“I need to cancel our weekly lunch, Cal.” Katie Marshall pressed her fingertips to her temple. “I have three guys from Seattle, ready to get drunk and ride horses, checking into the ranch by dinnertime.”
Her brother’s slow laughter drifted over the phone. “Guess it really is wedding season. Bachelor party?”
She sighed and scrolled through her emails. “Yeah. Second one this month.”
“Well, hopefully they don’t do it at the same time. You know, get drunk and ride horses.”
“We tend to frown upon that.” Her attention caught on what she’d been searching for. There it was, the confirmation email for the bachelor party this week.
“No problem, Katie. We can reschedule lunch soon. Say hi to Wyatt and Claire for me.”
“Will do.” She ended the phone call and pursed her lips as she read through the email.
Somehow, it had become trendy to have bachelor parties on Montana ranches. And the Marshall ranch was becoming one of the more popular ones.
Making the cattle ranch into a guest ranch during the summer had been her idea. One she’d unwaveringly believed in and pursued until she’d convinced her dad and brothers to get on board with the idea.
Since they’d opened, their dad had passed away, and their brother Cal had sold his shares of the ranch to Wyatt. Which meant she and Wyatt ran the whole show now. Or mostly her. Wyatt spent most of his time focusing on the cattle ranching aspect.
“The cabins are all set, Ms. Marshall. Clean and stocked.”
Katie lifted her head at the words from the cheerful teenaged girl she’d hired to do light housekeeping.
“Thanks, Jane. Sorry the job was a little more extensive this time around.”
The freckled redhead smiled. “I hear you’re full up with a bachelor party?”
“Yes. Three of them coming over from Seattle. I’m still not sure why these city boys want to come hang out on a ranch for a bachelor party. It’s not like we have…” She trailed off, blushing before she could finish that thought.
“Strippers?” The younger girl supplied brightly.
“Sorry.” She gave a shrug that implied she wasn’t apologetic in the least. “That’s just what you always see in the movies and stuff. But not every guy wants to get drunk and go to a strip club before they get married.”
Katie hid a smile. “No, not all of them do.”
“You know it makes sense, actually.” Jane pulled her red curls back into a ponytail. “Some of these guys are stuck in the city on a hamster wheel. I bet they just want to get out of town, get back to nature, and do cliché manly things.”
Katie shook her head. “Sometimes I swear I’m talking to a forty-year-old woman stuck in a teenager’s body.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. Also, I watch a lot of reality TV, so I get it. Anyway, just text me when you need me to clean again. It sounds like it’s going to be a busy summer.”
Katie sighed as she watched Jane disappear out the front door.
It certainly was going to be a long summer and it was only the middle of June. Which made her thankful that, while the cattle ranch they ran was a year-round business, the cabins they rented out were only seasonal.
Katie closed her laptop and stood from her desk. She made her way out of the main house to double-check the cabins that Jane had cleaned.
Out of the six cabins, three were booked. Every guest had wanted their own lodging. Which was a little unusual, because the cabins didn’t run cheap. Usually guests, whether a bachelor party or just a vacationing family, shared one. It just confirmed her hunch that these Seattle men probably had a bunch of money to blow.
A sudden prickle of bitterness rushed through her, and she drew in a deep breath before shoving the emotion aside. She didn’t get that feeling much—certain memories could trigger it—but when it did hit, she didn’t linger in the emotion. There was no point. She preferred to focus on the positive. To keep herself grounded in optimism.
She let herself into the furthest away cabin to inspect it. While many of the cabins had a queen or king-size bed, two had a full bed and bunkbed, this was one of the larger cabins that more often was reserved for a family.
The bedding had been washed and changed, there were fresh towels and locally made soap in the bathroom, and the basket on the small table held a welcoming gift of bottled water, fruit, and granola bars.
A wave of pride swept through her as she closed the cabin door behind her. The cabins at Marshall Ranch were charming and personable. Staying there was an entirely different experience than booking a room at the local hotel.
Guests had the opportunity to immerse themselves in a working cattle ranch, nestled in the beautiful Montana landscape. Plus, there were guided horseback opportunities, fishing trips, and family style meals in the big house. It was real experience that their guests clearly loved.
Katie made her way to the second cabin when a low rumble and cloud of dust rose on the road that led to the ranch.
She paused, turning to watch as a shiny black SUV came to a stop next to the main house.
Her brows drew together. Could it be one of the guests from the bachelor party already? They weren’t due for a few hours yet.
The driver’s door opened and a tall, broad-shouldered man stepped out. Well, he certainly looked the Seattle type with his short beard that was the same the dirty blond as his slightly tousled hair. She slid a glance over him.
