Montana Hearts: True Country Hero by Darlene Panzera
Release Date: May 17, 2016
Series: Montana Hearts #3
Publisher: Avon Impulse
In the third heartwarming installment of Darlene Panzera’s Montana Hearts series, a hot-shot rodeo star tries to win the tender heart of his biggest critic
For Jace Aldridge, the chase is half the fun. The famous rodeo rider has spent most of life chasing down steers and championship rodeo belts, but after an accident in the arena, his career is put on temporary hold. When he’s offered a chance to stay at Collins Country Cabins, Jace jumps at the opportunity to spend more time with the beautiful but wary Delaney Collins.
Between trying to make her family’s business a success, raising her daughter single-handedly, and volunteering at the local wildlife shelter, Delaney doesn’t have time for love. Even though she’s determined to not let the handsome cowboy under her skin, Delaney can’t deny how much she looks forward to every day with him. She’s determined to be friends with the handsome cowboy, nothing more, even though Delaney’s heart flutters every time he draws near.
But all is not well in Fox Creek and when a violent poaching ring escalates out of control, Delaney must trust that Jace is the true country hero she hopes he is.
The cowboy winked at her. Delaney Collins lowered her camera lens and glanced around twice to make sure, but no one else behind the roping chute was looking his direction. Heat flooded her cheeks as he followed up the wink with a grin, and a multitude of wary warnings sounded off in her heart. The last thing she’d wanted was to catch the rodeo circuit star’s interest. She pretended to adjust the settings, then raised the camera to her eye once again, determined to fulfill her duty and take the required photos of the handsome dark-haired devil.
Except he wouldn’t stand still. He climbed off his buckskin horse, handed the reins to a nearby gatekeeper, gave a young kid in the stands a high five, and then walked straight toward her.
Delaney tightened her hold on the camera, wishing she could stay hidden behind the lens, and considered several different ways to slip away unnoticed. But she knew she couldn’t avoid him forever. Not when it was her job to shadow the guy and capture the highlights from his steer-wrestling runs. Maybe he only wanted to check in to make sure she was getting the right shots?
Most cowboys like Jace Aldridge had large egos to match their championship-sized belt buckles, one reason she usually avoided these events and preferred capturing images of plants and animals. But when the lead photographer for True Montana Magazine called in sick before the event and they needed a fill-in, Delaney had been both honored and excited to accept the position. Perhaps after the magazine viewed her work, they’d hire her for more photo ops. Then she wouldn’t have to rely solely on the profits from her share of her family’s guest ranch to support herself.
She swallowed hard as the stocky, dark-haired figure, whose image continuously graced the cover of every western periodical, smiled, his eyes on her—yes, definitely her—as he drew near.
He stretched out his hand. “Jace Aldridge.”
She stared at his chapped knuckles. Beside her, Sammy Jo gave her arm a discreet nudge, urging her to accept his handshake. After all, it would be impolite to refuse. Even if, in addition to riding rodeo, he was a hunter, an adversary of the animals she and her wildlife rescue group regularly sought to save.
Lifting her gaze to meet his, she replied, “Delaney Collins.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jace said, his rich, baritone voice smooth and … dangerously distracting. His hand gave hers a warm squeeze, and although he glanced toward Sammy Jo to include her in his greeting, it was clear who held his real interest. “Are you with the press?”
Delaney glanced down at the Canon EOS 7D with its high-definition 20.2 megapixel zoom lens hanging down from the strap around her neck. “Yes. I’m taking photos for True Montana.”
The edges of his mouth curved into another smile. “I haven’t seen you around before.”
“I—I’m not around much, but Sammy Jo here,” she said, motioning toward her friend to divert his attention, “used to race barrels. You must know her. Sammy Jo Macpherson?”
Jace gave her friend a brief nod. “I believe we’ve met.”
“Del’s a great photographer,” Sammy Jo said, bouncing the attention back to her.
Jace grinned. “I bet.”
“It’s the lens,” Delaney said, averting her gaze, and Sammy Jo shot her a disgruntled look as if to say, Smarten up, this guy’s into you. Don’t blow it!
Except she had no desire to get involved in a relationship right now. And definitely not one with a hunter. She needed to focus on her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Meghan, and help her family’s guest ranch bring in enough money to support them. Especially since her ex-husband hadn’t made a child support payment for the last nine months. The money she did make she spent on lawyer fees trying to sort it all out.
Jace pulled his straw hat off his head and held the brim flat against his chest. “What are you two lovely ladies doing after—”
“Hey, Aldridge,” a balding, middle-aged man with gray sideburns cut in with a shout. “Have you given any more thought to my offer to come hunt big game this fall?”
Delaney stiffened as Gavin McKinley joined them. His property lay a short distance down the trail behind her family’s ranch and sometimes he crossed the line. In more ways than one.
“Don’t have the time,” Jace told him, then turned his attention back to her. “Del—”
“Delaney Collins,” Gavin exclaimed, interrupting again. “Is that you?”
She’d already taken three steps back, hoping she could slink off while the others were talking, but she hadn’t been fast enough. Gavin grabbed hold of her arm and spun her around. “It is you. I suppose you’ll need to pick up some extra photography jobs now that Labor Day’s approaching. Isn’t Collins Country Cabins about ready to close up for the season?”
Delaney shook her head. “No. Actually, we’ve decided to stay open during the fall this year.”
“Stay open?” Gavin’s jaw dropped and he squinted at her as if he hadn’t heard her right. “What for? Is your family trying to steal my business?”
“My family does not steal.” Delaney swallowed the bitter saliva gathering at the back of her throat.
He also rented out guest cabins, not nearly as nice as her family’s, but perfect for the barbarian hunters he housed, equipped, and led on backcountry expeditions.
Jace stepped between them, forcing Gavin to drop his arm away from her. “Mr. McKinley, you’ll have to excuse us. I’m scheduled for a private photo shoot before it’s my turn to compete and we only have twenty minutes.”
About the Author
Darlene Panzera writes sweet, fun-loving romance and is a member of the Romance Writers of America’s Greater Seattle chapter. Her career launched when her novella “The Bet” was picked by Avon Books and New York Times bestselling author Debbie Macomber to be published within Debbie’s own novel, Family Affair. Darlene says, “I love writing stories that help inspire people to laugh, value relationships, and pursue their dreams.”
Born and raised in New Jersey, Darlene is now a resident of the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her husband and three children. When not writing she enjoys spending time with her family and her two horses, and loves camping, hiking, photography, and lazy days at the lake.
Find Darlene Panzera online:
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