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Authors: Roz Denny Fox

A Maverick's Heart

BOOK: A Maverick's Heart
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HIS NEW WESTERN HOME

Lila Jenkins’s Montana ranching town roots run deep. So why does the widowed B and B owner feel so connected to her latest boarder? Seth Maxwell might know his way around horses, but he’s a wanderer, not a rancher. Lila’s son thinks Seth’s the hero he’s been waiting for. And—heaven help her—so does Lila.

Seth loves hunting for rare gems in remote areas, but maybe it’s time to make a change. The footloose adventurer is tempted by rumors of sapphires in a nearby mine, but it’s Lila and her boy who make Snowy Owl Crossing and the idea of a ranch to share feel like home...

Rory zeroed in on the bat in Seth’s hand and the ball in a mitt lying on the porch.

“Oh, wow! Are these mine?” he asked, his eyes huge and his freckles standing out against his pale face.

“They are. And it’s still light enough for us to try them out,” Seth said, glancing at Lila, who moved at a much slower pace toward the steps.

She shifted her purse to the other shoulder and seemed to take in everything before stepping up. “Oh…oh…that rosebush is beautiful. Where did it come from?” She brushed past her son, who turned to spot what she was exclaiming over.

“I passed a nursery after I left the sporting-goods store. The rose called to me,” Seth said, deliberately making light of the agony he went through to choose it.

“It’s perfect there,” she said, her eyes shiny with tears. “I don’t know why I never thought to buy something to decorate the porch. It’s the very touch needed to greet guests. I’ve no idea what it cost, Seth, but you must let me reimburse you.”

“The rose is a gift.”

Dear Reader,

I’ve been to Montana and have set books there before, so my fictional town of Snowy Owl Crossing has characteristics of other ranching towns I’ve traveled through. As in all small communities, it’s the people who live and work there that make it a place you’d want to visit and maybe even settle down. It’s the same in
A Maverick’s Heart
.

Seth Maxwell came for his brother’s wedding, liked the area and was drawn to Lila Jenkins, owner of the B and B where he rents a room. Seth has never set down roots, instead traveling to exotic places finding and selling precious and semiprecious gems.

Lila, a widow with a nine-year-old son, has deep roots in Snowy Owl Crossing. She struggles to hang on to the Owl’s Nest, which she bought before her husband died in a mine collapse. A mine where Seth has heard previous gem hunters found sapphires.

Ah, can you see rocks, not gems, along the road to Seth and Lila falling in love? I hope you enjoy their story. As in
His Ranch or Hers
, my depiction of the snowy owls is tied to the group of friends who wants to ensure a habitat for the birds that long ago arrived and originally took up residence in abandoned eagles’ nests, some returning year after year.

As always I love hearing from readers via mail at 7739 E. Broadway Blvd #101, Tucson, AZ 85710-3941, or email at
[email protected]
.

Sincerely,

A MAVERICK’S
HEART

Roz Denny Fox

Roz Denny Fox
’s first book was published by Harlequin in 1990. She writes for several Harlequin lines and her books are published worldwide in a number of languages. Roz’s warm home-and-family-focused love stories have been nominated for various industry awards, including the Romance Writers of America’s RITA® Award, the Holt Medallion, the Golden Quill and others. Roz has been a member of the Romance Writers of America since 1987 and is currently a member of Tucson’s Saguaro Romance Writers, where she has received the Barbara Award for outstanding chapter service. In 2013 Roz received her fifty-book pin from Harlequin. Readers can email her through Facebook or at
[email protected]
, or visit her website at
korynna.com/rozfox
.

Books by Roz Denny Fox

Harlequin American Romance

The Maverick Returns
Duke: Deputy Cowboy
Texas Dad
Texas Mom
His Ranch or Hers

Harlequin Heartwarming

Annie’s Neighborhood
An Unlikely Rancher
Molly’s Garden

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles.

Get rewarded every time you buy a Harlequin ebook!
Click here to Join Harlequin My Rewards
http://www.harlequin.com/myrewards.html?mt=loyalty&cmpid=EBOOBPBPA201602010002

I’d like to dedicate this story to the wonderful
gem people who put on the Tucson Gem
and Mineral Show every year. The more years
I attend, the more I love seeing gems and
minerals from all over the world.

Chapter One

Lila Jenkins bustled around the Snowy Owl Café, straightening up after her women’s group, the Artsy Ladies, ended their meeting. “Rory,” she called to her nine-year-old son. He was in the kitchen with his grandmother. “Collect your homework and bring your backpack. It’s almost time to go home.”

