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Shelby O’Connor heard gravel crunch under tires on the opposite side of the barn, but didn’t take her eyes off the horse circling her in the round pen. If she broke focus, so would the young gelding, and now that she’d made a small amount of headway in the respect department, she wasn’t stopping. She gently slapped the coils of rope she held against her thigh and waved a hand to urge the horse to trot faster.
A truck door slammed and boots hit the ground.
Please be UPS.
If it wasn’t, she could handle it.
The round pen was set up behind the barn, to keep the horses from being distracted while Shelby worked them, but unfortunately that also kept her from seeing who’d just driven in to the Forty-Six Ranch. Just because she’d gotten a couple of heads up texts early that morning informing her Ty Harding was back in town, it didn’t mean he’d come to see her. Why would he? She’d made her feelings clear as glass when he’d left four years ago.
Shelby raised her hand and the gelding flicked an ear and shot a look at her out of one eye as he trotted around the perimeter of the pen, a sign he was starting to focus on her instead of escape.
Finally. Bueno Macho was a stubborn boy.
She took a couple of backward steps, dropping her arms to her side, relaxing her posture. The horse immediately slowed to a walk and then halted. He turned to face her, ears pricked forward. Full focus and a good stopping point—although, to be honest, Shelby was quitting because her focus was slipping. She slowly walked up to the horse, extending a hand and waiting until the horse bumped it with his nose.
“You did good.” She rubbed the gelding’s forehead before snapping the lead rope onto the halter and starting toward the gate, her heart thumping just a little harder as she crossed the sandy pen.
Moment of reckoning. Who is our mystery guest today?
Package delivery guy? Some lost soul looking for the nearly invisible turn-off to the River Road? Or…
Her heart slammed against her ribs at the sight of the man who’d once been her whole world, leaning against his truck, the late morning sun behind him, looking every inch the cowboy he was. Dark hair escaped from beneath his Resistol and, even though the brim shaded his face, she could see his features were harder, more sculpted than before. Four years had changed him, but it had not dulled her reaction to him. Part of her wanted to rush into his arms, as she would have done before he’d so easily abandoned her, and another part wanted to smack him. Hard. Fortunately for both of them, the sane part of her prevailed, although it was a battle, and she kept her expression carefully distant as she crossed the drive.
“You’re back.” She spoke on a flat note, as if her heart wasn’t beating a mile a minute—which it shouldn’t be.
They’d tried to make a go of it once. Failed. If he was back to make nice so they could live together in the same community…fine. She wasn’t looking forward to it, but, hey…free country and all that.
“I am.” He shifted his weight, hooking a thumb in his belt, a sure sign he wasn’t as certain of himself as he appeared.
But even when Ty wasn’t sure of himself, he was a formidable opponent. She knew from the confrontations they’d had when he’d asked her to come with him on the road. As if she could just leave grad school, her grandfather, and go. Right. It would have been easier for him to give up saddle bronc, or to ride only in the Montana Circuit instead of chasing the big titles. But no.
Again she tried to sound polite, yet distant, as if he were an acquaintance who’d stopped by for an unknown reason. As if he hadn’t knocked her heart around, but good.
He shrugged, those gray-blue eyes of his holding her, causing her to lift her chin as she came closer. Ty was tall for a bronc rider. Long and lean. Cowboy tough. And that had been the problem. He was cowboy tough and cowboy stubborn.
The gelding took a couple sideways steps when she came to a stop and Shelby automatically adjusted the lead, bringing the horse back to where he was supposed to be, standing with his head at her shoulder. She brought her attention back to the man in front of her… the man who wasn’t exactly bursting with explanations.
“Why are you here, Ty?”
“I’m back in Marietta for a while. I wanted to see you.”
Direct. To the point. As Ty always was—when he talked about stuff. Good, because she was in no mood for polite games. She wanted him gone before her grandfather realized he was there.
“We have unfinished business, Shelby.”
The laugh burst out of her lips before she could stop it, startling the horse, who danced a few steps before stilling. “The business between us is long finished.”
They hadn’t kept in any kind of contact over the past four years, because she hadn’t wanted contact. In her book, done was done and a clean break was the least painful. That was the theory anyway. But after experiencing a clean break, Shelby was pretty damned certain that she never wanted to go through a messy one.
Ty hadn’t come back to Marietta once after leaving—not even for the rodeo. He’d called her exactly one time, shortly after taking off, turning her inside out yet again, and she’d told him no more calls. He hadn’t attempted to contact her after that, which made her think he had understood they were through.
