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Authors: Victoria Vane

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BOOK: Slow Hand
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He had a lot of time to strategize with an eleven-hour drive ahead of him. But two hours out of Denver had him yearning for the good old days when he could have done it in about eight—the days before they'd reinstated a speed limit on Montana highways. At least the weather had cleared, and he'd left late enough to have missed the outbound commuter traffic.

As for Allie, he supposed the rift was no great loss. Although he wouldn't be getting any for a while after this fiasco, he'd survived lengthy dry spells before—even during his marriage. Given Allie's recent change in attitude, it wouldn't hurt to put some distance between them anyway. He'd never been a player, but maybe it was time to seek out greener grazing.

His mind wandered back to the girl at the airport. He still marveled at the impulse that had spurred him to give up his seat. He wondered what might have happened had he been stranded in Denver with her. Maybe he would have offered her dinner. Maybe she would have accepted. And maybe they would have shared a room at the airport Hilton. He then shrugged it off as another lost opportunity, a sorry addition to all the rest.

Wade plugged his iPod into the audio jack of the rental car and scrolled impatiently through various playlists in search of something to help the two cans of Red Bull keep his eyes open for the all-night driving marathon. He settled on the blaring sounds of Big and Rich.

I'm a dynamite, daddy, I'll put the rhythm in your blues, I'm not a wishy-washy boy like you're used
to…

Yeah. That was the ticket. Part country, part urban madness. Much like him.

Grinning, he punched the accelerator of the Dodge Avenger. And like any good cowboy, Wade drove off into the sunset.

Chapter 2

It was after eleven when Nikki landed in Bozeman. Expecting to arrive hours earlier, she'd reserved a rental car, but after collecting her bags and proceeding to the Thrifty counter, she found it dark and abandoned. She glanced down the row of rental car desks in mounting frustration. All of them were closed.
Damn
it
all! What
now?

The bank of hotel courtesy phones caught her eye next. That was it. She'd just call a hotel with an airport shuttle and get the car in the morning. She was dead tired and in no shape to drive almost a hundred miles in total darkness on unfamiliar roads anyway. It would be smarter to pick up her car early in the morning and then depart for Sheridan. She could live with a few hours delay. At least she wasn't stuck in Denver.

Satisfied with this plan, she picked up the phone, reserved a room at the Holiday Inn Express in Bozeman, and settled on the bench at the shuttle pickup. Up until now she hadn't thought through many of the details and the flight delays had screwed everything up even worse. Now she had to put her mind to reordering her priorities.

The mortuary had already held his body for an entire week before anyone had tracked her down. She wondered if he would have wanted cremation or a burial. She didn't even know him well enough to say. Did he have any friends who mourned him? No one aside from the mortuary had even tried to contact her. Had he left a will? She didn't know that either. She supposed she'd have to contact the attorney's office to find out. She rolled her eyes at the prospect of dealing with blood-sucking lawyers.

First
things
first, Nikki. Get some sleep. Get to Sheridan. Sign whatever you have to. See him properly buried. Then, get the hell out of Montana
. It seemed like a solid plan.

Nikki was the sole passenger when the shuttle pulled up in front of a brightly lit entrance to the hotel lobby. With an exhausted groan, she dragged her bags inside and up to the front desk. Surely a hot shower and a clean bed would make everything right again.

“Hi, I'm Nicole Powell.” She greeted the night clerk with a weary smile. “I called a few minutes ago from the airport.”

“Welcome to the Holiday Inn Express, Miss Powell,” he replied. “I'll be happy to check you in. All I need is a credit card.”

“No problem.” Nikki plopped her purse on the counter and fished inside, but her blindly groping fingers failed to encounter anything approximating calfskin. “I'm sorry. I can't seem to find my wallet. Just another minute, OK? It's a new bag.” She fully opened the mouth of the leather abyss and reached inside again, only to come up short for a second time.

With rising panic, Nikki dumped her entire bag on the counter.

