Authors: Victoria Vane
After her parents divorced, Nikki had had three stepfathersâand just as many new siblings, although she hardly knew the younger ones. She'd hightailed it out of Toccoa as soon as she was old enough and never looked back.
She wondered what Wade's father was like. If he was anything like his sons, Nikki could understand why the Texas rodeo queen had followed her cowboy from Amarillo to the wilds of Montana.
She sipped her coffee while Wade wolfed down his food and then set his bowl in the sink.
“Later, Mama.” He kissed his mother unabashedly on the cheek, then turned to Nikki. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” She swallowed down the rest of her cup. “Thank you, Donna.”
“You're welcome anytime, sugar. I hope you'll come back soon.”
“Thank you, but I don't think that's too likely. I'm leaving as soon as my father's affairs are settled. Wade's helping me with that.”
Donna smiled big and white. “If I know my son, I don't think he's gonna be in any big hurry to see you go.”
Wade looked embarrassed. “Like she said, Mama, this is just business.”
“Of course it is, sugar.” Donna winked. “You
just keep telling yourselves that.”
* * *
“Don't mind her,” Wade said as they left the house. “She's hankering for grandkids in the worst way and thinks I'm her best chance. She doesn't place much hope in Dirk since he returned.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because he's mean as hell and seems to have lost his sense of humor along with his leg.”
“Maybe he just needs the right woman to find it againâhis humor I mean.”
“Maybe just getting laid would be a start for him, but he almost never leaves this place. Then again, what woman would be crazy enough to take him on?”
“Plenty of them, by the look of him.”
He scowled. “You're not saying that
“Found him attractive? Maybe,” she teased then laughed. “No, Wade. He's a bit too intense for me.
is definitely not my type, but I'd hazard Janice at the Pioneer would be willing to take him on. She seemed pretty interested in news about him.”
“Janice? You really think so?”
“Yeah, I do. If you didn't pick up on that, maybe you don't know women quite as well as you think you do.”
“What about you, Nikki?” he asked. “You've made it clear that you've ruled out cowboys and lawyers, so what exactly
“I don't know. Haven't discovered it yet. But based on my experience, most men fall into two undesirable categoriesâbottom-feeding leeches and players. Still, I keep hoping there's a whole new undiscovered species somewhere out there.”
“Or maybe your classification system needs work. I believe we touched on this last night.”
“Did we?” She frowned. “I don't seem to recall that.”
“No? What parts of last night
you remember? How about the part in the parking lot?”
She recalled his soft warm lips and hungry hands vividly, a thought that sent heat flooding into her face. “Yeah. I seem to remember a little bit about that, but believe me when I say it never would have gone that far if I hadn't been drunk. I'm not that kind of girl.”
“Never thought you were.”
“I don't hop into bed with men I hardly know.”
“Never said you did.”
She paused. “I guess I should thank you for not taking advantage of me.”
“Sweetheart, don't attribute too much altruism to my motives. I didn't press things only because you'd had too much to drink, but don't count on me passing up any future opportunities.”
Nikki digested that remark in silence. Part of her was annoyed he thought she'd give in to him but the other part of her was flattered at his persistence.
She thought she'd broken the cowboy habit for goodâuntil she'd met Wade, but he wasn't like any of the others she'd dated. Hell, he wasn't like any other man she'd ever known. He was a devoted son, kind and generous to strangers, and responsible almost to a fault. Admittedly, he'd surprised her last night, and even more this morning. It seemed her early presumptions about him were evaporating at every turn; nevertheless, she clutched tightly to the few that remained.
She stole a long look at the rugged and awe-inspiring scenery. “It's gorgeous out here,” she remarked. “How far does your family's land go?”
“The homestead's a little under five thousand acres, but we also lease some federal lands for rotational grazing.”
” she repeated with incredulity.
Wade shrugged. “It's a modest spread by Montana ranching standards.”
“Now that I've seen it, I don't understand why you want to sell this place so badly.”
“Because there's no future in private ranching. And I want to get the hell out of it and live my own life.”
“What's stopping you from living your own life?”
“The shackles of guilt. You can see how it is.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “I guess I do.”
“Let's go,” he said abruptly. “I'd rather not talk about it anymore.”
