The Rancher and the Vet

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Chapter One

 “I’m being deployed to Afghanistan. I need you to come to Estes Park and take care of Jess.”

 Reed Montgomery straightened in his black leather desk chair with the lumbar support, his cell phone clutched in his now-sweaty hand as he processed what his older brother had said.

 Colt was being deployed to Afghanistan. Soldiers went there and never returned.

 Then the remainder of his brother’s words sank in. I need you to come to Estes Park and take care of Jess.

 He loved his niece, but the thought of being responsible for a child left Reed shaking. He didn’t want children. The pressure. The fear of screwing up and damaging the kid for life. To top it off, taking care of any kid would be hard enough, but a teenage girl? That could send the strongest bachelor screaming into the night.

 “Tell me I heard you wrong.”

 “I need you to watch Jess.”

 His brother had lost his mind.

 Once Reed’s brain kicked back into gear and his panic receded, he remembered his niece still had one set of grandparents. “I thought the plan was for Lynn’s parents to stay with her.”

 “That was the idea, but when I called them I learned Joanne broke her hip last month and needed surgery.”

 “And they’re just telling you now?”

 “We don’t talk much since Lynn died. They blame me for her death.”

 Almost a year ago, after fifteen years of marriage, Colt’s wife had said she was sick of ranch life and had run off with her lover, only to die in a head-on collision a month later. Colt had picked up the pieces of his life, and explained as best he could to Jess that she hadn’t been responsible for her mom leaving.

 Lynn’s death had also meant that Colt had to revise his family-care plan in case he was deployed.

 “You weren’t driving the car. Her lover was.”

 “They think if I’d been a better husband, she wouldn’t have left. In their opinion I should’ve spent more time at home and less time with the reserves. Blaming me is easier than accepting the truth.”

 An only child, Lynn had grown up catered to—spoiled rotten, actually. Colt’s wife had been high-maintenance, self-centered and had believed her husband’s life should revolve around her.

 “Is Joanne doing well enough that Jess could go live with them in Florida?” In addition to being unqualified for the job, Reed thought, his life and business were here in San Francisco. How could he up and leave for Colorado?

 “She said she should be eventually, but there’s another problem. Their retirement community only lets children stay for a week. Last night Herb brought up the subject at a town hall meeting, and everyone went crazy. The Association of Homeowners thinks if it makes an exception for Jess, within a month they’ll be overrun with kids.”

 “Threaten them with a lawsuit. That’ll make them back down. Better yet, give me your in-laws’ number. I’ll have my lawyer call them.”

 “You need their phone number, but there’s no point in them talking to your lawyer.” As Colt rattled off the phone number, Reed added it to his computer address book. “Even if they made an exception, Jess refuses to live in ‘an old folks’ neighborhood where people drive golf carts because they’re scared to drive a car.’ That’s a direct quote. She said when she stays with her grandparents they never go anywhere. So in her words, she’d be a prisoner.”

 While he felt bad for his niece, that didn’t mean Reed wanted to return to the old homestead and play dad. He’d been happy to see Estes Park in the rearview mirror of his beat-up truck when he left for Stanford. The thought of returning for anything longer than a weekend visit left him queasy.

 “You’re the parent. Don’t ask Jess what she wants. Tell her what she’s going to do.”

 Colt laughed. “That’s easy to say for someone who doesn’t have kids. I tried the strong-arm approach. She threatened to run away.”

 “Teenagers say that every time they don’t get their way.”

 “I think she meant it, Reed.” Colt’s voice broke. “She’s been having trouble since Lynn died, but she won’t talk about it. Last year she started cutting classes and sneaking out at night to meet friends. Living in a retirement community and going to a new school would only make things worse.”

 Somehow Reed couldn’t connect the sweet niece he’d seen a year and a half ago at Christmas with the teenager his brother described. Jess had been eager to please, had loved school and was an excellent student. He stared at her picture on the corner of his mahogany desk. Her wide smile and twinkling brown eyes spoke of how carefree she’d been. Of course, the photo had been snapped before her mom ran off. He knew how that betrayal had affected Colt, but how could a kid wrap her head around something like that?

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