Two sets of keys, miscellaneous makeup items, a cell phone, address book, Tampax, and her checkbook—many of the same things she'd collected when they'd spilled out under the seat of the airplane.
But
no
wallet
.

She shook the bag upside down in disbelief.
Oh
shit!
She'd lost her damned wallet on the plane! With a flushed face and shaking hands, she began cramming everything back into her purse. “I'm sorry. I seem to have lost my wallet. Will you take a check?”

“Certainly. I just need a driver's license and credit card.”

“But I don't have them. My license and credit cards were in my wallet.”

The clerk shook his head with an impassive expression. “I'm sorry, Miss Powell. We can't accept a personal check without proper identification.”

“But I need a room. Surely there's
something
we can work out.”

“Is there someone you can call? A friend or family member?”

Nikki stared at him, scrambling to make sense of this situation. She was stranded at a motel in Bozeman, Montana, without a room, money, or identification. Worse, there wasn't a soul she could think of to help her in the middle of the night. Her mother was out of the question. She couldn't even remember the last time they'd spoken. Since her grandparents died, her sister Shelby was the only family member she'd maintained any contact with, but Shelby was a total screwup. There was no one.

“No.” Nikki shook her head.

“Do you have any business associates, perhaps?”

“Look, I only have two numbers, the Sheridan mortuary and a law office. Do you really think either one is going to answer the phone at this time of night?”

His smile thinned. “I'm sorry, but we can't accommodate you without payment. This is a hotel. We are in business to sell rooms.”

Overcome with a growing sense of helplessness, Nikki turned away to dig desperately inside her purse for her cell phone. Not putting much stock in the mortuary, she decided to try the lawyer. Finding the number, she punched it on a whispered prayer.

* * *

Wade's lids were drooping, and his vision blurring when the sound of his tires bumping the road reflectors jarred him fully alert. He swore aloud and shook his head to clear away the cobwebs. Where the hell was he anyway? Wyoming
?
Yeah, now he remembered. He'd just passed through Casper—the halfway point. The caffeine had already worn off and he still had a good five hours to go.

By now he was cursing both Hot Ass for provoking his stupid act of chivalry and his Momma for raising him to be a gentleman. Would he have given up his seat if the girl had been old or ugly? Yeah, on the first account anyway. His grandma would roll over in her grave if he'd let some elderly woman get stranded. But ugly was a matter for debate. Attractive women made fools of men.

The vibration of his phone suddenly jolted him. He jerked it out of his holster, noting the unfamiliar area code with a scowl. Who the devil outside his family, or maybe Allie, would be calling him at this ungodly hour?

“Wade here,” he growled, half expecting a wrong number.

“Excuse me?” a female voice responded. “I was trying to reach Evans and Knowlton Law Firm.”

“This is Wade Knowlton of Evans and Knowlton.”

“Thank God!” she answered with a near-sob.

“Look, ma'am, this is my private line and it's after midnight. I suggest you call me back tomorrow during normal business hours.” He paused. “How did you even get this number anyway?”

“Your office had a recording to call this number in the event of an emergency. This
is
an urgent matter.”

“It had better be life or death,” he warned. His response was ill-tempered and lacked his normal courtesy, but he was dog tired.

“It is.” She paused. “Well, death anyway.”

“All right, you've got my attention. Now what are you going to do with it?”

“I have an emergency.”

“I thought we'd already established that, Miss—”

“I'm so sorry—I thought I said. This is Nicole Powell.”

“Powell? Sorry. Doesn't ring any bells.”

“My father is…was…Raymond Powell. He just passed away. You were recommended by the Sheridan mortuary.”

The first rays of understanding in this bizarre conversation had begun to dawn. “Ah. Then you wish me to handle the probate.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Then I once more suggest that you call back in the morning. There's nothing I can do for you right now.”

“But there is—”

Given his fatigue and foul mood, Wade made no attempt to restrain his sarcasm. “You have my sincere condolences for your loss, Miss Powell, but I fail to see how this is an emergency…given that he's already dead.”

