Her luck's changing for the better...right?
Making the tough decisions has always been easy for big-city human-resources specialist Ellison Hunter...until a surprise pregnancy changes everything. Now it's her life that needs major reorganization. Putting her personnel expertise to use on her family's Montana ranch is the perfect escape—even if it means contending with ace rancher Ryan Madison.
His stubborn pride and loyalty to the staff? Those she can handle. But his sexy grin, cowboy charm and instinct to protect her and her baby catch her off guard. As attraction spins into something more, Ellie finds herself even further out of her element. But maybe, with Ryan, she's exactly where she belongs.
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Jeannie Watt lives in a historical Nevada ranching community with her husband, horses and ponies. During the day she teaches junior high and at night she writes about cowboys, ranchers and cops. When she's not writing or feeding the animals, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors and cooking with her husband.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
She wouldn't need black pumps on a ranch...would she?
Ellison Hunter hesitated for only a moment before she tucked her trusty Christian Louboutin shoes, toes stuffed with the original tissue, into their usual spot in her travel bag. She had no idea what she'd be facing in Montana, but would hate to need her pumps and be without. These particular heels, a splurge she'd never regretted, gave her a sense of power and control, which was exactly what Ellie needed right now.
The phone rang for the third time in the past two hours as she reached for a stack of underwear to tuck into the spaces around the heels and Ellie considered ignoring it—except that an unanswered call would eventually be followed by a rapping on her door. So much for control and power.
"Montana?" Kate Warren asked without saying hello. Ellie's closest friend was well aware that Ellie was holding out on her, that she hadn't divulged the true reason for her abrupt departure from her job and an impromptu trip across the country for an undetermined length of time. And Ellie wasn't going to spill her guts anytime soon because she was still coming to terms with the reason herself.
"My uncle needs me," she said.
"It's where he lives," Ellie replied patiently, although she felt her back start to go up. Her usual calm demeanor was getting harder to maintain with each passing day.
"No," Kate said. "He lives in Santa Barbara, and I could understand you going to help him there, but—"
"A surgical practice doesn't prepare you to manage people." Which was what Ellie did. She managed people. Helped organizations run more smoothly by evaluating their personnel and their practices. Up until two months ago, her life had mirrored her profession—it had run smoothly, according to plan.
Ellie scrunched up her forehead as she balanced the phone on her shoulder and reached for more underwear. Think about it later.
"Ellie, I know you're dealing with some kind of a problem," Kate blurted. "And I think it's totally unfair of you not to let me help—"
"I'm fine," Ellie snapped and then let out a sigh. Not fine. "Okay... I need to get away." That was the truth. "I.. need a break. When I talked to my aunt and she told me that the ranch Uncle Milo bought was about fifty years behind the times... Well, it seemed like a good opportunity to change scenery and help them out at the same time."
A long silence met her words. Kate had known Ellie since they'd first been assigned as bunkmates at boarding school seventeen years ago. Changing scenery was not something Ellie had ever been concerned with.
"Ellie..." There was a soft note of desperation in her friend's voice, one that made Ellie come very close to confessing.
Not yet. Not until she had some kind of plan in place. Not until she'd come to terms with everything. Telling her aunt the truth had been ridiculously difficult, and she was not ready to repeat the experience. And then there was always the chance that she wouldn't have to confess—which was why she hadn't yet told her mother.
You're only six weeks along. Sometimes...things...happen.
Her aunt's words had given her a smidgeon of comfort two weeks ago when she'd simply had to tell someone the devastating news. How horrible was she that she kind of hoped something would happen? That the pregnancy would end itself naturally before the first trimester; that she could go back to her old life and never, ever make a mistake like this again?
So she had that to deal with, too.
"Kate...my decision is made. I'm going to Montana. It's what I want to do."
"I don't believe you," Kate replied. "Quitting your job, moving to a foreign environment, holding out on your best friend... You don't have a dreaded disease, do you?"
"No disease. Just a need for a change. And some privacy."
Kate sighed into the phone. "All right," she said sullenly. "Go to Montana. Keep me in the dark."
"It isn't like I won't be back," Ellie said, relieved that her friend was finally showing signs of backing off. "I have to finish packing. I'm running late and I won't make my flight if I have to keep answering calls."
"No more calls."
Her words were followed by an awkward silence as if they were both waiting for the other to hang up first, and then Kate said, "You know I have your back."
