Maybe no one would notice if he dropped to the floor and crawled away.
“So if you’re truly asking me to pick a side?” His eyes met Ben’s and then Quinn’s. “I vote yes for the elk farm. I’d even re-up my lease agreement and give him a bigger acreage to work with because I know Dalton will make sure everything is done right.” Gavin set his hand on Dalton’s shoulder. Then he grabbed his coat and walked out.
To say the McKay family was stunned into silence was an understatement.
Before the arguing started again, Dalton snagged his coat and left.
Wasn’t until he was halfway home that he realized he’d left his poker winnings on the table.
It was especially hard to go to work on Monday morning after her fun weekend in Deadwood.
When the stack of elk farm applications arrived from the Cheyenne office, Rory was tempted to crawl under her desk and hide. She hadn’t reached the land inspection part of her job yet—she was still mired in the permit process. But the cutoff date loomed. Hopefully she’d get out in the field soon.
No morning staff meeting meant Rory could dig right in and get to work. She’d cleared five applications—checking with the register of deeds that the applicant was the actual property owner, adding to her map which sections of land in which areas had applied and grouping the applicants by county.
Since it was almost lunchtime, she put everything aside and retrieved her sandwich and salad from the break room fridge. Most days she didn’t mind eating with her coworkers, but Hannah’s presence had Rory returning to her office. No need to end up with Hannah-induced indigestion.
Rory checked her phone. No missed calls or texts from Dalton. Very strange. He hadn’t contacted her last night after his McKay poker game. She’d fully expected to hear how he’d cleaned them out.
She and her mom were supposed to have an early supper since Gavin had also been at the poker game, but she’d called around five begging off. Left to her own devices, Rory snuggled up with her dog and watched a marathon of What Not To Wear.
After lunch she dug back in to work. No issues with the next two applications on the stack. But the third application? Rory had a big, big problem with it. Because the applicant’s name was Dalton McKay.
A thousand questions jumped into her head.
But the biggest question was why hadn’t Rory known Dalton intended to apply for an elk farm permit? Surely that would’ve come up in all the times they’d spent together. Then again, whenever she asked about his day, or what he’d been doing, he gave the same response: working on a few projects here and there. Which she’d always taken to assume meant remodeling projects.
That’s what she got for assuming.
First she checked the land deed. Dalton had owned that piece for four years. Then she looked at the proposed plat of land for the feeding grounds. It was wedged between the McKay Ranch on the left side, more McKay land on the right side and at the bottom, a small section owned by Gavin Daniels. Aka, the land her mother used to own; aka, the elk farm would be close not only to the house Gavin and Rielle owned, but to the cabin on the property where she lived.
She checked the application date. Dalton had applied the week after he’d returned to Wyoming.
The week she’d started the special project.
Well. Wasn’t that a coincidence?
Rory hadn’t talked specifics of her job with him, keeping the details of her special project under wraps. She’d mentioned she had paperwork to sort through before she got into the fieldwork portion of the assignment.
So how had Dalton found out vetting elk farm applications was her project?
Easy. The man sauntered into the office frequently. That dimpled smile worked wonders—even horrible Hannah hadn’t been immune to his sexy cowboy charm. Since he usually cooled his boots in the reception area, he could’ve overheard the project info from any number of sources. Or someone—a female someone—could’ve told him just to get an up close look at his amazing blue eyes.
Which begged the question: why had Dalton applied?
To screw with his family after they’d screwed with him?
Nah. He wasn’t that kind of guy.
Or maybe it was the opposite. Maybe this application was a sleight of hand orchestrated by his family? The McKays were one of the most vocal opponents to the program. Had they figured since Rory was in charge of the project, if Dalton applied, she’d choose him? Then the McKays would let the project molder and die.
Rory pawed through the rest of the applications but didn’t see any with the last name McKay. Wasn’t a surprise that the ranchers with land bordering the McKays hadn’t applied for the temporary permit. No one wanted to tangle with the McKays. They’d chew you up and spit you out like an old wad of tobacco. Then they’d grind you into nothing beneath their boot heel as they walked away.