“But it's not him. It's me that needs your help, Mr. Knowlton. I've just arrived in Montana and I've lost my wallet. I have no money. No ID. No room for the night. I'm so sorry to burden you, but aside from the mortuary, your office was the only number I had. I just found it on a scrap of paper in my purse. Please, is there anything you can do to help me?”

“I'll do what I can,” he replied, his ill humor somewhat dissipated. “How do you suggest I assist you?”

“I need a short-term loan, maybe a few hundred dollars, until I get my ID and credit cards back.”

“Look, ma'am. While I don't wish to appear hard-hearted, I don't know you from Eve.”

“But surely my father must have left some cash or something of value I could borrow against.”

“I have no clue about your father's state of affairs and am nowhere near my office even to find out. And while I don't wish to make either of our lives more difficult, it isn't as easy as all that anyway. You have to understand there are legal waters to navigate in cases like this.”

“Please.” He detected a quaver in her voice. “I am truly in a bind.”

Her tone of desperation struck a nerve. Remembering the woman in Denver, Wade pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh.
Twice
in
one
night? Incredible.

Giving up his airline seat had already cost him time and money, two hundred dollars with the extra fee charged for the one-way car rental. He knew nothing about this woman, yet he was already damn close to offering his own credit card, but there were limits to his generosity to strangers—even female ones. Still, he couldn't refuse her request for help.

“Where are you, Miz Powell?”

“In the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express at Bozeman. I couldn't get a room without my credit card. I'm going to have the same problem getting a rental car. I'm stranded here.” He thought he heard a muffled sniff.
Aw
hell.
The tears were about to fall. The last thing he needed was to deal with a hysterical woman on no sleep.

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“To Sheridan.”

“Then it's your lucky night, darlin'. I'm going to Virginia City and Sheridan isn't too far out of the way. I'm on my way to Bozeman right now to pick up my vehicle as I've been out of town on business. I'm still several hours away, but if you can hang on for a while, I'll pick you up.”

“Really? Thank you so much. I truly appreciate your help, Mr. Knowlton.”

“Don't worry 'bout a thing, Miz Powell,” he offered in the most soothing tone he could muster. “It's been a rough night for both of us, but everything looks brighter in the light of day.”

“I never could have imagined getting into a situation like this. It's a horrible feeling.”

“I think in a few hours you'll see that your situation isn't near as dire as you thought.”

“Why's that?”

“I'll be there to treat you to a Starbucks by six.”

* * *

Nikki stared dumbly at her phone. Starbucks? Was that his answer to her troubles? On top of all that, he'd disconnected the call without even saying good-bye. First the cocky cowboy in Denver and now her would-be attorney? Did all men out West have to get the last word? With a huff of exasperation, Nikki stashed her phone, irritation now supplanting her despair.

The clerk greeted her with raised brows as she approached the check-in desk again. “Any luck?”

“Yes…and…no,” Nikki replied with a forced smile. “There's someone who's going to pick me up, but it's gonna be a while before he gets here. Please, if you won't give me a room, can I just crash in a chair for a while?”

The clerk made a face.

“But I have nowhere to go. You know my circumstances,” Nikki pleaded. “I promise I'll be gone in a few hours. I'll even pay you once my ride gets here.” She hoped he wouldn't accept the offer. It would be humiliating to hit Knowlton up for money.

The clerk rolled his eyes on a sigh. “That won't be necessary, Miss Powell. Just promise me you'll be gone before our guests begin checking out.”

“I promise. No one will see me. Thank you so much for understanding.”

Nikki slinked off to take possession of an overstuffed wingback chair by the lobby fireplace where she set her phone alarm for five thirty, and then shut her eyes hoping she'd wake up to discover it was all just a crazy dream.

Chapter 3

Having made good time to Bozeman, Wade dropped off the rental car, picked up his truck from the long-term lot, and arrived at the Holiday Inn at twenty after five. He approached the desk with a question hovering on his lips. “Miz Powell?”

