Ranger’s Pride

by

Vella Munn

At eighteen, Tara Steele was young and restless, so she left the only man she’d ever loved behind to pursue an education and see the world. Now a nurse, she’s returned to Montana to help her aging parents, but when she discovers an elk carcass, she calls the local ranger to investigate. When Hunter picks up, she wonders if they will still have a spark so many years later.

Tara is the last person forest ranger Hunter Beavers expects to see again. He’s never fully healed from their broken engagement, but has immersed himself in protecting the land and wildlife he loves. He’s determined to keep his heart and distance when they partner to investigate the poachers, but all of their lingering feelings rush back. Hunter may not be able to forget the love they shared, but he’s sure he can’t trust that Tara won’t go running off again.

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This is where we made love for the first time.

Her eyes burning and her throat tight, Tala Steele brushed her sandals over the dead grasses behind the empty barn. She hadn’t intended to turn off the highway or bump over the narrow dirt road so she could see the place, but she had. Her dad had told her that the world had left the family farm behind. Its appearance shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it had.

Maybe it was the lack of color on the once-red barn, the rusted wire clinging to rotted fence posts, or the splintered stairs no longer leading to the small farm house.

But maybe, probably, certainly it was the memories.

“Have you ever come here?” she asked the mental image of Hunter Beavers that remained with her despite how long it had been since they’d last embraced. “How many times have you driven past the mailbox that once said the Steeles lived here? A thousand? Ten thousand?”

An eagle flew overhead. Grateful for the distraction, she followed its flight as it headed toward the distant Mission Mountains. A breeze blew from the mountains to her, treating her to a taste and feel of yet another connection to her childhood.

If Hunter had been with her, he’d tell her why the raptor was doing what it was, where it had come from, and what its future was probably going to be. Hunter had a rare wisdom about this vast and ageless land, but that wasn’t the only reason she’d nearly married him.

Nearly, she forced herself to repeat.

Instead of taking his name six years ago, she’d tugged off the simple engagement ring and handed it to him. Struggling for the strength to speak, she’d tried to explain that her sanity was at stake and he deserved better. But there were times, like now, when she wished it hadn’t been that way.

“What happened back then doesn’t matter,” she told the no-longer-visible eagle. “I’m focused on today.”

However, instead of getting in her car and heading for the hospital in Bigfork, she ran her hand over the barn’s weathered side, careful not to get splinters in her palm. In her mind’s eye, she saw and heard cows and calves, chickens, and a few pigs. She hadn’t been responsible for farm animals since childhood but probably could get a job as a farmhand if need be.

The three-bedroom, one-bath house where she’d lived with her parents and six siblings was some twenty yards from the barn. The path the family had trod was still there. If she got too close to her memories, as was happening today, she’d picture herself walking barefoot from the drafty house to the equally ill-equipped barn. As a child she hadn’t suspected there was another way to live. That had changed, radically so, when she moved to Chicago.

Hunter had had no interest in cities and probably still didn’t. When they were together, when they weren’t making love, he’d talked about wild animals, mountains, lakes, streams, weather patterns, and Salish tradition.

“I was happy learning from you. Anything that interested you captivated me.” She studied the ground where Hunter had once spread out a sleeping bag for them. “I just wish you’d invested yourself in what I needed.”

Irritated with herself for blaming him for something that wasn’t his fault, she started toward the house. Other people had rented it after her family had moved to town, but she understood it had been vacant for several years.

Hunter didn’t know that she was living in Sweetheart. That she’d returned, at least for the foreseeable future, to the state she’d once declared she was done with. It was only right that she get in touch with him and explain what needed to be explained, prepare him for the possibility that their paths would cross.

But not today.

“Do you ever come here?” Struggling against unexpected melancholy, she turned her back on the house and headed for her car. “I wonder if you sometimes think of who we used to be.”

Talking to Hunter would be hard, painful even, but she regularly dealt with someone in crises. She had guts. Feeling stronger, she reached for the handle on the five-year-old SUV with its monthly payments, decent tires, and a nearly new battery.

Bam!

For maybe a full second, the sound didn’t register. Then she realized she’d heard a rifle shot. Tense, she strained to determine where the sound was coming from. She knew what a bullet wound looked like, the damage it did to human flesh.

Another blast, echoing and more nerve-wracking. She yanked on the door handle, dove inside, and flattened herself as best she could. Five seconds stretched to ten then perhaps fifteen. She lifted her head and looked around. It wasn’t hunting season, but someone could be target shooting. They’d chosen this sweep of land because they’d believed they’d have it to themselves. Unless a law had changed, there wasn’t anything illegal about what was happening, but the shooter wasn’t that far away.

A new sensation caught her attention. Something was making the ground throb, coming her way.

Awestruck, she got out of her vehicle. Careful to keep her back to it, she stared in the direction the sound was coming from. The almost rhythmic throbbing grew louder and became a living thing. She pulled her cell phone out of her slacks’ pocket, aimed, and held her breath.

There they were! Ten or twelve elk pounding toward her with their heads and tails high. The calves were in the middle, protected by the fully grown animals. A massive bull with what might be a trophy size rack brought up the rear. Thanks to what Hunter had told her about elk, she knew he was intent on protecting his herd. Her hand less than steady, she took picture after picture. As they neared what was left of the corral, she prayed they’d spot the fencing before they ran into it.

One at a time, so graceful she wanted to applaud them, they vaulted what had once kept livestock contained. The adult cows were around five hundred pounds, the bull maybe twice that size, but they seemed almost weightless. She’d seen elk before. What Montana native hadn’t? But she’d never been treated to such a sight.