He shifted his weight again. His tell. “Four years is long time. I’ve never stopped thinking about you.”
She stared at him for a moment. Was he honestly going here? Trying to pick things up again?
“Are you saying that you made the wrong choice four years ago?” When he’d chosen rodeo over staying and making a life with her?
“I made the only choice I could.”
The only choice he could make was rodeo?
A spark of anger flickered to life. “But now that your career is over”—ended by a mare who’d gone down and crushed him more than half a year ago—“you’re back?” She let out a snort. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate being your contingency plan.”
“That isn’t how it is.”
“How else would you explain it, Ty?” Her tone had hardened, but she caught herself. “Never mind. You don’t need to explain.” Because needing an explanation meant she cared.
“Shelby…” He stepped closer and the gelding jerked his head up.
Ty instantly stopped, giving the skittish animal time to figure out he wasn’t an enemy and sure enough, the gelding lowered his head, stretched his nose out curiously. Ty knew horses.
He read them, which helped in his chosen line of work. “Maybe this isn’t the time.”
She forced a humorless smile and kept her voice even as she said, “You’re right. This isn’t the time. Nor is tomorrow. Nor the next day. I’ll let you extrapolate from there.”
If he’d just stopped by to say hello and warn her that he was back, she could have handled it just fine. Could have continued to believe she was through with the man. But to have the balls to insinuate that they weren’t yet done?
Oh, she was done. Because she couldn’t afford not to be.
The horse grew impatient, started dancing again, jerking Shelby’s arm. It was her fault. She should have put him away instead of expecting him to stand patiently while two humans duked it out verbally.
The gelding swung his butt around, stamping his front feet, and Ty made a move, as if to calm the animal, but he stopped when she shot him a warning look. She’d handle things on her own. Thank you very much. Just as she’d done for close to forever. Besides, she didn’t think she could stand it if he touched her. Didn’t think she could handle the memories pouring back. As it was, it was killing her just being this close to him, fighting the unexpected emotions roaring through her.
She could tell herself she didn’t care all she wanted—hell, she’d convinced herself she didn’t care and had believed it… until he showed up. Now she cared. She cared about being hurt and being betrayed. She cared about Gramps being let down again. Her grandfather had loved Ty like a grandson and she was certain Ty’s abandonment had hurt him as much as it’d hurt her.
“It was good seeing you, Ty.” Lie of the century. “I’d appreciate it if you left before Gramps sees you. You hurt him, too, you know.”
That was when Shelby felt tears starting to burn her eyes. It didn’t matter if they were angry tears, they were tears all the same and she would not cry. “I have work to do,” she said abruptly. “You need to leave.”
With that she turned and started leading the gelding toward the corral, escaping while she still had her composure. It wasn’t the smoothest exit she’d ever made, but it would have to do. At least until she got a grip.
Her next horse, a paint mare she was evaluating as a prospect for a twelve-year-old beginning rider, was waiting for her, head hanging over the fence. The horse gave a gentle nicker, but Shelby barely registered the equine greeting.
She released the gelding and headed for the mare’s pen, refusing to look back. Hell. Afraid to look back. Finally, after an eternity, she heard the truck door open and close. A moment later the diesel engine fired to life and relief surged through her, but it wasn’t until the sound of the engine had faded into the distance that she allowed herself to turn and watch Ty’s truck slow at the end of the long driveway, then ease out onto the county road. She turned her attention back to the paint mare, disgusted that her hands were shaking a little. Reaction. She’d wondered about this reunion for years—known it was inevitable, but hadn’t expected it to affect her this badly.
The hell of it was, she knew this wasn’t over.
Ty didn’t give up easily and if he wanted to talk to her, he’d made another stab at it. But she wouldn’t allow it to be here, with Gramps around… which meant she was going to have to take matters into her own hands and set a time and place for their final—and she meant final—showdown.
“Hey, Shelby.” She turned to see Gramps standing on the porch.
He was still wearing his town clothes, which was good. It meant he was taking it easy today as he’d promised. He’d been moving more slowly lately and it bothered her. But the one thing her grandfather never did was admit to any kind of pain or weakness. A personal code of honor that drove her insane. He’d taken her in and cared for her in his own gruff way when her mom died, and now she was going to take care of him. The only problem was that he wasn’t cooperating.
“Who was that?”
A lie? The truth? He was going to find out sooner or later, but later wouldn’t kill him. And it would give her time to come up with strategy. “Somebody who needed directions.”
“Ah. Looking for the River Road?”
Shelby just smiled rather than lie again and jerked her head toward the paint mare. “I’m going to be out on her for about an hour on the willow trail.”