“You must be the ride?” the night clerk asked.

“Yeah,” Wade replied.

“Over there.” The clerk jerked his head toward the fireplace where a brunette slumbered in a wingback chair. He approached quietly, hesitant to wake her.

Although her head was cocked to the side and several locks of hair hung in her face, what he could see of her wasn't half-bad. She was young. Midtwenties likely. She was also lightly snoring. His gaze fixed in fascination on the strands of hair ebbing and flowing in rhythm with her puffs of breath. He couldn't suppress an amused smile…until his gaze settled on those softly parted lips. She had a gorgeous mouth, the kind of mouth a man liked to see wrapped around…

Hell, what's wrong with me? Has it really been so long that my brain's now stuck in low gear?
His conscience also stabbed him for not getting her a room. Too late for that now. He'd just have to do what he could to make it all up to her.

He reached down to wake her, only to startle at the sudden blast of rap music sounding from her phone. She jolted upright, looking wildly about until her gaze met his. Her eyes were a stormy shade between blue and green that widened and darkened as recognition dawned.

“Well, I'll be damned.” He felt the corner of his mouth kick up and then the full irony of the situation took over. It was all just too much for Wade. He threw back his head with a roar of laughter while the rapper on her phone droned on.

The crease between her eyes deepened as he palmed away the tears of mirth. She silenced the phone with a glower that she then directed at him. He could hardly blame her. The last twenty-four hours hadn't been the smoothest sailing after all.


You
are Wade Knowlton of Evans and Knowlton?” It was more accusation than question.

“Yes, indeed.” He doffed his hat. “At your service, ma'am.”

“But you can't be!” she protested. “
You
were the obnoxious cowboy in Denver!”

“Obnoxious?” He raised a brow. “That's mighty ungracious when I gave up my seat to you and then drove all night long.”

Her expression softened infinitesimally. “I thought you'd decided to take the later flight.”

“Nope.” He shook his head. “It was purely an act of chivalry on my part. I couldn't fly in good conscience after watching your little meltdown.”

“Then I suppose I owe you an apology.” Her gaze wavered from his. “And a thank-you.”

“Apology accepted and no thanks are needed, although it seems my sacrifice was in vain since I find you stranded all over again.” He flashed a teasing grin. “Does misfortune follow you everywhere, Miz Powell?”

“Not normally.” She pursed the lips that he found increasingly fascinating. “Why do you ask?”

“Because I'm thinking it might be prudent for me to increase my insurance before I drive you anywhere.”

Her brows gathered in another scowl. Even sleep mussed and growing pissed, she was a looker—with a great ass to boot. His day was definitely looking up.

“Mr. Knowlton, I'm hardly in the mood for jokes. I'm only here because my father died and I need to settle his affairs. And quickly so I can get back home.”

“And where is that?” he asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Home. Where do you hail from, Miz Powell?”

“Georgia,” she answered. “Born in Toccoa but I live in greater Atlanta now.”

He cocked his head. “You don't sound much like a Georgia peach to me.”

“What? Do you think we all talk like Scarlett O'Hara?” she fired back with unveiled sarcasm.

“She wasn't really a Southerner, you know. In fact, she wasn't even American.”

“Scarlett O'Hara? But she's an American icon.”

“Sorry to burst your bubble, darlin' but
Vivian
Leigh
was British.”

“You're kidding.” She regarded him with skepticism. “How would you even know that?”


Gone
with
the
Wind
is Mama's favorite film. She's an endless fount of trivia on it.”

“Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I was once Southern-fried with milk gravy, but I've worked very hard to lose the drawl.”

His puzzled look forced her explanation.

“It's how Southerners eat
everything.
Fried with gravy.” She studied him with a perplexed look. “Actually, I think you sound more Southern than me.”