He wore a burgundy hoodie, half zipped over a gray t-shirt with some logo on it. Jeans that looked as though he’d worn them for years fell to the tops of expensive-looking leather shoes.
Even though he wasn’t remotely her type, her stomach did a little flutter. All right, she could admit he was attractive in a weird Seattle way.
She snapped her gaze back up his frame, her frown deepening, until she met his hazel gaze. “I’m sorry, have we met?”
“More or less.” He grinned, flashing white teeth, as he approached.
His stare, so confident and unwavering, had her stomach ramping up on the fluttery stuff.
“Are you with the bachelor party from Seattle?” She fought the urge to step back as him and that knowing gaze came closer. “Maybe you’re the one I’ve been emailing with? Kevin?”
“Nah, Kevin’s my assistant.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “You really don’t have any idea who I am?”
Should she? She bristled and offered a tight smile. “I’m sorry, but if you’re implying that you’re famous or something, I’d really have no idea. I don’t keep up on that celebrity stuff.”
He laughed, a low, genuine sound that reverberated through the trees that surrounded the ranch. “I’m not a celebrity.”
Then who was the heck was he? She opened her mouth to demand answers, when he reached out and caught her dark braid between his fingers.
“I remember this.”
Her breath locked and her pulse quickened.
“But the rest of you…” His gaze slid over her. “That’s changed.”
She jerked back, pulling her braid from his long fingers. So he not only knew who she was, but also assumed he had the right to touch her.
Her lips pursed and her mind raced back to her college days. She thought of every possible scenario in how and where they could’ve met. Some left her more nauseous than others.
“Our circles didn’t mix all that much. I graduated a few years before you.”
She blinked and some of the tension eased in her shoulders. Did he mean high school? “You’re from Marietta?”
“Born and raised.”
She mentally shaved the beard off him, and ransacked her mind for any memory of who he was. The first prickle of familiarity hit. A name danced on the tip of her tongue.
Hunter watched the recognition fill Kaitlyn Marshall’s big blue eyes as she said his name softly. Recognition and then wariness. It wasn’t an uncommon reaction from the folks in Marietta.
Though he really hadn’t come home all that much to garner it. And if he’d kept his mouth shut two months ago, he probably wouldn’t be back here now either.
“Okay.” Her gaze traced him, full of curiosity now. “I see it now. And here you were saying I’m the one who’s changed.”
When he’d left she would’ve been around fifteen. She’d had that same long chestnut hair—often braided like it was now, and the crystalline blue eyes and lovely cheekbones. But where she’d once been tall and scrawny, she now curved in all the right places.
Katie was doing her own visual analysis and, when he realized it, a prick of discomfort slid through him. He shoved his hands into his jean pockets and allowed a slight smile.
He knew the teen she was remembering. An awkward boy in comic book t-shirts and worn-out jeans. With his hair a little too long and wild and his black leather jacket, he’d been almost controversial in a small town like Marietta.
He shifted his gaze to the ranch around them. The smell of grass, dirt, and pine trees were as familiar to him as the organic craft coffee he drank every day.
Maybe he hadn’t set foot in Montana in almost a decade, but part of his hometown still lingered in his blood. He drew in another breath, hating to admit how much he’d missed the fresh, heady Montana air.
“What brings you back?” she asked finally.
He turned his attention back to her. “You already guessed it.”
She bit her lip and squinted. “Wait… you’re not actually part of the bachelor party, are you?”
“Oh.” Surprise registered on her face. “So I guess that means you’re living in Seattle now?”
She really had no idea who he was or what he’d done with his life. “Have been since I turned eighteen and I went to school out there.”
“University of Washington?”
“I see.” She nodded, but something in her eyes hardened. “And you never wanted to come back home?”
Now why the hell did he feel like he was being weighed and judged?
“I made a pretty good life for myself in Seattle.” That was an understatement. He’d made a damn good life for himself. There were a lot of men who’d kill to have even a part of his life.
Though the fact that he felt the need to defend himself sent a stab or irritation through him.
She folded her arms across her chest. “Well you’re here earlier than I expected, but we can go ahead and get you checked in.”
Swallowing his irritation, he gave a terse nod. “I’d appreciate that.”
She turned and walked toward the big house behind her, clearly expecting him to follow. With no other choice, he did.
“Why’d you arrive so early anyway?”
Now that they were inside, she settled behind a thick, oak desk just off of the living room. “Are you heading down to visit your family before the party begins?”
“Hadn’t planned on it.”
Her gaze shot up to his. “You do intend to see them while you’re here, though, right? Your parents? Your sister?”
Again, he hadn’t planned on it. Going by the dismay in her eyes, he decided against repeating that statement.
“I need some time to myself,” he hedged. “Seeing as I’m spending the week with a bunch of guys at a bachelor party, I figure I’ll take a little down time for myself.”