“Where's your truck?” she asked, noting the absence of the beat up F-150. In its former place was a gleaming Lexus LX570.
“My father drove it out to the north pasture. I was going to take mine anyway.”
He produced a key fob from his pocket and clicked it. The Lexus responded with a happy chirp. “I don't like to park it at the airport. The door dings hardly make any difference to the farm truck, but I'd rather avoid repainting this one.”
“I can certainly understand that,” she said.
Once more he opened her door for her. Climbing inside, Nikki sank into the supple seat, luxuriating in the rich smell of new leather. She'd never ridden in a Lexus or even owned a brand-new car, for that matter. Maybe it was shallow, but she liked it. A lot.
He joined her inside, filling the cabin with his presence, with his scent. She studied his every move as he started the SUV and put it in gear. He wore a faded denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up to expose strong forearms, sun-bronzed and dusted with dark hair. His straw hat was pulled down close to his brow, shading his eyes against the autumn sun. Dressed as he was, he should have looked out of place behind the wheel of the Lexus, but he looked damned good. He'd looked good in the beater too.
Hell, he just plain looked good. Good enough to eat. She finally admitted it. She wanted to taste him in a very bad way.
it, Nikki! Sure, he'll show you a great time. And then when he's done, he'll break your stupid, cowboy-lovin' heart.
The business in town didn't take long. After getting her prepaid Visa, Nikki was able to get online at an Internet cafÃ©. Another phone call ensured that the processing of her new license would be expedited and sent by express mail to Wade's office in Virginia City.
“It should be here by Monday afternoon, but then I'll need to get the death certificate before they'll let me take care of my father, right?
“That's correct.” Wade nodded.
“Can you at least tell me if his will says anything about what he wanted? I don't even know if he desired to be buried or cremated.”
“I'm sorry, Nikki.” Wade shook his head. “Until I see your ID, I'm not at liberty to disclose anything more about Ray Powell's will.”
“After I get my license and the death certificate, how long will it take to settle things?”
“Montana probate law is relatively uncomplicated, but there's still a process that needs to be followed. It will take several weeks at least, and could even extend to a few months to close the estate. I can't be any more specific until I examine the will and catalogue everything.”
“But I've already requested the last of my vacation days, and that only takes me through Friday. If I'm not back home by next weekend I'll lose my job.”
“That's almost a whole week away,” he reassured. “A lot of things could happen between now and then.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. Like maybe I'll find an untapped vein of gold?”
“Stranger things have happened here. Do you know how that gold was discovered over in Alder Gulch?”
“Of course not. I never even heard of Alder Gulch until yesterday.”
“It's a perfect illustration of how unexpectedly life can change.”
“All right, cowboy, I'm all ears.”
“In the spring of 1863, a couple of prospectorsâmost likely Civil War desertersâmade camp along Alder Creek. They were looking for a spot to picket the horses and decided to prospect a section of exposed bedrock. One of the guys joked that with any luck they might score enough gold to buy some tobacco. As it turns out the lucky bastards hit one of the richest gold deposits in North America. It was like winning the lottery. So you see, Nikki? Life can change in the blink of an eye.”
“Did you know that most people who win the lottery end up bankrupt?”
“I think you're missing my point,” he said.
“No I'm not,” she replied. “It's all about self-control, isn't it? Letting things happen
you, instead of taking charge. What happened to those two guys anywayâthe gold prospectors?”
“I don't know what happened to the first guy, but Fairweather pissed away all his money, and drank his way to an early grave. He didn't even leave enough behind to bury himself.”
“You see! He had no self-control and look how it turned out. Every time I've let my emotions get the upper hand, it's ended in disaster.”
“Trust is always a gamble, Nikki. But it sometimes pays off.”
Nikki snorted. “I don't buy into that fallacy. Las Vegas is proof that most gambles
He shook his head on an exasperated sound. “Damn, but you're the most cynical woman I've ever met. Don't you ever let your guard down?”
“Did last night, didn't I? And look where that almost led.”
“You sound like it would've been a bad thing, but I promise you, darlin', you'd have awakened with a smile on your face. I know I would've.”
She let that one go unremarked. “Was that prospector story part of the ten-cent tour you promised me?”
“It'll have to be the sneak preview because I'm promised back at the ranch.”