“I blame my Mama for that, too,” he replied. “She was an old-time rodeo queen from Amarillo, Texas. She homeschooled me and my brother Dirk until high school, so the Texas twang kinda stuck. Now as for Georgia, I find it a real shame you'd want to get rid of it. I find a woman with a soft Southern drawl incredibly sexy.”

“Tell you what, when I decide I want to be sexy for you, I'll be sure to turn it on full force.”

She was a real firecracker, this Georgia girl. He liked that.

He answered her with a grin. “I'll look forward to it.”

“In your dreams, cowboy,” he thought he heard her mutter under her breath.

He cocked his head. “What was that?”

“Coffee?” She smiled wide. “If I recall, you promised me Starbucks.”

* * *

It had taken Nikki years to rehabilitate herself from a mortal attraction to cowboys. After being burned about a dozen times, she thought herself finally impervious—until this one flashed his irritatingly irresistible grin. She reminded herself that she was immune to his kind of rustic charm—but crystal-blue eyes and a chin dimple.
Holy
crap!

Why does my would-be lawyer have to be an incredibly hot
cowboy?

When he pulled around in a dinged-up old F-150 and jumped down to grab her bags, Nikki noted he'd lost the coat and tie. The more casual look certainly agreed with him.

“I'll have to put your bags in the truck bed, I'm afraid.” He gave her an apologetic look. “I didn't want to leave the Lexus at the airport.”

“A Lexus? Yeah, right.” She laughed.

He shrugged, threw her two bags in the back, and then rolled up his sleeve to check the time. Nikki noted his TAG Heuer with surprise. The timepiece was worth more than his heap of a ride. “We'd better hit the road now,” he said, helping her into the truck. “We've a good ninety-minute drive ahead of us and you're no doubt anxious to start making calls about your lost wallet.”

“I can take care of that on the drive. My cell battery is fully charged.”

“Make the most important calls first,” he advised. “Your phone will only last about thirty minutes—if you're lucky.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look around you, Miz Powell. This ain't Atlanta. People come here to get away from it all. Which is a good thing, given how the mountains are such an effective barrier to outside communication.”

Nikki took in her surroundings for the first time. She'd arrived last night in near-blackness, but now the sun was rising, casting rays of pink, yellow, and orange over a majestic backdrop that stole her breath. There were no skyscrapers marring the horizon or blocking the sun—only the wide open sky and countless snow-capped mountains. The September air was crisp, clean, and invigorating. She inhaled in deep appreciation. “It's incredible.”

“Yellowstone is eighty miles in that direction.” He pointed south. “Barely more than twenty as the crow flies. You need to see it.”

“I'm not a tourist, Mr. Knowlton. I don't have time for sightseeing.”

His gaze narrowed, the morning light revealing crinkles at the corners of his fascinating crystal-colored eyes. “Some things, Miz Powell, are worth
making
the time for. This is God's country. It's unique. There is a lot here you may never get another chance to see.”

“We have mountains where I come from too, you know. Atlanta is only fifteen miles from Stone Mountain.” She sounded more prickly than she'd meant to, but everything about him seemed to elicit an overreaction from her. She wondered why.

“Just like an Easterner,” he mumbled with a deprecating head shake. “Always making mountains out of molehills.”

Nikki bristled. “What about the Appalachians? I hiked a segment of that trail when I was in college.”

“Darlin', you ain't
seen
a mountain until you've been to the Rockies. Come on now. Time's a-wastin'. At least you can admire this scenery all the way to Virginia City.” He put the vehicle in gear and pulled out onto the highway.

“Virginia City? I thought you were taking me to Sheridan? I have to see to—”

“Sweetheart, you won't be able to see to anything until you get your ID. I can promise you that. You might not want to hear this, but you're in a bit of a catch-22 pertaining to your father.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“By Montana law you can't authorize disposal of his remains without a certified death certificate, and can't obtain the death certificate without proper ID.”

“You're kidding! I came all the way up here and can't even
bury
him?”

