still, she had known it was from
. She hadn't opened it, but she hadn't destroyed it either. Instead, it sat in a state of purgatory in her desk drawerâuntouched for eighteen months. Well, that wasn't quite right either, for she had
it often enough. Picked it up, turned it over, smelled the familiar Marlboro scent, and thrown it back in the drawer again. Everything short of actually opening it. The letter represented a virtual Pandora's box of heartaches that she just wasn't willing to experience again. So, she'd buried it. Chapter closed. Until the blasted phone call with news that unleashed a gale of emotions about a man she'd hardly known.
Hours later she'd torn the letter open, devouring every line as if starved. She wished she'd never read it because then she wouldn't have cared. But she had, and she did. But now it was too late.
He was gone.
They would never get to say what needed saying. She would
see his face again. The letter left her with a relentless ache in the middle of her chest, a pain that she suspected would continue to eat at her until she followed this through. In the end, she'd had no choice but to suffer the motion sickness and face her near-paralyzing fear of flying.
The garbled voice of the captain jarred into her wildly rambling thoughts. Three precious words were all she understood, but also all she cared aboutâ
* * *
Nikki anxiously waited another fifteen minutes before the plane actually hit the tarmac. It had barely reached the Jetway before she flipped the seat buckle and snatched the shoulder strap of her oversized purse, the one she'd barely managed to cram under the seat to begin with. A struggle to release it ensued, eating up valuable seconds before she could escape from the flying deathtrap. One last tug and it lurched free, only to have the contents spill helter-skelter all over the floor.
“Help me, sweet Jesus,” she murmured, more curse than prayer.
She scrambled to collect her cell phone, tubes of lipstick, feminine products, and miscellaneous other objects that littered the floor. By the time she'd gathered everything up and crawled out from under the seat, passengers were jamming the aisle.
With nothing else to do but stand there with her neck craned to avoid the overhead compartments, she turned on her cell phone to check for messages, but the digital clock sent her heart lurching into her throat.
Her connection to Bozeman was scheduled to depart in eighteen minutes! Even if she could squeeze out of this sardine can, she'd never make it across the behemoth Denver airport to her next gate.
, was the answer when she arrived, winded and flustered, at gate fifty in Terminal C to find stranded passengers camping around the counter.
* * *
“Please, you've got to help me,” Nikki pleaded with the gate agent. “I didn't even want to make this trip to begin with, but my father has passed away. I
to get on this flight.”
“I'm sorry for your loss, miss.” The agent's gaze barely flickered up from the computer monitor. Although the words were sympathetic, the voice was anything but. “I have done all I can. The next flight is already overbooked due to the inclement weather and all the earlier cancellations. I have you on standby, but I wouldn't get my hopes up. I can confirm you on our noon departure tomorrow.”
You mean I'll be stuck here overnight?”
The woman glanced up with an exasperated sigh. “We can provide a room and meal voucher.” She gazed over Nikki's shoulder and beckoned to the next passenger.
“Wait! You don't understand! I
to be there.”
Nikki felt a burning sensation behind her eyes.
together, Nikki. You've already made an ass of yourself in front of a hundred strangers. Don't you dare
“I'm sorry, miss.” The agent's face was completely impassive, now looking past Nikki as if she wasn't there. “Next in line, please.”
With eyes blurring with tears she still refused to acknowledge, Nikki spun around but found no vacant seats close to the gate. Lacking any other options, she threw herself to the floor beside her bag, fished out a Kleenex from her purse, and blew her nose loud enough to draw some stares. Well,
What had possessed her to break down into near-hysterics over a man she'd hardly known? She shook her head, drew in a ragged breath, and scrubbed her face with her palms. For a moment she deliberated turning back, catching the next flight to Atlanta, but that would be cowardly.
And Nikki was no coward.
She'd proven it enough times in her life. Except for flying, that is, but she'd even braved
horror when she'd had to. She drew another long and shaky breath in an effort at composure, glaring back at those who still gaped at her, reserving her best glower for the cowboy she'd caught staring at her ass. He was slouched in his seat with his Stetson hat and ostrich Lucchese boots, his long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, taking up all the surrounding floor space as if he owned it.
God, how I hate arrogant, swaggering
She'd had a bellyful of them with their tall boots, big hats, monster trucks, Red Man, and NASCAR. It was one of the reasons for getting the hell out of Toccoa ten years agoâto avoid repeating all of her past mistakes involving no-account cowboys. At least greater Atlanta had a more diversified mix of losers and playersâthe only two breeds of male she'd identified so farâunfortunately,
When Marlboro Man rose to talk to the gate agent, she assumed he must also be on standby. She slanted a covetous glance at his seat the moment he'd vacated, as did several other people. Well hell, if she didn't take it, someone else certainly would. She stood and slid into it, noting with surprise that it was still warm. Somehow it seemed weird to be absorbing a total stranger's body heat in such an intimate place.