The lanky kid dragged his pack into the café. “Mom, tomorrow can I go to ball practice? Coach told Kemper if I watch, I’ll learn what Little Leaguers do.”

She paused. “It’s supposed to rain. If so, won’t the coach cancel practice again?”

Three of the women who’d been at the meeting said goodbye. Tawana Whitefeather still stood at the kitchen pass-through chatting with Lila’s mother.

Waving to those leaving, Lila still saw her son’s pout that ran his many cheek freckles together. “I’m never gonna get to play ball on Kemper’s team, am I?”

“Well, I asked Kemper’s dad about costs. We’re earning some extra money what with Zeke Maxwell’s brother and his other friends staying at our B and B for Zeke’s wedding. I may be able to swing the fees.”

He perked right up. “Yippee!”

Lila chewed her bottom lip. “It’s not yippee-time yet, Rory. You need new equipment. And with games being in Wolf Point, there’s a matter of transportation.”

“I can ride my bike,” he said brightly.

“No way. You’re only to ride your bike from the school to Memaw’s café. Don’t even think about riding farther. I’ll pay gas for someone to drive you. But, honey, cash is still tight, so for now it’s only a maybe.”

Rory’s shoulders slumped. “I wish my daddy hadn’t died,” he mumbled. “He’d buy baseball stuff for me and teach me to bat and catch and throw like Kemper and his daddy.”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry, too. I’ll do my best to work something out.” Crossing to him, Lila tried to kiss his thick auburn waves, but he ducked. With a light brush of his cowlick, she finished wiping the last table then joined Tawana.

“Lila, what time is Zeke’s brother taking the other groomsmen to the airport?”

“All I know is they’re checking out after breakfast.”

“Did Hunter ask about booking a room? He’s planning to come back after he gets his permanent prosthetic leg.”

Glancing at her friend, Lila reeled a bit, but hoped she hid her envy. First, Myra had found someone to love. Now, Tawana may have met someone special.

The pretty Native American feigned innocence. “Didn’t I mention he and I plan to keep in touch? We hope to meet in DC if Jewell gets us an appointment to see the Natural Resource Committee about our snowy owl preserve. Hunter’s VA is near there. Well, it’s late. I’d better run. Thanks for providing a meeting place, Doreen,” she called through the opening.

“I love having you all while I wait for my dough to rise. I have four pans of cinnamon rolls ready for the morning rush. Now I can lock up and go up to bed.”

“It’s raining again,” Rory announced. He had his face pressed to the glass of the front door.

“Drive carefully, you two,” Doreen said. “Rain makes roads slick.” She came out of the kitchen.

Lila skirted Tawana to hug her mother. “Don’t worry, Mom. You know all the ranchers in the area are asleep by now. We’ll be the only ones on the highway.”

Tawana picked up the sweatshirt she’d worn into the diner. “Yuk. Still wet.”

“You have the farthest to drive,” Doreen said. “I’ll run upstairs and get you a loaner. You can return it next time you’re in town.”

“I’ll go, Mom.” So saying, Lila dashed off.

Doreen went to the door. Reaching over her grandson, she slid open the dead bolt.

“Auntie Tawana, are you going home with Mama and me?” Rory gazed expectantly at one of his faux aunts.

She laughed. “No, slugger. I have my pickup.” She accepted the fresh sweatshirt from Lila, who had reappeared.

“Mama, she called me ‘slugger.’” Rory beamed. “Did you tell everybody how much I want to play baseball?”

“Honey bunny, like you didn’t tell everyone within earshot at Auntie Myra’s wedding reception.”

“Oh, yeah.” His grin widened, but he looked a bit sheepish. “Some of the men there asked why Kemper and me want to play ball instead of ride in the kids’ rodeo. Why do they think rodeo is funner?”

“More fun, not funner, Rory. And it’s Kemper and I, not me,” Lila corrected as they readied to follow Tawana outside.

“Well, we have more pro rodeo riders than baseball players in these parts,” Doreen said. “It’s something to consider.”

Rory’s face fell again.

Seeing his crestfallen expression, Lila rose to his defense. “Mama, I’m all for him choosing what he wants to do. Most schools have ball teams. Anyway, by the time he’s grown, who knows what he’ll want to do.”

“True.” Doreen nodded. “I want Rory to be happy, but I especially want him to stay out of the mines.”

