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His Outback Cowgirl

By:Alissa Callen

y-eyed brunette. Amongst all the saloon high-spirits and chaos, he’d sat still and self-possessed, an oasis of tranquility in a world gone temporarily mad.

The slight narrowing of Ethan’s eyes let her know he wasn’t immune to her silent appraisal.

She stepped forward to offer her hand. “Yes, I’m Bridie. Nice to meet you.”

She must have imagined his slight hesitation before his calloused hand slid against her palm and his warm fingers wrapped around hers. She concentrated on making her grip as firm as any man’s and not on the increasing temperature of her cheeks. Since when did the heat of a stranger’s skin seep through her like the warmth of a winter sunrise?

She slipped her hand from his and looked to where the two obedient dogs now sat by his socked feet.

“Is this Rocket, the father of Finn’s puppy, Bug?” she asked bending to tickle the bigger dog’s ears.

“Yes and this is Bug’s brother, Milo.”

The puppy batted her arm with his paw as if to tell her to hurry up and pat him. She laughed and rubbed behind his ears. “Hello, Milo. Yes, I know, you’re just as cute as that mischievous Bug who stole one of my boots.”

She straightened and surprised a not-so-peaceful look in Ethan’s eyes. No longer a clear and composed blue, his irises had darkened. As quickly as the look appeared, it disappeared. She examined his face. She hadn’t been mistaken in what she’d seen. Her first impression hadn’t taken in the whole man. Still waters could run deep and this steady cowboy wouldn’t always be so controlled or so sensible.

He folded his arms across the front of his spotless blue shirt. “So how are you finding Montana?”

“Good thanks.”

She shifted on her feet and glanced at the open front door. Small talk had never been her thing. She usually couldn’t stand still long enough, but this time her need to move had nothing to do with how she was wired. The rolled up cuffs of Ethan’s shirt left his tanned forearms bare and the action of crossing his arms had stretched his shirt tight across his biceps. No wonder the brunette he’d been speaking to last night couldn’t take her eyes off him.

Ethan unfolded his arms. “Come on in. Henry’s looking forward to meeting you.”

She nodded and walked past Ethan, catching the faint scent of soap mixed with the clean smell of sunshine dried cotton. Head high, she strode down the long and wide hallway.

As gorgeous as Ethan was she hadn’t come to Marietta for anything other than to meet her half-brother and to mourn for her father. And if she had, the cowboy walking behind her with leisurely steps wouldn’t be potential partner material. They’d drive each other nuts. She’d tried changing who she was to make a relationship work and all that had happened was that she’d lost who she was in the process. Her chin lifted. She’d rather be single than have someone not accept her for who she was.

The hallway opened into a large kitchen. Huge windows filled the room with light. Exposed beams and a stone feature wall further enhanced the impression of Montana’s natural beauty being drawn indoors. A light fixture made from a circle of old lanterns hung over a kitchen table, at which a grey-haired man sat. Rocket and Milo raced past her, tails wagging, to lie on the floor beside the rancher’s chair.

Her mother had mentioned Henry’s hip replacement so Bridie headed toward him with a smile, not expecting him to stand. But Henry pushed himself to his feet, a slight grimace the only sign the simple action wasn’t easy.

From the corner of her eye she glimpsed the tightening of Ethan’s mouth before he took a step toward his father.

“Hi, Henry.” Bridie held out her hand. “Mom says hello and that she’s looking forward to seeing you again soon at her birthday lunch.”

Henry nodded and shook her hand. His shrewd gaze searched hers. Then, as if satisfied he’d seen what he was looking for, he smiled. “It’s good to meet you, Bridie. Welcome ... home.”

She swallowed to hide the instant surge of loss. Home? With her father gone would anywhere ever feel like home again?

“Thanks. It was a shock to discover I had an older brother, let alone my mother had been married before and lived in Montana.”

“I’m sure it was but we’re all glad she’s back and brought you with her.” Henry carefully lowered himself to his chair. “Coffee? Waffles?”

Bridie sat across from Henry in the seat he indicated with a dip of his head. “No thanks. Trinity cooked me French toast before I left and Finn and I had a competition to see how many pieces we could eat.”

Apart from her over-full stomach, the last thing she needed was caffeine or more sugar. Ethan had seated himself to her left. For some reason the cowboy’s close proximity rendered her as jittery as a thoroughbred on race day. His chair might be a polite distance away but the width of his shoulders ensured that she only had to lean a little to the side and she’d breathe in the fresh scent of his skin.

Henry chuckled. “Finn might be five and small for his age but I’ve never seen a kid eat so much.”

“Tell me about it. I know better now than to try and keep up with him. He ate five pieces to my three.”

“He’s a nice kid,” Henry said.

“He is.” She paused to strip the huskiness from her voice. “I’m so lucky to have him for a nephew.”

Henry nodded, his eyes never leaving her face. “Clara mentioned you wanted to photograph wild animals while you’re here for the summer.”

“Yes, back home I have a blog where I post pictures of my farm life. I need something to keep me ... busy so thought I’d give my camera a work out.”

“You’ve come to the right part of Montana.”

“I know. I’ve already taken hundreds of pictures of the hollyhocks and wildflowers out at Zane’s ranch. He also has an elk herd that doesn’t mind me getting too close but what I’d really love is to get into the backcountry and that’s why I’m here.”

She sensed Ethan stiffen beside her.

“Zane suggested,” she continued, “that I ask if I co