Hunter would be thrilled.

Her forefinger burned as she took more shots, these of the bull’s rear end. He was nearly out of her camera’s range when he looked back at her. Their eyes locked.

“Thank you!”

“I’m not going to bet on them making the delivery date,” Garret told Hunter as the two men headed toward their forest service vehicles. “We both know how busy the building supply places are this time of the year.”

Hunter shook his head. “That’s what the man I talked to said. I wish I could be more flexible about time, but I’ll never get everything done if I don’t keep at it.”

“Don’t give them any slack. Winter will stop you dead in your tracks. I don’t need to point out that I’m speaking from experience.”

Hunter looked up. The Montana sky was the kind of perfect that took his breath away. The ranger office was in Bigfork, but he could see for miles. He wished he didn’t have so much on his agenda because the day had been created for hiking and maybe some fishing at one of the many mountain streams. It wouldn’t take much to convince Garret to accompany him, and if their fellow ranger Jake Pruitt caught wind of what they had in mind, he’d join them.

Darn it, Montana spring was meant to be spent out of doors going where his feet, eyes, and nose led him, not earning a paycheck.

“You’ve got that look,” Garret said.

“What look?”

“Like you have to ask. The one that says you’re a heartbeat away from playing hooky. Don’t tempt me.”

He’d known Garret for half of forever, most of his childhood, all of his teen years, and every day since then. Even with Amber Baum now in Garret’s life and heart, Garret was still his blood brother. They got each other. Much of the time it was as if they shared the same mind.

“My fly pole is mighty dry.” He looked at Garret out of the corner of his eye. “And I saw yours in your rig.”

“So?”

“So how about we blow this town for a few hours?”

“A few hours? This day trip you have in mind wouldn’t entail our sleeping bags, would it?”

“What, me?”

“Yeah, you.”

He sighed. “I know, I know. Loyalty and commitment to the job and all that.”

“It’s early in the day,” Garret said. “Something like a hiker getting lost or breaking a leg out in the middle of nowhere might come up.”

“I can think of worse ways to spend the day. At least we wouldn’t have to plow through snow. Speaking of, have you heard how Bear’s doing? I keep meaning to ask Jake how his skills are coming along.”

Bear was the stray that animal control officer Sari Dunham had rescued from the side of the road a few months ago. Officially Jake had adopted Bear, but Jake and Sari lived together. As a professional dog trainer in addition to her day job, Sari had assumed responsibility for training the young mutt. Her own dog Kona was a star when it came to search and rescue. Hunter wished his grandpa was alive to see Kona in action. In truth, he’d give anything for Grandpa to still be part of the fabric of his life. He missed the man as much as he’d once missed Tala Steele.

Shaking off the regret he kept telling himself he was over, he reluctantly told Garret he needed to get going. Otherwise, he’d be late meeting with the volunteers who were eager to work on some of the Bob Marshall wilderness trails. Spending the day in the Bob was on a par with stream fishing. He was looking forward to it.

“Let me know when you’re ready to reroof your place,” Garret said. “Amber wants to help. Same with Jake and Sari. With luck, the five of us can get it done in a weekend.”

Hunter nodded. He hoped his two closest friends and their girlfriends weren’t discussing how he might feel about being the odd man out, the single male. He was doing just fine.

Montana’s famous wind was at half speed this morning, but it still carried hints of what the mountains smelled like. Considering how many years he’d been touched by the wilderness’s energy, it shouldn’t still get to him, but it was spring, a time of new life and renewal, Tala’s favorite season.

Garret had gotten into his rig and was backing out of his parking slot. Instead of doing the same, Hunter stayed where he was. Thoughts of Tala Steele had a way of sneaking up on him. He hadn’t expected that to happen today, but he never did. She’d been gone for six years, way long enough for him to have moved on.

He had, darn it. It’s just that she’d left in spring but before she had, she’d pulled the plain engagement ring he’d given her off her long, dark finger and placed it in his big palm.

“I can’t do this to you,” she’d said. “To either of us.”

He hadn’t known what she was talking about. Still wasn’t sure he did.

At least he hadn’t begged her to stay.

Hunter Beavers. With his too-broad shoulders and a way of holding his head that reminded her of a wary elk. She would have recognized him if there’d been a thousand men in forest service uniforms around him. Hell, she might have known who he was if it was a moonless night.

Ah, Hunter. You’re incredible. Rightfully proud of your legacy. Everything I’m not.

She stepped on the brakes, shifted into park, and stared. She didn’t love him, not anymore. Back when she was twenty and he three years older, her world had revolved around him. He’d been her first and nearly her only lover. He was one hundred percent Salish Indian to her cobbled-together fifty percent. His roots went a thousand years into the soil.

His job as a forest service ranger called for him to wear his black hair short, but she easily pictured him as he’d once been with his long, straight hair trailing over his shoulders and kissing his naked chest.

Bad idea. She shouldn’t have come to the Bigfork ranger station without first making sure he wouldn’t be here. She could back out, go to work, call the office later. Much later.

But if she did, she’d delay the inevitable. The time had come to talk to him, listen to his voice, look into his deep and sexy eyes.

After forcefully reminding herself of what had brought her here, she pulled into a parking space and got out. He was watching her.

Be ready. Don’t let his eyes get to you.

“Hunter.” She hadn’t spoken his name for so long.

“Tala.”

Was that all? He had nothing else to give her?

End of Excerpt