She stared at him for a moment and then looked back down at her laptop.
“What?” he asked.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were thinking something.”
“Only pegging you for an introvert.” The keys of her computer clicked under her fingers.
He scowled. “You deduce that from a brief conversation?”
“That and going by what I remember about you from high school. We had drama together. But you probably don’t remember that.”
“I remember.” He’d hated almost every damn minute of the class, but it had been an easy A and he’d needed an elective.
Surprise flickered in her gaze as she handed him some papers. “I’ll need you to sign these.”
She was right about the introvert part, but that didn’t mean he had to admit it.
He grabbed the pen with the cute little duct tape flower attached and scrawled his name at the line at the bottom.
“Don’t you wanna read it?”
“Already read it. You sent it to me when I booked the week.”
“You booked it?”
“Well, my assistant did. Kevin.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, then plucked out the shiny gold card. “All expenses are to be put on this.”
She shook her head. “All of them? Are you—”
“All of them.”
Her brows rose higher as she took the card and began to enter it into the computer. “Somebody ought to give you a plaque that says nicest best man ever.”
“Guess it depends on your definition of nice.”
The computer in his bedroom had cost twice as much as this bachelor party would. It was a drop in the bucket, really.
“When are the other two men in your party getting here?”
“They should be arriving in the next few hours. I think they were heading out after the game.”
“Game?” She handed his card back.
“Mariners. It’s baseball.”
She gave him a lopsided smile. “Thank you, I know who the Mariners are.”
“But not a fan?”
“The only sport I’m into is rodeo.”
He placed the card in his wallet and pocketed it. “That’s right. You were a barrel racer back in the day.”
Surprise flickered on her face. “You remember?”
“I didn’t think you were involved with the rodeo.” Skepticism flashed in her eyes.
“I wasn’t. No. Look, if you don’t mind I’d like to just grab my room key and get settled.”
“Of course.” She reached into the desk drawer, before rising to her feet and handing him a key. “I gave you the cabin at the very end. It’s a little more private.”
A sliver of gratitude slid through him and he gave a brief smile. “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
She gave a tiny dip of her head in acknowledgment and her cheeks seemed to turn a bit pink. “Dinner’s at six-thirty.”
He turned to leave, ready to grab his bag from his SUV.
The thread of uncertainty in her voice had him stilling. He threw a glance over his shoulder.
She hadn’t moved from behind the desk. “So why did you pick Marshall Ranch for your friend’s bachelor party?”
There were a dozen reasons he could’ve given her. A lot were a lot less convoluted than the truth. But he wasn’t the type to lie just because it was convenient.
“You were always nice to me, Katie. Back when not a lot of people were.” Before he could analyze her reaction, he turned away and called out, “See you at dinner.”
“So everyone’s checked in from the bachelor party?” Wyatt asked, making his way through the kitchen to grab a beer out of the fridge.
Katie gave her brother a reproachful glance. Seriously, he couldn’t wait ten more minutes until dinner?
“Yes, all three are checked in.” Katie cut a few more pieces of basil and tossed it into the simmering spaghetti sauce. “I haven’t seen this many men in skinny jeans since I got dragged to a Fall Out Boy concert.”
“Fall Out Boy? Is that like a boy band thing?” Wyatt arched a brow.
Claire, her future sister-in-law, laughed as she dumped the steaming pasta into the strainer. “You both need to get out of Montana more.”
Giving the petite blonde a look, Katie shook her head. “Nope. I got enough of the city when I went off to college. I’ll stick to Montana men who wear their jeans the way God intended—which is not plastered to their legs.”
“I don’t know, I think some guys can pull it off,” Claire mused, “If—”
Her words ended in a squeal as Wyatt wrapped his arms around her waist and nuzzled her neck.
“You still checking out other guys, honey?”
She collapsed back against him in a giggle and shook her head. “No, cowboy. I’ve only got eyes for you and that glorious backside of yours in a pair of Levis.”
Katie averted her gaze, stirring the pot of red meat sauce as the two shared a kiss. Wyatt and Claire were so adorably in love and emotionally connected that sometimes it left Katie feeling uncomfortable.
Maybe it was because they all lived under the same roof and before the end of summer her brother and Claire would be married. Sometimes Katie felt a little bit like that third wheel cliché, even though she knew they’d never deliberately sought out to isolate her.
But after years of having been the only girl, she was sharing the role of “household female” with Claire. And Katie adored the woman, she really did, but it was a pretty big change. She’d adjust. Just like she’d adjusted to her father passing, and Cal moving out and selling his share of the ranch. Change was part of life.
Clearing her throat, she brought the subject back to the bachelor party. “Hey, Wyatt, one of the guests is from Marietta.”