After his exchange with the agent, Mr. Look-How-Damned-Hot-I-Am headed away from the gate area.
. The jerk actually had the balls to tip his hat at her with a smirk that said
I'm God's gift to womankind
. Perhaps he'd decided to take the noon flight tomorrow, which made her wonder what the chances wereâ
“Paging passenger Powell. Passenger Powell, please come to gate number fifty.”
* * *
It was her ass he'd noticed firstâactually, he couldn't avoid it since it was parked right in front of him at eye level. Clad in tight denim, supported by legs that went
, it was a mighty fine, shapely, womanly ass, the kind a man liked to fill his hands with.
His interest piqued, Wade's gaze roamed higher to light brown hair that fell in waves over her shoulders. With her back to him, he couldn't see her face or judge her age, nor could he hear a word she spoke with George Strait crooning in his earbuds. Still, he was an observer by nature, and his innate ability to read body language had been further honed by his profession. Lacking any other distraction, he watched her, playing a game with himself to see how much of her story he could discern by her actions alone.
The youngish woman attached to the prime ass had a boarding pass in hand that she flapped at the apathetic gate agent whose attention appeared fully engaged in tapping on the keyboard, and staring into her monitor like it was a crystal ball. After a time, the wooden-faced woman glanced up and shook her head. Further fruitless argument ensued, at which point Wade pulled out his earbuds to eavesdrop.
Hot Ass wasn't getting on the flight.
She spun around giving Wade the first glimpse of her face. With red blotches staining her neck and cheeks, and mascara and snot streaming down her face, what a hot mess Hot Ass turned out to be. She threw herself to the floor beside her bag, a vision of pure woebegone.
“I have to say good-bye,” she repeated to herself in a choked whisper.
Her desolate expression and pathetic words sent Wade surging to his feet with a groan. He'd been bred to do the right thing, especially where women, children, and animals were concerned, and the right thing now was to give up his damned seatâeven though this was the last flight to Bozeman tonight and he had a court date in Virginia City at nine a.m.
He glanced at his watch. It was nearly six. If he rented a car, he could be on the road within the hour, and if he drove through the night, he'd hit Virginia City by six a.m. He figured he could crash for an hour in his office and still make his appearance, albeit not in his most pristine condition.
Having set his course, he stashed his iPod and earbuds, threw his carry-on over his shoulder, and approached the desk. After a few minutes of low conversation, Wade turned to leave, tipping his hat and flashing his killer smile at Hot Ass as he passed. Having appropriated his seat, she averted her face with a guilty look.
Seconds later when the garbled PA system called out her almost indistinguishable name, he couldn't help glancing over his shoulder to catch her surprise.
* * *
An hour after leaving the airport, Wade was nursing a number of regrets about his impulsive decision. Driving from Denver to Virginia City wasn't the most inspired idea he'd ever had, but then again, he'd always been a soft touch where women were concerned, especially pretty ones in distress. Now he'd pay for itâ¦again.
In reality, the entire trip had been a bust. He should have known the ol' man would back out of the deal. Dirk must have jumped on the opportunity to undermine Wade the moment his back was turned, or more rightly, the moment he'd boarded the plane for Denver. Not that it would have taken much work for his brother to persuade their father. Wade had been a fool to think the lure of cash would overcome four generations of fealty to the land, regardless of the pressing circumstances. Ranching ran bone-deep in all the Knowltonsâ
Still, it had come close. Closer this time than he would have expected.
Allie, of course, was pissed as a wet cat, having spent weeks brokering the deal. She'd already refused his invitation for lunch after the thwarted closing. If he'd been stuck in Denver, he wouldn't have been welcome in her bunk tonight.
He realized he was getting damned tired of her using sex to manipulate him. For nearly four years they'd played it fast and loose, which had suited him just fine. Work took up most of his time anyway, but now Allie had begun to press for commitments he wasn't ready to make. From the moment he'd met her in Denver, she'd acted like he was a bonus to the six-figure commission she'd expectedâthe one she'd just lost.
Hell, we've all lost out on this oneâwho knows when or if another offer might come along in this shitty
Like most private ranches in these times, the Flying K had teetered on the brink of foreclosure for years. The Knowltons had forged on in the false hope that the next year would be better, but it never was. It was just no damn good any more. They needed to sell out while they still could, but Dirk had refused. Instead, he'd been willing to hazard everything, the ranch and his family's entire economic future, on the slim chance that his breeding experiments would pay off.
“Damn you to hell, Dirk!”
Wade was bone weary, stretched to the breaking point, but his family showed little appreciation for his efforts, and he'd worked too friggin' hard to keep them above water to watch it all go down the drain. Perhaps he and Allie could still salvage the deal? As soon as he got back to Twin Bridges he, Dirk, and the ol' man would have a serious “come to Jesus” meeting.