“Lord, yes.” Lila didn’t need the subtle reminder that her dad and her husband had both died in mine accidents. “G’night. Wait, Ma...do you need me to work the breakfast shift? I could use the time to wash linens and tidy the rooms. Three of the guys are checking out of the Owl’s Nest tomorrow and I’ve got two couples who stayed with me last year booked for trout fishing this weekend. I need to turn the rooms around fast.”

“Take the morning off. Tell the fishermen if they catch any, I’ll buy them to serve as a weekend dinner special.”

Lila flipped up her hood. “Okay, but they may be catch-and-release fishermen.”

“If not, my offer’s on the table.”

Doreen closed up as Lila skipped over a deep puddle to unlock her old Jeep Cherokee, making sure Tawana’s pickup had started before she climbed in.

“What’s ‘catch and release’?” Rory asked once he settled into the backseat on the passenger side. It was always his chosen spot.

She checked to see he’d buckled in before firing the engine. “There are people who love to fish, but either don’t want to see fish die or they have no means of keeping them fresh to cook. So they turn them back into the lake or river.”

“Um, I guess that’s good. But it seems silly.”

Lila smiled as she left the town behind. “Fly-fishing takes skill. And let’s not say anything negative, since fishermen rent our rooms and that pays our bills.”

“Okay. I’m tired. How long before we get home?”

Lila heard his yawn. “Ten or fifteen minutes.”

Rory fell silent and Lila thought he had gone to sleep—which left her free to worry about whether she was a bad mother for making him stay with her at work. Since kindergarten, Kemper Barnes had been Rory’s best friend. Rory used to go home with him to play or to study until the café closed and Lila could pick him up. Now that Kemper was in Little League, Rory had to come to the café. And on nights she met with the Artsy Ladies, he was stuck there late.

As she’d told her mom, the highway was empty tonight. It wasn’t long before she turned onto the paved lane that led to their ranch.

Suddenly Rory shouted, “Mom, stop! You’re going to hit Ghost and...and a man!”

Her nerves jangled—she’d thought Rory was asleep. His shout had her stomping hard on the brake pedal as she glimpsed a flash of white off to her right. The Cherokee hit a puddle of standing water, and although she’d slowed for the turn, she felt the front end kite. Her back wheels spun like racing slicks seconds before the brakes grabbed. It all happened so fast and jerkily, her head smacked the left-side window hard. Briefly all went dim and she heard birds tweeting and bees buzzing.

Lila wanted to clutch her head. Instead she gripped the wheel tighter. Only vaguely did she remain aware that the back end of her SUV had landed in a deep culvert.

Flinching, Lila wondered why her lights cast pretty halos in the branches of a nearby tree instead of illuminating the lane ahead of her. She tried to check on Rory, but a sharp pain in her head rendered her voiceless.

All at once her door was yanked open. The dome light illuminated the SUV’s interior, blinding Lila. Ghost, the almost-white yellow Lab that Jewell Hyatt had given Rory after his dad died, scrambled across her tense body and over into the backseat.

“Are you okay?” inquired a deep male voice.

Somewhere behind her Lila heard her son ordering his dog to stop licking him. A tiny bit of her relaxed. However, she honestly didn’t know whether she should tell the man yes, she was okay, or no, she might be dead and floating above everything amid those sparkly lights.

But she wasn’t dead. She felt the man’s arm slide across her, saw him put the Jeep in Park and turn the key to shut off the engine. Then his head appeared directly in front of her still-unfocused eyes. Blond hair, askew. Darker in spots from the rain. Gorgeous yet concerned green eyes in a chiseled, sun-bronzed face stared at her. Well-shaped lips set in a straight line above an appealing cleft in his manly chin.

It took Lila several rocketing heartbeats, but she finally managed to assemble all the attractive parts from those strong shoulders upward. The parts belonged to Seth Maxwell, Myra’s husband’s twin, who was staying on after his brother’s wedding. He’d been the groomsman who’d escorted Lila down the aisle.

He shone a small, bright light in her eyes, causing her to wince and blink, and she lost his handsomeness into blackness shot with pinpoints of pain.

Rory’s anxious voice yelling, “Mom... Mom!” right near her ear shook Lila from her stupor as nothing else had.

She tried once more to speak, but her mouth felt as if she’d swallowed cotton.

“Is my mom all right?” she heard Rory demand.

