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His Outback Cowgirl

By:Alissa Callen

uld head into your mountains. Your high country hasn’t been grazed like some of the other ranches and Zane suggested I’d have more chance of seeing wildlife.”

“You will.” Henry looked at Ethan.

She turned slightly and this time she had no doubt something about her request didn’t please Ethan. He held his father’s gaze, his eyes hard with an unspoken warning.

Henry took no heed. He looked back at Bridie and smiled. “You’re very welcome to spend as long as you want up there.”

“Thanks.” The tension locking her shoulders eased. Soon she’d be in the mountains. Soon she could set her grief free. “I really appreciate it.”

Henry’s eyes danced. “Of course, you’ll need someone to take you there.”

She lost the battle to conceal her frown but when she spoke her voice remained casual. “I wouldn’t want to impose, everyone’s so busy and I could be away for a week at a time. I’ve been riding since I was little and know my way around a campsite, I can take care of myself.”

“I’m sure you can but I’d still worry.”

“Henry ...” Ethan’s voice was quiet but embedded with steel.

“Humor an old man,” Henry said, not looking at his son, “and help your mother sleep at night. You know until you’re home safe she’ll also worry.”

Bridie pressed her lips together. She’d checked with her mother that she’d be comfortable about Bridie going into the mountains alone and while she said she’d be fine, Henry was right. Her mother did worry and possibly wouldn’t sleep while she was away.

“Okay. A guide would be a good idea, but for the first trip only.” She paused to glance at Ethan who sat rigid with his shoulders braced. Suddenly she knew the reason for his tension and what the twinkle in Henry’s eyes had meant. “There’s only one logical person who could come with me ...”

Henry sat back in his chair as if to say his work here was done.

She smiled sweetly. “Nick Ryan.”

Chapter Two

Ethan grinned. The slack-jawed shock on Henry’s weathered face was priceless. This feisty, straight-talking cowgirl with her unfamiliar Australian accent had got the better of him. Not only had she been savvy enough to work out Henry’s agenda but she’d also called his bluff. If he’d been at Grey’s, he would have raised his beer in a toast to her.

Their eyes met. Laughter lightened her grey-blue gaze and flushed her winter-pale cheeks. An unspoken understanding passed between them, an acknowledgment that a shared purpose united them. They might be polar opposites in temperament but in that moment a common denominator bound them. They both had reasons for not wanting to be thrown together.

“Nick Ryan?”

Henry’s words were low and gruff as he leaned forward in his chair and scowled.

“Yes.” Bridie’s sunny smile didn’t waver. “He said if I needed someone to show me around he was the man. How about I give him a call?” Bridie shifted in her seat to dig into her jeans pocket for her phone. “He gave me his number last night.”

“I bet he did.” Henry’s glower deepened.

Ethan’s grin slipped. Bridie’s movements caused her to lean toward him. Her heavy hair swung around her shoulders and he inhaled the perfume of roses. A dark strand caught on her cheek, and he looked away before he gave in to the urge to brush it away. Even without touching her, he knew her skin would glide against his fingertips like warm silk. Just like on the porch when she’d laughed, it was a fight to stop his awareness of how beautiful she was from breaching his self-control.

She examined her phone screen but didn’t move to dial Nick. Instead, she looked across at Henry. He stared back, gaze hooded.

“Before I call, I want to make sure I really do need someone to come with me. I promised Mom I’d be careful.”

Henry’s expression remained unchanging and then respect glittered in his gaze. “If you promised Clara to be careful, then no, I don’t think you need anyone, especially Nick Ryan. He wouldn’t know a bear track if he fell over the bear that made it.”

Bridie nodded and slipped her phone into her jeans pocket. But instead of triumph, relief softened her mouth. Ethan’s gaze lingered. He’d seen such an expression too many times. On his mother’s face when they’d arrive in a new town where her step-father couldn’t find them. On his brother’s face when Payton had stepped into his arms on the day he’d planned to leave. It was a relief born of deep desperation. It wasn’t just the cowgirl’s independent spirit that caused her to resist Henry’s efforts to have someone accompany her into the mountains. Something else was going on.

He pushed back his chair and stifled the need to help her. She wouldn’t appreciate a stranger meddling. Bridie was only in Montana for the summer. She had to have someone waiting in Australia for her and if not, she’d soon have more cowboys than Nick Ryan offering to show her the sights. Now it was settled she’d travel alone, he’d leave her and Henry to talk. His horse wouldn’t feed itself.

Henry cast him a thoughtful look that didn’t fit with his wishes being thwarted. Ethan withheld a sigh and remained seated. What was Henry up to now?

“Bridie ...?” Henry’s voice was as mild as a Montana spring. “Could you do me a favor?”

“Of course. You’re kind enough to let me traipse all over your ranch, it’s the least I can do.”

“Take Ethan with you.”

Ethan sat still and stiff and waited for Bridie to say no but the only word that passed her lips was a quiet, “Why?”

“Because Ethan needs to go,” Henry said tone earnest. “He’s come for the summer to babysit me and I don’t need help. He’s as bored as a barn cow in a blizzard. He’s even taken to doing crosswords.”

“I’m not bored,” Ethan said, voice firm.

The bunkhouse of his Colorado ranch might be filled with tough cowboys who listened to him but he may as well have not been in the room for all the attention Henry and Bridie now paid to him.

“Crosswords, huh?” Bridie said, head tilted to the side as though deep in thought.

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