"You always have," Ellie replied, forcing the words over the lump forming in her throat. Stupid hormone-induced emotions. "I'll talk to you soon." And then she did hang up. Fast.
For a moment she stared down at her suitcase, blinking against the tears, before she regained control and started packing again, her movements quick and automatic.
Her new job was bogus—or at least it had started out that way. When her aunt had first suggested that Ellie go to work for them at their new ranch in Montana, her initial instinct had been to say no. It had been more than obvious that Angela was trumping up a way to rescue her niece from the consequences of her actions—something Ellie's own mother would have never done. Besides, Milo had a ranch consultant coming in later that summer to evaluate, so why would he need her? Easy answer. He didn't.
But for the first time in her life Ellie had no plan, no idea what her next move would or should be. After several days of considering her alternatives—paying rent from savings while she looked for another job in a tight market, trying to find a position that would work with single motherhood, coming to terms with her pregnancy—she'd realized that she was damned fortunate to have this opportunity. It gave her time, although she hated admitting she needed that time.
So three days ago she'd called her uncle Milo and hammered out a deal. She'd travel to Montana and familiarize herself with the ranch, which was still being managed by the original owner, before the consultant arrived. Milo had seemed relieved, saying that while the consultant came highly recommended, he'd feel better if he had another set of eyes there—Ellie's eyes. The person he was most concerned about was the former owner, now the uncommunicative ranch manager. On the one hand, he didn't want to let the guy go if he was the best man to run the place, but on the other, the guy was hell to deal with.
Ellie assured Milo she'd take care of matters. That was what she did, after all—take care of matters, evaluate staff, make hiring and firing decisions. Between her and the consultant, they should have the ranch in decent shape by the time Milo retired.
She closed her suitcase and locked the latches. This was not going to be an escape. It was going to be a mission.
The arena was muddy as hell. Ryan Madison shook out his loop, found the sweet spot and gripped it tightly as he urged his black gelding, PJ, into the roping box.
"Come on, Ryan. You can do it!" A female voice broke through his concentration, but he instantly tuned her out.
PJ's body tensed as the calf was pushed forward into position. Ryan sent up a quick prayer, then nodded. The chute clanged open, the calf shot out and after that it was autopilot.
PJ caught up with the calf and squeezed in on him as Ryan dropped the loop over the animal's neck and dallied around the saddle horn, dismounting almost before PJ had skidded to a stop in the mud. He flanked the calf, a heavy, squirming heifer, dodging a foot as the calf hit the ground before grabbing that same foot, holding it with the two front feet with one hand and making his wraps with the other. Two wraps and a half hitch.
Ryan jumped to his feet, hands in the air. PJ eased forward, slacking the rope stretched between the saddle horn and the calf. He held his breath as the calf squirmed and bucked, and then the judge dropped his flag.
Ryan bent to loosen the rope on the calf's neck before releasing the animal's feet from the wraps of the pigging string. The calf jumped up and loped to the far end of the arena as Ryan remounted the gelding, coiling his muddy rope.
He was vaguely aware of the announcer giving his time—the best that day so far—and cheers from the crowd as he exited the arena; he nodded at some of his acquaintances. Smiled even though he didn't feel like smiling, despite a decent run.
Somewhere in the warm-up crowd was his half brother, Matt Montoya, who had every intention of stealing this purse away from him.
Have at it, Ryan thought as he rode through the crowd and then headed for his trailer. His run had been pretty damned close to perfect, especially in a muddy arena.
Once at the trailer, he tied PJ and pulled the saddle off. The horse was done for the day, but Ryan wasn't. He had a mission ahead of him that he was not looking forward to, but one that couldn't be avoided. He needed to talk to his father.
It was a good-size rodeo, but Charles Montoya tended to show up in the competitor's area to congratulate his legitimate son after a good run. Ryan had purposely parked his trailer within sight of his brother's, although under normal circumstances, they avoided any proximity with one another. In fact, they'd never actually spoken since the fistfight in the rodeo grounds' bathroom just after he'd turned fifteen.
After PJ was taken care of, Ryan sat on the trailer fender where he had a decent view of Montoya's trailer, and began his vigil. Matt would make his run within the hour and then, hopefully—
Charles Montoya was a tall man with a full head of silver hair. Hard to miss in a crowd, and even harder to miss as he headed for Matt's trailer. Ryan, vaguely aware of his heart rate bumping up, just as it did when he was about to rope, pushed off the trailer and started toward the man who, after finding Matt's trailer deserted, reversed course toward the stands. Ryan knew he probably wasn't going to have another semiprivate opportunity such as this anytime in the near future, so he started to jog after him.