She always was, which was why Ty wasn’t getting a second crack at her.
After leaving the Forty-Six Ranch, Ty drove past what had once been Harding Farms and parked at the edge of the barley field, letting the engine idle as he studied his old home out the back window of his truck. His body ached, as if always did when he held in one position for too long, but this pain went beyond the dull throb of knitting bones and muscles. He felt as if every part of his body had seized up. Stress. Pure and simple.
He’d had no idea how to approach Shelby, but had figured since Carol Bingley, town gossip, had spotted him his first night in town, he be better off seeing her sooner than later. It probably wouldn’t have mattered when he saw her—she was still as pissed at him as she’d been the day that he’d left. Which told him she cared enough to be pissed.
But it didn’t give him a clue as how to proceed, so here he was, communing with his past, as if it would give him an insight into the future.
The farm had changed. The house was freshly painted and the barn had been reroofed—things his father hadn’t been able to afford to do. Two little boys ran out of the house and made a beeline for the swings he and his brother, Austin, had played on years ago. The table he’d helped his father build was still there, too, covered with a red-checkered cloth. When his parents had sold out and moved, they’d left most everything behind, including the table he’d been so proud of. Granted, there wasn’t a lot of room for a redwood picnic table on the postage stamp sized lawn in the Arizona snowbird trailer park his folks now called home. It was as if when his dad had given up farming, he’d wanted to deal with as little land as possible, so he and Ty’s mom had headed south, where there were no Montana winters to contend with. No crops to worry about. No hunting or fishing either—at least not like there was in Montana, but Dad had been fine with that. Austin once said the land had wrung everything out of their father as he fought his losing battle to make the farm continue to pay for itself and support the small family that worked it. He’d given up his dream of being a champion bronc rider to take over the farm and had lost both—the dream and the farm. That was where Ty and Austin came in.
The woman came out of the house again carrying a large bowl. She paused on the steps, shading her eyes with her free hand as she stared in his direction. Ty put his truck in gear and pulled out onto the gravel road. He didn’t want her to think he was casing the place when all he was doing was checking in on his past before moving forward with his future.
The forward part was still a little shaky. He wasn’t done with his career, even though he’d truly believed he was when he’d announced his retirement after the wreck that had so thoroughly broken him early in the spring. About a week into recovery, he’d realized he had to give rodeo one more shot. Had to go out on his own terms, not on the terms of a cranky, white mare that had reared over backwards into the chute when the gate opened instead of charging out into the arena, thus doing Ty a world of hurt.
His therapist hadn’t agreed and had told him it was time for a new career, a new life. But he loved his old one. The one that had taken him across the country time and again. Had battered his body and fed his brain. Had made him a winner, which helped compensate for his father’s losses in life. His dad finally became a winner because his sons were winners—Ty in saddle bronc, Austin in the bull riding. Kenny Harding loved being the father of two champions… sometimes too much.
And at other times way too much.
Actually, his dad was a fucking Dance Mom, but Ty tolerated it because he understood his old man and loved him. It hadn’t been easy for Kenny to accept that his eldest son’s career was over, which was why Ty hadn’t said one word about getting entry into the 78th Copper Mountain Rodeo. He wanted to test the waters, see if he still had what it took to continue his career, and he wanted to do it with as little fanfare as possible. He’d spoken to the head of the rodeo board and asked if they’d keep his entry quiet until day sheets were printed. Not a problem, they assured him, but they wanted to use his comeback ride for advertising next year if all went well. Ty had no problem with that. Maybe he’d be on his way to another championship by that time.
He took the left hand fork that led back to Marietta, past Copper Mountain, past the ghostly workings of the copper boom that had brought some of the first people into the area—his family included. When he pulled onto the highway to head south, he passed a flower-laden cross with a firefighter’s coat hanging on it. Harry Monroe. He’d been a year ahead of Harry, a truly great guy, in school. Ty hadn’t realized he’d been recently killed on the highway while helping a stalled out motorist until he’d eaten at the café and overheard talk of fund-raisers.
Life was short. Too short not to grab for all he could get. A championship. The woman he still loved… he wasn’t waiting another four years to make things right with her. As it was, he felt damned lucky she was still single. She was strong and beautiful and, in some ways, scarred. She’d never fully gotten over losing her mother, and he probably hadn’t helped matters by essentially abandoning her, but it was the only choice he could have made at the time.