“To help the brother who looks like he wants to break your face?”
“To help my
who's still recovering from a triple bypass. Dirk can go straight to hell for all I care.” He looked at his watch. “Time's a-wastin.' I'd better get you back to Virginia City now.”
“You're taking me back to your office?”
“Yeah. I'll be back in the morning. Although the accommodations aren't plush, at least they're free. 'Sides, I figure you probably had some phone calls and such you'd like to make. I'm sure you've got family and friends who are worried about you.”
“None that I can think of,” she remarked dryly. “My family's not like yours, Wade. Truth be told, I'd rather go with you.”
He regarded her quizzically. “Back to the ranch? First you didn't want to go there and now you don't want to leave?”
She nodded. “Yes. Don't you know? Women are fickle that way.”
He scratched his chin. His hesitation made her feel strangely deflated. He was right to be confused by her mixed signals. She didn't seem to know what she wanted from one minute to the next. But the thought of spending the rest of the day alone in his office, and sleeping on a pull out sofa was singularly unappealing.
“So you don't want me to come?”
“It's not that I mind,” he answered. “It's just that I can't entertain you, Nikki. I have work to do and don't know how long it'll take or when I'll be back. 'Sides, if I bring you back, Mama's sure to get some false notions about you and me. Remember what I told you about her yen for grandkids?”
“I already told her I'll be gone in a few days.”
He chuckled. “Don't make any difference. She's a typical woman and sees what she wants to believe.”
Nikki scowled. “I resent that remark.”
He smirked. “The truth hurts sometimes.”
Nikki restrained the impulse to swat his arm. “Can't I help you with the cattle?”
“What do you know about cows?”
“Nothing,” she confessed. “But what am I going to do alone in Virginia City? There must be some way I can make myself useful to you.”
He considered her with pursed lips. “All right,” he conceded at last. “I'm sure if I chew on it long enough I'll come up with something. Besides”âhe grinned shamelesslyâ“it will piss Dirk off to no end when I show up with you in tow.”
* * *
It was almost two o'clock when they got back to the ranch.
“Damn!” Wade cursed as soon as they pulled into the yard.
“What's wrong?” Nikki asked.
“The pickup and ATV are
gone. I was hoping the ol' man would've come back by now, but he must still be out moving cattle with Dirk. I'd best get out there before Mama skins me alive for letting him overtax himself.” He shot her an apologetic look. “You don't mind, do you? I hope to be only a few hours. Mama will be only too happy to bear you company. Just don't let her jaw your ear off about me.”
He grabbed his hat, a pair of leather gloves, and a Sherpa-lined denim jacket from the backseat. After helping her out of the truck, he started briskly toward the barn. Nikki almost had to skip to keep up. “I thought I was going
,” she protested.
“That was before; when I thought we'd have use of the ATV. As it stands, I've got to do this the old-fashioned way.” He jerked his head in the direction of the pipe corrals.
“You mean with horses?”
Nikki could hardly contain her excitement. “Let me come along. I won't slow you down.”
He regarded her skeptically. “Do you ride?”
“Yes. I ride. For the record, Wade, I can't stand tobacco-dipping, beer-swilling, swaggering cowboys. I never said I held it against the horses. In fact, I never said jack about horses. I happen to be very fond of them. I've ridden since I was a kid. I even had a pony that my Grandpa kept for me.”
“On the chicken farm in Lavonia?”
“Yes. Until I outgrew him. After the pony, I used to muck stalls at a riding stable just to ride the horses.”
“A working cow horse is a whole different animal from a show pony, Nikki.”
“I know my way around a horse,” she insisted. “I'll prove it to you. If I can't keep up, you can send me right back.”
“All right, you win. I don't have the time or the energy to argue with you. We've got a couple of old geldings in the herd that are good babysitters. Redman or Copenhagen will take care of youâ¦just don't fall off and break something.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she replied.
“What about your clothes?” he asked. “There's no time to change.”
“What's wrong with my clothes? They're comfortable jeans and I'm wearing sturdy boots.”
He eyed her backside. “You aren't wearing a thong are you?”
She spun her ass away from him. “What business is it of yours what kind of underwear I have on?”
“Because a thong'll likely rub you raw in very
“Why don't you worry about your own
, cowboy, and let me worry about mine?” Nikki snapped. The implication, that he'd taken other thong-wearing women out on long rides, was what really chafed her.