“Oh, yeah?” He released Claire and moved to lean against the counter. “Who is it?”
Wyatt’s brows furrowed. “The name sounds familiar.”
“I think he graduated in Cal’s class. He was”—she searched for words—“a bit of a loner. He had a bit of a reputation. Skipping class, smoking and drinking underage, and often getting in trouble with the sheriff.”
“Oh, that guy.” Her brother nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think I know who you’re talking about. Same dude who went on to be a big game developer in Seattle, right?”
Katie blinked at that bit of info. “Uh, well, I have no idea, actually. I figured he just worked for Microsoft or something.”
“No, if it’s the same guy, then Hunter has his own company. Turned his life around in a big way, it sounds like. Good for him.” He gave a short nod. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”
“Hmm.” Claire frowned. “And now he’s back in Marietta and staying on your ranch? Kind of weird, isn’t it? Wouldn’t he want to stay with his family?”
“For a bachelor party?” Wyatt laughed. “Nah, now that’d be weird. There’s gotta be some kind of story as to why they ended up here, though. Is he the one getting married?”
“No.” The idea of him being the groom filled Katie with a weird sense of irritation.
Why it should matter, she couldn’t say. He wasn’t even her type.
Her chest tightened. She could tell herself that all she wanted, but her mind wouldn’t stop replaying that moment where he’d touched her braid and looked her over a little too thoroughly.
Maybe she wasn’t always quick to pick up on flirting, but there’d definitely been appreciation in his gaze. And, unfortunately, she couldn’t deny she’d been admiring his new image a bit longer than was probably appropriate.
Who knew if he was even single anyway? She hadn’t seen a ring, but that didn’t mean much. If he was all that and a bag of chips, like Wyatt had suggested, then chances were he was involved with someone.
The sound of laughing and men’s voices filled the house.
“Sounds like the bachelor party has arrived ready to eat,” Claire murmured. “Should we start bringing food out?”
Wyatt didn’t answer, because he was already grabbing the pan of giant meatballs and making his way to the dining room. That was one thing Katie had always admired about her brother. He didn’t get weirded out about helping out in the kitchen or breaking those stereotypical gender roles.
Claire pulled the garlic bread from the oven, quickly sliced it up, and then went to join the others.
The dining room table was extended with the leaf now that it was summer and the cabins were filling up. Besides Claire and Katie, the table was filled up completely with men. There was Wyatt and the two ranch hands, Lyle and Tim, and the three men from the bachelor party.
“Spaghetti? Is that really what we’re eating? Figured we’d be eating steak twenty-four seven seeing that we’re on a cattle ranch.”
Katie’s attention snapped toward the end of the table where one of the men sat. His surly tone needled and his lips were curled into a sneer of disdain. If she remembered correctly, he was the groom. Lance? Her heart sank and she bit back a sigh. If this was an indication of what was to come, it was going to be a long week.
“Steak every night would get boring fast, don’t you think?”
The slow drawl came from Hunter who was quietly helping himself to the garlic bread.
Lance sighed. “I’m just so damn pumped to be getting a break from Denise and her damn vegetarian cooking. If I never see another bowl of zoodles with cauliflower sauce it’ll be too soon. I want some fucking meat, man.”
Not even about to ask what a zoodle was, Katie gave him her most saccharine smile and slid the bowl of meatballs his way.
“Here, try these. They’re made with the beef we raise here on our ranch. I made each meatball by hand using various herbs we grow in our garden. The sauce has tomatoes I grow in the garden.”
“Shit, you serious?”
No, it all came from the local grocery. She bit her tongue, knowing there was no point in trying to be sarcastic when this man clearly lacked a sense of humor.
“I guess I can be down with that.” Lance’s sulk diminished some as he dished himself up a plate of sauce-laden spaghetti and then plopped three meatballs on top.
“We’ll be having a steak dinner tomorrow night,” Wyatt said, his voice a steely warning that Lance’s attitude wasn’t appreciated. “The first night can be a little chaotic with everyone arriving at different times, so we try and keep things simple.”
Katie shot her brother a quick look of appreciation, before sliding her gaze around the table. Dan, the other guy in the bachelor party, looked mildly uncomfortable. Fortunately, it seemed he didn’t share the groom’s appalling lack of manners. For the most part, he’d been fairly subdued and quiet.
When her perusal slid to Hunter, she found he was already watching her. His mouth curved into a tight smile and an apology flashed in his eyes.
The gesture meant more to her than he could’ve realized, and the ball of resentment in her stomach loosened a little.
She gave a slight nod, before the slight intimacy of the moment began to unnerve her. She broke eye-contact and reached for the pasta, more than ready for this first dinner with the bachelor party to be done.
End of Excerpt