No more. She’d had her fill of being walked on.
Since she had autonomy with this project, she backed up her files, made a copy of Dalton’s application and shoved it in her purse. Then she locked everything else in her filing cabinet and left the office.
By the time she arrived at Dalton’s house, she’d worked herself into a lather.
Dalton answered the door but his smile dried up immediately. “What’s wrong?”
“Like you don’t know.”
“I don’t. That’s why I asked.”
“Let me in and I’ll tell you.” Rory practically shoved him aside.
She started for the kitchen, only to wheel back around so fast Dalton ran right into her.
“Whoa. You wanna tell me what put that murderous look on your face? And why I get the feeling I shoulda slipped on a cup before I answered the door today?”
“This.” She slapped the paper in the center of his chest.
He snatched it and stepped back. Straightened it out and scanned the text.
His expression didn’t change.
Stupid professional poker player face.
Dalton said, “Where’d you get this?” without looking up.
But before she could answer he crowded her, his eyes flashing fire. “Did my brothers bring this to you first thing this morning? Or my cousins? Which ones? And why the fuck did they drag you into it? To embarrass me? I knew they were seriously pissed off yesterday, but I didn’t think they’d put some McKay muscle behind it. What am I saying? That’s exactly what they do. They don’t like something, they pull some strings and try to get it changed.”
This was not going at all like she expected.
“How did you get ahold of this application, Rory?”
“It was delivered to my office today.”
“By the State of Wyoming. It was in a box with all the other applications I’m processing.”
“Other applications you’re processing?” He frowned. “What are you saying?”
“You know damn well what I’m saying. The special project I was assigned at the WNRC? This is it. I’m in charge of vetting applicants for this test program. I’m the one who sends the recommendations to the state board on who gets awarded permits.”
No change in his expression.
“So when you were hanging around the WNRC offices waiting for me, who told you it was my project? Someone had to spill the beans because the information sure as hell didn’t come from me. And I find it really…coincidental that the date on the application is the week I officially started working on it. You’d been in Sundance a week before you filed. One week.”
“What does that have to do with anything? The permit process was listed in the paper that week. That’s how I found out about it.”
“Really. Why is that an issue?”
“Because you know exactly how to manipulate me, Dalton McKay, you always have. Alls you had to do was charm me, bed me and convince me you’ve changed. Then act all crazy about me while you followed your own goddamned agenda. Just like usual. Nothing ever changes with you.” She briefly closed her eyes. “I’m such an idiot. You’re using me again.”
Then he said two words that chilled her to the bone. “Get. Out.”
“You heard me. I don’t need this shit from you on top of everything else that’s come down on me in the last day.”
Rory’s jaw dropped. “The hell I will. I deserve an explanation.”
“Why? You’ve got it all figured out. You’ll argue with anything I tell you. And you’re so worried that I’m gonna fuck you over again that you can’t even see the truth when it’s right in front of you.” He threw the paper at her. “Now get out.”
Stung, she snapped, “Oh, I’ll go. But guaranteed I won’t even consider your piece of land for the program given your manipulative behavior.”
Dalton got right in her face. “You will give me a fair shake in all of this or the next place I go is to the state board to file a grievance with them. About you. You don’t get to be judge, jury and executioner on this, Rory. I will fight you and the WNRC to make sure my application is given as much consideration as the other applicants’.”
“You’d do that?”
“You’re leaving me no choice! You storm into my house, accuse me of all kinds of underhanded shit—none of which is true. You know how I feel about you. Goddammit, you know that I’m not fucking playing you, Aurora.”
She watched his jaw flexing as he ground his teeth together.
“But I’ll never be able to convince you, will I? You’ll never trust me or trust in this. That it’s real. And that goddamn sucks.”
His voice had dropped to that quietly resigned tone that scared her far worse than if he’d yelled at her.
Dalton stepped back and opened the door but he wouldn’t look at her. “You need to leave before one of us says something we’ll regret and ruins everything that we’ve—or maybe I should say that I’ve—been trying to build with you.”