He drove into Marietta and parked his truck next to the Graff, a beautifully refurbished Victorian hotel. He’d love to check in and stay for a couple of days, but he was hoarding money until after the rodeo, when he’d have a better idea as to where he was career-wise. He hadn’t done a lot of planning when he’d left his friend’s ranch in Texas to return home. Once he’d gotten entry into the rodeo, he’d pretty much climbed into his truck and started to drive, thinking if he got there a few weeks early, he could catch up with people, finish unfinished business, maybe find a place to bunk in exchange for some work—work that might become fulltime if the rodeo didn’t go well. For the moment he was making do with a bedroll in the back of his truck and the public shower facility at the fairgrounds. He’d done worse.
An older woman he didn’t know smiled at him as he got out of his truck and he touched the brim of his hat and smiled back. He started down the sidewalk to Grey’s Saloon, figuring there was no better place to catch up on local goings on and see if anyone needed a day hand. He’d just passed the bank when a woman brushed by him from behind, moving with a limp that didn’t slow her down much.
Tanner McTavish turned and blinked at him before pushing her rust colored braid over her shoulder in a self-conscious gesture. “Ty. Hi.” She smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes, possibly because Tanner was a friend of Shelby’s. “I heard you were back.”
Word traveled fast in Marietta, as always. He’d pulled into town yesterday evening and ate dinner at the café before parking his truck at the fairgrounds. The café had been almost empty, but Carole Bingley had been there with a friend, which explained everything. A compulsive gossip who worked at the pharmacy could spread a decent rumor with lightning speed.
“I am. I’m looking for a place to live for a while if you know of anything.”
“Not off the top of my head.” She cocked her head a little. “Does that mean you’re staying?”
“For a while.” An awkward silence hung between them before he asked, “Is Tucker going to be in town for the rodeo?”
Tanner’s expression went stony at the mention of her sister’s name. Apparently things weren’t all that great between the twins. “She’ll be here. I’ll tell her you asked about her.”
“No need.” He and Tucker had gone out a time or two, but only as friends. She was flirty and fun, but she wasn’t Shelby. “Just trying to catch up on who’s where.” He gestured toward the saloon. “Thought I’d start here.”
Tanner gave a soft snort. “As long as you’re not counting on Jason to fill you in, you should do fine.”
The last thing Ty expected was that Jason Grey would fill him in on local gossip. The guy was grim, but he still ran the best establishment around—although Ty had yet to check out the new microbrewery, FlintWorks. He’d had some good times at the Wolf Den, further down the street, but he didn’t think his body could take the trouble he sometimes got himself into there.
“I’ve got to run,” Tanner said, adjusting her long purse strap on her shoulder. “Good seeing you.”
“Good to see you, too.” He walked on to Grey’s and pushed through the door, stopping just inside so his eyes could adjust.
“The prodigal,” Jason muttered as Ty approached the bar.
It was a dour announcement, but Ty had spent enough times in Grey’s to know it was as close to an effusive greeting as he was ever going to get from the barkeep.
“One of many,” he said.
Jason gave him a thoughtful look. “Yeah. Guess so.” He poured a draft without asking and passed it across the bar. “Back for good?”
Again, very effusive for Jason, but Ty chalked it up to the fact the establishment was practically empty and no one would see Jason having an actual conversation.
“Depends on a few things.”
Jason nodded, then headed to the other end of the bar where he started unloading a tray of glassware.
Conversation over. His plan of catching up with the locals was shot all to hell by the fact that there were no locals there to talk to. He didn’t know the people sitting at the table in the far corner of the room, didn’t know if they were new to the area or passing through. He’d only been gone for four years, but Marietta had changed. It seemed busier and not only because the rodeo weekend was approaching. He’d noticed new businesses and new houses. But the beauty of Marietta was that it was too far away from Bozeman to become a bedroom community, so the people there were people invested in the community.
Ty sipped his beer, then took his life in his hands and sauntered down the bar.
When Jason raised his eyes to glare, Ty said, “I’m looking for temporary work and a place to stay.” He had some money tucked away, but hated to touch his emergency fund, which wasn’t exactly huge.
“I’ll keep my ears open.”
Meaning nothing sprang to mind.
“Thanks.” Ty gave a nod and made his way back to his stool, leaving Jason in peace. He finished his beer, pulled out his wallet and left some bills on the bar.
Ty turned at the door, surprised that Jason had spoken to him.
“Try Callen. For a place to stay. Heard she needs another cowboy on the Circle C. A guy just quit.”
“Thanks.” Ty gave Jason a quick nod, then stepped out into the bright Montana sun. First he’d find a place to stay, then he’d plot out his next move with Shelby.
End of Excerpt