“'Fraid not.” He shook his head. “But I'll do what I can to help you get it straightened out. Just be aware that this is likely to take some time.”

“How
much
time? I don't have time!”

“I can't rightly say. Do you by any chance have a passport?”

“No. I've never traveled out of the country. Until now, I've never even been north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Not that I haven't wanted to travel. I'd love to go to Mexico or take a cruise someday.”

“That's mighty unfortunate.”

“That I haven't a passport or that I haven't traveled?”

“Both.” He cast her another sideways look. “It seems you need to broaden your horizons, Miz Powell.”

She wondered what he meant by that remark. He was obviously trying to help her, but everything he said put her on edge. She could only conclude her churlish reaction to him was caused by a feeling of dependency that she despised. She wasn't used to relying on anyone for anything, but now she had no choice.

“My horizon seems pretty broad at the moment,” she shot back, jerking her head toward the wide open landscape.

“You'd better start making those calls,” he advised. “I suggest you begin with the airline to see if your wallet's been recovered. If it hasn't, you'll need to notify the Denver police.”

“I've already called the airline,” she replied, “but why the police? It wasn't stolen.”

“Should anyone get their hands on your credit cards and ID, you'll want to have a report on file for fraud prevention. You should also alert the credit reporting companies.”

“Thanks.” She offered a grateful smile. “I wouldn't have thought of that.”

“My office in Virginia City is on the way to Sheridan. You can use the phone there while I get showered and changed.”

“You have a shower at your office?” she asked with a hint of longing.

“And a pullout sofa. I've been known to crash there. At one time, more often than I preferred,” he added dryly.

Was that a look of regret? “Are you a workaholic?” she asked.

“Something like that,” he hedged. “You're welcome to the office, the shower, and the pullout, at least until we get things sorted.”

“Thank you. That's generous…but where will
you
stay?” she asked warily.

“I've no shortage of options. I've got a place in Bozeman where I live most of the time. On my few court days in Virginia City, I crash at the office if I don't feel like driving, and most weekends I spend at the family spread outside Twin Bridges.”

“Spread? You mean a ranch?”

“Yeah. My family has had a working cattle outfit since the Civil War. It was a profitable operation for four generations, but the past decade it's been more like a sinkhole. I've been trying to persuade them to sell out, but my obstinate brother is convinced he can save things.”

“How?” she asked.

“Thinks he can create a superior cattle breed. Ever heard of Wagyu cattle or Kobe beef?”

“No, but that doesn't say much, I don't know jack about cattle.”

“Wagyu cattle come from Japan. Kobe is one of these Japanese varieties and is the most highly prized beef in the world—goes for up to fifty dollars an ounce at the better steak houses.”

“Over five hundred bucks for a T-bone? Holy cow!” Nikki exclaimed.

“No, that would be India,” Wade corrected with a grin.

“So what does this have to do with your ranch?” Nikki asked.

“Dirk seems to think breeding a hybrid Wagyu-Angus herd is the answer to all our troubles.”

“Why? What's the big difference between the Japanese and American cattle that they command such a high price?”

“Dirk could go on ad nauseam about it, but suffice it to say there's a difference in the composition of the meat, mainly in its marbling, that makes it more tender and gives it a different taste. There are a handful of ranches in the U.S. producing what they call American Kobe by crossing the Japanese breed with our own cattle. Dirk has jumped on that bandwagon.”

“Sounds like a great opportunity,” Nikki remarked. “So why are you opposed to the idea?”

“Because it could take years to establish a herd, and there's no guarantee of the payoff. Maybe the market is hot now, but all that could change. I'm not willing to forfeit my entire future for something so chancy. My brother sees that as disloyalty. He accuses me of lying down without a fight, but I just see things differently. I don't believe ranching is viable anymore, but my brother's as bullheaded as his damned stock.” His gaze appeared focused on the horizon and his hands looked tight on the wheel. “'Sides, I always wanted to do something else with my life. Maybe leave something behind besides my blood, sweat, and tears in the ground.”

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