"Excuse me," he called, when he really wanted to say, "Hold up, asshole."
Charles Montoya stopped walking and glanced over his shoulder, a stunned expression forming on his face when he recognized just who had hailed him.
Yeah. It's me. Surprised?
Ryan's mouth clamped into a hard straight line as he slowed to a walk, and damned if Charles didn't take on a polite, distant expression.
"Can I help you?" he said.
"Yes, you can. Stay away from my mother," Ryan said as he came to a stop. "Excuse me?"
And this was when the bluff came in, because although he knew from Cindy, his mother's best friend, that Charles had been in contact with his mom—and that she'd been in a deep funk for days afterward—he didn't know the nuts and bolts of the situation. As always, Lydia Madison was protecting people. Ryan. Charles. Everyone but herself.
Ryan took a step forward, putting himself close enough to his father that the guy knew he meant business. "Leave my mother alone. No contact. Understand?"
A fierce frown formed between Charles's heavy white eyebrows. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't bullshit me. You called her, you threatened her, and if you do it again, the era of 'don't ask, don't tell' is over. Forever."
Charles drew himself up in a way that told Ryan he wasn't used to being challenged. Tough shit. "Don't threaten me," he rumbled. "Or?" Ryan asked calmly. "You'll tell the world the truth?"
The older man's face went brilliantly red and then, apparently unable to find a reply, he turned on his heel and stalked toward the stands. He'd made it only a few steps before he stopped dead in his tracks.
Ryan's first thought was, What the hell? But he quickly saw exactly what had brought his father to a screeching halt. The golden son, Matt, stood about fifteen yards away, blocking Charles's escape between two trailers.
Cool. A twisted family reunion.
Ryan started walking before he had a chance to think things through. He had a few words for his brother, too. Matt also moved forward, while Charles stayed planted, one son approaching from the front, one from the rear. Trapped.
Matt's face was a blank mask when he stopped in front of his father, his gaze raking quickly over the old man's face before moving on to Ryan.
"I was just explaining to your father how much his recent phone call to my mom had upset her," Ryan said.
If he'd had any question as to whether or not Matt would automatically back his father, it was answered when his brother shot Charles a fiercely angry look.
"If it happens again," Ryan continued, "I'll make a call of my own." If his mother was being harassed, then Mon-toya's mother could join the fray.
"Do that," Matt growled, "and I'll beat the shit out of you."
"Or try?" Ryan asked flatly before he turned his attention back to Charles, who appeared to be on the verge of a stroke, he was so red. "No more calls, you son of a bitch. Leave her alone."
Then, having had all the family reunion he could handle for one day, he turned and stalked back toward his trailer. Neither Montoya followed him. Good thing.
He loaded PJ, locked the tack compartment, pocketed his keys. Now that his mission was accomplished, he had to stop by the rodeo office and then grab a hamburger for the road before he put a couple hundred miles between himself and his old man. If he could choke a burger down. Talk about a bad taste.
"Great run, Ryan!" a young voice called as he approached the rodeo office.
Ryan smiled and nodded at the boy dressed in chaps and carrying a red, white and blue rope. "Thanks, bud."
He conducted his business in the rodeo office, which took about fifteen minutes longer than it should have, and got into the concession line.
People stopped and said hello as he waited, congratulating him on his run—still the winning time—and Ryan chatted with a few of them even though he wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there. He'd just made it to the counter and was about to give his order when a collective gasp went up from the crowd, followed by silence. The nasty kind of silence that indicated something bad had just happened. Ryan's gut tightened as he waited for the hubbub that would erupt when the injured cowboy got back to his feet. The crowd remained stubbornly silent.
"Oh, no," the elderly lady in the booth gasped, craning her neck to see, but the solid gate panels blocked the view.
"Our medical team is on the scene, taking a look at this cowboy," the announcer finally said in a reassuring voice. "As you know, these guys are the best in the business." The ambulance rolled past the concession stand then, and the wide arena gate swung open to give access. The lady gasped again and Ryan instantly understood why.
The sorrel horse with the distinctive white spot on his side standing near the crouched group surrounding the downed cowboy belonged to the crowd favorite.
His brother. Matt Montoya.
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Book Description Harlequin, 2014. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Brand New, not a remainder. Bookseller Inventory # 1606220267
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Book Description Harlequin, 2014. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0373608233
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