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Ty Evans was having a shit day, literally. His jeans were crusted in mud and stuff he’d rather not examine too closely after the three-day spring roundup. He and his brothers, their hands, and various local ranchers had gathered to corral the new calves, brand, castrate, vaccinate, and tag them then release them back to their frantic mommas. Now, one day later, he was cleaning up the aftereffects and dealing with the residual exhaustion that dogged his every step. He could almost taste the beer and feel the hot water cascading over his body in his shower at the end of the day, just a couple of hours away. Unfortunately, it appeared real life, and his soon-to-be sister-in-law had other plans.
Dundee flopped at his feet, panting heavily, and laid his head on Tara Rawlings’ foot, lifting blue soulful eyes that the border collie/Australian cattle dog mix was known for. Tara wrinkled her nose and slid her foot gingerly out from under his dirt-encrusted fur. Ty grunted and squatted to bury his fingers in the dog’s fur. Dundee’s back leg jerked in ecstasy.
“Welcome to ranch life, Tara. And the answer is no.”
She scowled. “How do you know I want to ask you something?”
He cocked his head up at her from his position bent over rubbing Dundee’s belly and arched his brow. “Because you’ve avoided the whole branding area for the past three days.”
She snorted. “That’s not a surprise. There’s not exactly a wealth of women hanging around watching you castrate these poor babies and burn their butts.” She waved her hand before he could even respond. “Yes, I know it needed to be done, but I don’t need to be here.”
He straightened and nudged Dundee to move along. Heaving a sigh, the dog got up and ambled off, as tired as the rest of them. He’d move a hell of a lot faster when it came time for his bath later, when he avoided Ty, but he was definitely getting a bath before he’d be allowed in the cabin for bedtime.
“You can’t avoid it forever. But I can avoid your question. Again, the answer is no. I’m tired, covered in shit and God knows what else, and I still have to bed down the remaining heavies.”
He referred to the remaining cows who were still pregnant and were being kept close to the house for the birth. He’d often spent the night in the barn with them to ensure they had someone monitoring them, since any rancher knew calves often came at the worst time, and he wanted to be certain someone was there to make sure there were no issues. The ranch hands rotated the job, but Ty took the duty most often, relishing the peace and quiet.
She shrugged. “Yeah, well, I had wedding things to do. And I don’t think you could stand in for me at my fittings. Speaking of which.”
She eyed him expectantly and he sighed. Like he’d really tell her no. She had come back to the ranch a year ago after her father—his foster father and the man who saved him—passed away, leaving her and the three foster brothers the property. Together they had to figure out a way to make the ranch work, including new ranching methods and a guest ranch that was due to open any day now. West Morgan, one of Ty’s foster brothers and Tara’s fiancé, directed the ranch management and had kept them going while Tara was the mastermind behind the guest ranch. Chase, his other foster brother, had retired from bull riding, after putting his body on the line once too often to keep them afloat, and had come home to train horses. He was also married to their business manager, Hailey, keeping it all in the family.
Seemed like everyone was moving on with their lives, contributing to the ranch in some way. Everyone except Ty. He helped West with the cattle, sat with the heavies and managed the calving; he’d even started up the horses for the guest ranch, though Chase had taken that over now that he was back. So, where did all of this leave him?
Oh yeah, running errands for the blushing bride, who was actually glaring at him while he was woolgathering. He avoided her stare and picked up his scattered tools. “As you can see, I’m in no shape to be doing anything.”
She hiked her hip on the fence and bit her lower lip. “I could ask West to pick her up at the airport, I suppose. I had hoped to spend some time with him tonight, since I haven’t seen him in forever.”
Ty dropped his head. Such blatant manipulation. West and the guys had been putting in extra time bringing in the herd for the spring calving and branding, checking the pastures and seeing how they’d fared over the harsh Montana winter. West had wanted to get most of it done before the wedding so he could take time away for the honeymoon guilt-free. It wasn’t that West didn’t trust Ty or Chase or the hands. He just subscribed to their foster father’s old adage of leading from the front and doing everything himself, with a healthy dose of older brother control freak thrown in. So West and Chase hadn’t had time for their significant others, and Chase had a kid now, a six-year-old stepson he needed to spend time with. That left Ty out, and available for Tara’s errands. He’d be a first-class jackass if he said no.
“Fine. Do I have time left to take a shower?”
She wrinkled her nose. “I’d prefer it. But make it fast. Her flight lands in a couple of hours and I don’t want her sitting around the airport where anyone could see her. That’s the last thing she needs right about now.”
Ty cursed under his breath and strode into the airport terminal. Thanks to construction rerouting traffic around Missoula International Airport—the name made the one-terminal airport sound grander than it really was—he was late picking up Tara’s friend, someone he’d never even met, though he pretty much had her pegged already. Boarding schools, Nashville country music star, daughter of country music royalty. Yeah, she was probably going to be a pain in the ass, not even able to handle getting her own rental from their airport to the ranch. And she’d be pissed he was late, assuming he was. He actually didn’t recall the exact flight she was coming in on, having left the slip of paper with the flight number in his cabin.