* * *

S
ETH
M
AXWELL
FROWNED
.
“I don’t know, kid. For sure she’s dazed. I need to get her to the house so we can see. I’ll carry her if you can manage the dog—the rascal. I took him out for a run. When he spotted your car, he yanked the leash right out of my hand. I was scared witless that your car would hit him.”

“Me, too,” Rory said. “I don’t think Mom saw him or you. I yelled at her to stop. I probably made us land in the ditch.”

“If anyone’s to blame, it’s me. I took your dog out in questionable weather,” Seth assured the boy as he shifted the flashlight to his left hand and with his right slowly released Lila’s seat belt. “I’m going to get your mom. We’ll take it slow back to the house, okay?”

“The lane goes straight there,” Rory said. “What were you doing with Ghost anyway?”

“Ghost?” Seth, confused, paused in lifting Lila into his arms.

“My dog. He stays in our part of the house when we’re gone.”

“Well, tonight he was in the foyer. I wanted to go for a run and your dog brought me his leash.”

Rory tightened his grip on that leash. “Oh, you’re one of the guys renting from us, huh?”

“Yes. Remember, we met at my brother’s wedding? Most of the guys in the wedding party are staying here until tomorrow. Tonight we all went to Zeke’s place for supper. He and his wife fed us so well, when I got home and realized the rain had slackened, I decided to go out for exercise.” Seth spoke calmly to the boy as he trudged toward the house with his burden. “In the middle of our run it started to drizzle, so I turned back.”

Lila spoke for the first time, a guttural sound somewhere below Seth’s chin. “I, uh, think I can walk.” She gingerly touched her left temple. “I hit my head on something. Maybe the window. Did I crack it?”

“Your head?” Seth asked, a smile in his voice.

Lila shoved at his solid shoulder. “The window, you goose. Did I break the window?”

“No, but you did a number on your vehicle. It’s stuck. We need daylight to see if you did any damage to its underpinnings. I don’t think you broke an axle,” he said, supporting her back with his hand.

“My head hurts, but stuff is starting to make sense. Rory, we carry a big flashlight in the glove box. Run back and get it for Mr. Maxwell.”

“It’s Seth, okay?” They’d all stopped in the lane, and Rory and Ghost ran back to the Cherokee, leaving Seth and Lila in the dark.

“Since I’m hanging around at your B and B a month or so to help Zeke roof his barn,” Seth said, “can’t we use first names?”

He let go of Lila to take the flashlight the boy had slogged back with. She buckled and Seth snatched her up before she fell to her knees.

“Sorry,” she murmured. “My legs don’t seem to want to hold me.”

“Probably nerves,” Seth said matter-of-factly, scooping her up. “Rory, you take the bigger light. It’s enough. Let’s go. I’ll be right behind you, carrying your mom.”

“Why can’t she walk? Does she need a doctor? Mom, you’re not gonna die, are you?” The kid froze and Seth almost bowled him over.

She gripped the front of Seth’s jacket. “I need to walk on my own,” she insisted. “This is ridiculous. I wasn’t going very fast when I made the turn. How could sliding into the ditch muddle my brain?”

“Even minor accidents can throw a person off-kilter. We’re almost at the house. Rory, walk on with the light. Once we get inside we’ll make sure your mom’s all right.”

The boy did as directed, letting Ghost bound up to the front door and shake off his wet coat. The others followed in rapid succession.

Once inside Seth headed for the dining room, where he’d spent the most time besides his rented bedroom in the big old farmhouse. For having been here almost a week since his twin’s wedding, he’d seen remarkably little of Lila Jenkins. They’d been paired up in the wedding party. His initial impression had been of an attractive, petite woman who looked exceptionally good in an old-fashioned wine-red dress. She’d hurried away right after the ceremony to appear again in a black skirt, white blouse and white apron at the reception, where she and an older woman served the meal and helped hand out cake and punch. No matter which outfit Lila’d had on, she’d gained his interest.

He’d danced with several of his new sister-in-law’s friends, but he’d only caught glimpses of Lila, who by then seemed to be part of a two-woman cleanup crew.

Even at her bed-and-breakfast, she remained elusive. Breakfast was the only meal included in the rental fee, and they always found it hot and inviting, served in covered silver dishes on a sideboard.

Zeke’s wife, Myra, had told him Lila had a son and a dog, as well as horses that were available to rent. But because Hunter Wright, another of Zeke’s army buddies, had a temporary prosthesis, they’d elected to drive around to see as much of Montana and its fishing holes as they could cram into the short time the three guys had to visit.

BOOK: A Maverick's Heart
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