“Suit yourself.” He shrugged. “But don't come crying to me later.”
Wade spun toward the barn and disappeared into a huge tack room with walls adorned with saddle and blanket racks, and miscellaneous bridlery. Following him inside, Nikki drank in the old familiar scents of oiled leather and horse sweat.
He pulled a fleece-lined oilskin drover off a coat rack and tossed it to her. “Here. It's Mama's. Might be a little big, but best take it.”
“It's at least seventy-five degrees, clear and sunny.”
“The weather here can change at the drop of a hat and the temperature plummets once the sun goes down. Even in summer it can hit the forties.” He handed her a pair of leather gloves. “This time of year it can get even colder, well below freezing in the high country.”
“You expect us to be out that long?” He took a rifle down from its rack. Nikki frowned. “What's that for?”
“Out here you have to anticipate anything and everything.” Suddenly all business, he turned toward the saddles. “Do you know how to tack up?”
“It's been a while, but I'm sure I can manage.” Nikki looked at the saddles with consternation. “Which one should I take?”
He grinned. “Whichever you think you can carry.”
Nikki scowled at him and then grabbed the horn and cantle of the first one she could reach. One strong tug pulled it free of the rackâand nearly knocked her on her ass. “Good golly! How much does this sucker weigh?”
“I'd say close to half of what you do. It's a roping saddle, designed to stand up to the rigors of working cattle. You'd best let me take it.” He tossed it over his shoulder with ease, and then jerked his chin toward the opposite wall. “You can get the halters, bridles, and blankets.”
She gathered up the ones he indicated, following him out to the pipe corrals where about two dozen horses were penned. She hung up the bridle, took the halter in hand, and climbed up and over the rails. A pretty palomino mare caught Nikki's eye. “Look at you!” she crooned. “Such a pretty girl.”
“How'd you know it was a mare?”
“I have eyes, don't I? It's pretty obvious she's missing some vital male anatomy.” She stroked the horse's muzzle. The animal nickered back. “What's her name?”
“I'll take her.”
“I don't know about that, Nikki.” He pulled on the brim of his hat with a frown. “Mares can beâ”
Her hackles instantly rose. “Hormonal? Touchy?” She arched a challenging brow. “Bitchy? Is that what you mean?”
His mouth kicked up in that taunting kinda way. The way that made her want to slap him and kiss him all at the same time. “I was about to say
“Oh.” She instantly deflated.
“And don't let that one fool you. She's worse than most. She's grown spoiled and lazy.”
“Why do you keep her then?”
A strange look passed over his face. “I don't know. Maybe because she's bred up the wazooâ¦maybe because she was born here. Dirk originally trained her and then gave her toâ¦a friend.”
“Dirk trained horses?”
“Yeah. He used to be one helluva bronc rider too, but that's all over now.”
“I s'pose he can't ride at all anymore, huh.”
“Not true. He rides when he
too, but he avoids it because it's a bitch for him getting on and off. On top of that, the prosthesis tends to throw him off balance. Still, when he wants to, he can ride circles around most anyone.” He threw a halter on a big sorrel gelding. “Redman's not so flashy, but he'll suit you.”
“But she likes me, Wade.” She regarded the mare wistfully. “We've already bonded.”
“Women and horses.” He shook his head with an exasperated sound. “Just trust me on this, Nikki. I know what I'm about. Sunshine hasn't had a saddle on her back in four years. You'll ride the gelding or you don't ride.”
She jutted her chin as if to challenge him, but thought twice. It wasn't worth fighting him just to fight. He
right after all. She hadn't been on a horse in several years and even then, she had ridden English rather than Western. Still, how different could it be?
Two hours later, he proved right about something elseâthe thong she'd chosen that morning just in case he honed in on her backside again. It chafed like hell between her butt cheeks.
* * *
After riding fence for miles, they finally caught up with Wade's father and brother in the north pasture, surrounded by countless lowing cattle. “I've never seen so many cows. How many are there?” she asked in amazement.
“At last count, around four hundred head, but Dirk could tell you for sure. At one time we ran almost a thousand, but had to scale back substantially a few years ago when prices bottomed out and we had to let some hands go.”