He headed into the baggage area and scanned the arrivals board. No flights coming in from Nashville. Damn it. He shouldn’t have left the paper at home. His brothers were checking on the calves, and he sure as hell wasn’t calling Tara to tell her he forgot the flight information. He turned and scanned the seating area surrounding baggage claim and didn’t notice a woman sitting alone, not anyone who looked like she was waiting for him. He pulled up his phone and called up her name. There was one advantage to picking up a Nashville star. He could find out what she looked like and not be a complete idiot.
The web page was filled with several hits, including a video and audio from her latest tour now blasting out from his phone. Her long, mahogany hair flared around her, teased to the hilt, makeup caking her face, with a sprinkling of glitter dusted over the top. She wore skintight jeans with strategically placed tears, a brand name that probably cost more than his truck, a pair of boots that had never seen a day of work, and a plaid shirt cinched at her waist to accentuate her curvy frame and leaving a teasing glimpse of her cleavage and a flash of skin around her waist. The lights flashed around her as she danced on the stage around her backup musicians, flirting and dancing.
He snorted. Must be a rough life, singing other people’s songs, not even writing your own music or playing an instrument. Just show up, sing, sign a few autographs, and go home. No wonder her last tour had poor attendance, according to the headlines under the images on the search page. He glanced around the mostly empty baggage area, looking for someone who vaguely resembled the famous Piper Raines or a crowd of people who might be gathered to pay homage to her. No dice.
Dammit. He might have to call Tara and admit defeat.
He sauntered over to the information desk, where a blonde woman eyed him with appreciation. He gave her a winning smile, hoping to cover for the fact that he was kind of a dumbass. “I’m a little late picking up a guest for the ranch, and I’m hoping you can help me. When was the last flight from Nashville?”
She flashed him a big smile and her fingers flew over the keys. “We don’t have any direct flights from Nashville to Montana. But there was a flight that came in from Denver two hours ago, and there’s one from Dallas in about two hours. Maybe your guest is on one of those? Do you know which airlines he was on?”
“She,” he said absently as he tried to remember, and the woman’s expression changed from flirty to closed, her posture stiffening.
“Sorry. There isn’t much more I can do, sir.” Her tone was definitely more professional now, more distant.
“Excuse me. Are you looking for me, perhaps?”
Ty shifted on his boot heel and looked down at a petite, pixyish woman standing behind him, her hip cocked out to the side, a couple pieces of well-worn luggage next to her. Her dark brown eyes flashed fire at him, her full lips pursed in an irritated frown, and her posture screamed attitude. He tilted the brim of his hat and let his gaze travel over her, not seeing the woman from the video, nor the piles of expensive luggage he had been expecting.
She darted a nervous gaze around, but the woman behind the counter had already moved on to something else and no one was nearby. “Not so loud, please. Are you West Morgan?”
“No, I’m his brother, Ty. Tara sent me to pick you up.”
She narrowed her eyes and studied him carefully. “Can you prove it? You could be a serial killer, and I’ve seen that episode of Dateline already. I don’t need to star in it.”
He froze for a moment. No one had ever questioned him or his word before—well, not since he’d come to live at Redemption Ranch, at least. But he supposed she was being smart, not blindly following him or anyone into the backcountry of Montana. He pulled out his phone and swiped through his camera roll to find a picture of him with Tara and his brothers.
“Will this help? I thought Tara was going to text you.”
Her eyes widened and a word he hadn’t expected dropped from under her breath. She fumbled in her carry-on bag, filling his arms with items. A bottle of water. A bag of licorice bits. A romance novel. Finally, she pulled out a large phone and clicked it on. She avoided his stare while it powered on. Within a few seconds, several twinkles sounded, along with a host of other alert sounds, and her face flushed. She cast a quick glance at him, but he kept his face impassive, even as he wondered at her choice of tones. She tapped the screen a few times then studied him more closely.
He gave her an innocent smile, trying to appear as nonthreatening as possible. She frowned and typed a response to a text message, then tucked her phone back in the bag and took the rest of the items from him.
“You’re late,” she snapped. “My plane got in two hours ago.”
“This is our busy time, not that we have any downtime. You could have rented a car like most people do.” He gestured toward the car rental counters against the far wall of the baggage claim area. “You could have been at the ranch by now.”
She avoided his comment and grabbed the handle of the luggage. “Well, it’s done now. Can we go, please?”
She started to pull the oversized suitcase, but it was unbalanced and toppled, almost wiping her out in the process. He grabbed it with one hand before it hit the ground, and hauled her against him with the other, pulling her out of the way. The top of her head just about reached his chin, and he tried to ignore how perfectly she fit against him, the softness of her hair, and the way her eyes widened up at him with a flare of awareness in them.
He settled her on her feet and dropped his arm. “I’ve got this. Do you have anything else?”
She shook her head, looking as unsettled as he felt. “Just this. But I’ve got it.”
She hefted a hard, black guitar case and clutched it like a lifeline. He gave her a short nod, respect rising in him. He’d never let anyone else carry his guitar either. And the fact that she had tried to deal with her luggage herself and not expected him to do it, like he was a lackey, also impressed him. Now he was kind of feeling bad that he had left her waiting around when she wasn’t the prissy princess he had expected. He rolled her suitcase out of the airport and toward the parking lot, with Piper following a few steps behind.
Hopefully, she’d settle into the ranch and continue the self-sufficient ways. If she expected someone to cater to her, she’d have a rude awakening.
End of Excerpt