The Montana Bride

by

Jeannie Watt

She’s not running anymore…

After a decade away, Jacie Rose has returned with her daughter to Sweetheart to renovate a historic hotel…and to lay some ghosts to rest. She knows she’ll have to confront mistakes she made in the past, but she didn’t expect to be living right next door to the guy she once asked to be her husband.

When Brett Starr was approached ten years ago by Jacie Rose with the wild scheme of marrying her to help her out of a jam, his white knight instincts kicked in and he agreed to be her emergency groom. The only problem was that the bride didn’t show up for the wedding. How’s he supposed to get used to seeing the woman he’s never forgotten every day now that she’s his neighbor?

Determined to provide the secure home life for her daughter that she never had, Jacie is not about to bring a man into her life—even one that she sometimes thinks should have been there all along. But Brett and Jacie soon discover the spark between them is even stronger than before… Now that their paths have crossed again, will they lead them back to the wedding that almost was?

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Jacie spent Saturday morning touring the Montreau with Lars Henders, one of the three investors in the property and, rumor had it, the easiest to deal with of the three. He was certainly a pleasant man, opening doors for her and allowing her to inspect the floors without a lot of talk.

Late Victorian in age, the hotel was named after the man who’d built it—Claude Charles Montreau—a young fur trapper who’d come into money, by nefarious means according to some accounts, in the late 1880s. He used his newfound wealth to build a fancy hotel that he lorded over until his death in the early 1930s. The hotel had passed to his heirs, been sold during WWII and went out of business in the late 1960s. A group of investors brought it back to life in the 1990s, but hadn’t had enough money to renovate properly and it had shut down again due to code violations. The new owners, a trio of relatively local investors, had the money to bring the building up to code and planned to restore the Montreau to its former glory. And they’d shown great common sense by only refurbishing the main floor and opening a restaurant, called, logically enough, Montreau, eighteen months ago. By focusing on the restaurant and using the first floor for upscale local events, they’d made a name for the place and thus set the stage to refurbish the rest of the hotel—once the remaining structural and design issues were dealt with.

“So what do you think?” Lars asked as he followed her down the stairs from the moldering upper stories to the elegantly appointed first floor.

For most of the morning Jacie had been thinking that she couldn’t afford to screw up on her first solo project and there were a whole lot of unknowns in this building, but she smiled her professional smile over her shoulder and said, “I think that you’ll have a beautiful hotel when we’re done.”

The man beamed at her. “The other investors are excited to chat with you.”

“And I’m looking forward to answering any questions they may have.” Kestrelle Engineering had arranged a reception for that very reason. All the people involved with the project would be there—the architect, the head contractor and his foreman, local contractors, the owners—as well as town dignitaries. Mark Simmons, her supervisor and mentor, had offered to fly in for the occasion, but she’d told him she could handle a reception. Schmoozing wasn’t her favorite activity, but it was a necessary part of the job and she’d developed some skills.

“What about the project?” Mark had asked. “What are your feelings now that you’ve toured the building?”

“I’ll progress cautiously.”

“As always.”

Yes, Jacie was all about caution…or rather, she’d become that way after her daughter was born. As a single parent, she could not afford to make mistakes.

Lars walked Jacie as far as her car. “So we’ll see you tomorrow evening? Six o’clock?”

“I’m looking forward to meeting the other owners.” Jacie unlocked the door and then, when she looked up to say goodbye, she got the feeling that Lars wanted to say something and was debating how to approach the matter. She waited, but the man’s expression shifted again and he said simply, “I’ll see you soon.”

“See you tomorrow.” Jacie got into the car, telling herself that whatever the guy was holding back, she could deal with it. She’d dealt with a lot of issues over the past decade as she fought her way through college, started her career and raised a kid, and she did it by analyzing, planning and then tackling the matter head on, with a reasonable amount of caution, of course.

Darby was the same way, minus the caution, which led to some interesting mother-daughter moments.

Jacie’s heart squeezed at the thought of her confident, almost fearless daughter. She’d been the same—right up until her mid-teens when Clinton Calloway had come into her life, charmed her into thinking he was the greatest guy ever before marrying her mother and then revealing his true nature.

Granted, it had taken a while for her to discover that Clinton had two faces, and when she’d gotten her first serious glimpse at the other side of Clinton, it’d been due to stupid teenage antics. He’d just been elected to the city council when she and a group of her friends had been asked to leave the Pizza Shack because of a food fight. A minor food fight at that.

There’d been no doubt that the person who was really getting kicked out was Brett’s cousin, Jess Palmer, who’d instigated the melee, but the owner couldn’t exactly kick out only one kid, so he kicked them all out. Clinton found out and Jacie had then experienced his ugly side. Had been stunned speechless by the rank name he’d called her before her mother had come into the room. The owner of the Pizza Shack at the time had also been the owner of several other local businesses and had personally backed Clinton’s campaign. Now Jacie had embarrassed Clinton!

After the shouting, the grounding, the threats, Clinton had slammed into his den and her mom had come to Jacie’s room, where Jacie sat on her bed, shaken to the core by the startling change in her stepfather over what to her had been a minor incident.

She’d assumed her mom was there to commiserate or to hear her side of the story, but no. Anne didn’t want to hear anything except for a promise that Jacie would never again cause Clinton to become so upset. When Jacie told her about the name Clinton had called her, Anne had looked shocked, then rallied and said that it only proved how upset Jacie had made him. That was when Jacie began to understand where her mother’s loyalties lay.

In the months that followed, Jacie lived under a microscope. Clinton monitored her activities, her grades, her friends, in an effort to make certain she did not disappoint him in any way. Thankfully, he approved of rodeo club, since his political platform was based on down home family values and ranch people embraced family values. They also paid a lot of taxes and he wanted them on his side as he began setting the stage to run for the state legislature. City council was only a stepping stone to bigger and better things for Clinton Calloway.

As months passed, Jacie learned to play the role of the obedient daughter at home, while futilely wishing that her mother would come to her senses and recognize that Clinton had married her for her money. It was obvious to her that Clinton didn’t care for people. He used them. Unfortunately, he was so damned charming and personable that the general public didn’t seem to catch on. Nor did her mother.

And living with Clinton was like living with Jekyll and Hyde. Despite role playing, ass kissing and efforts to the contrary, Jacie managed to enrage Clinton several more times before her final faux pas. One of the worst was when she’d driven several drunken friends home after a basketball game and had been pulled over. The trooper had had no problem with her, other than the broken taillight on her car, but he hadn’t been too happy about the intoxicated friends she’d been chauffeuring home—especially when one of them was found with an open container in his coat. Clinton had come close to hitting her that night. Instead he’d taken hold of her arm, roughly yanked her down the hall and pushed her into her bedroom, slamming the door as she tripped on the carpet and went sprawling.

The next morning she finally got the opportunity to explain that she’d been trying to get people home safely. All Clinton could see was that she’d once again been involved in an embarrassing public incident. He’d taken away her horse, her car, and grounded her for two months, so she’d missed seeing Brett when he’d come home from college during semester break. Missed hearing firsthand that he and Leslie Ann had broken up. Lil had passed that bit of information along.

After the driving incident, it seemed that Clinton was looking for reasons to hate her. He found a number of reasons and Jacie started wondering what she had to lose by giving him ammunition to hate her…but she couldn’t bring herself to push as far as she wanted. His angry outbursts were too frightening.

Then came the night that she hadn’t come home from prom.

Jacie hadn’t been a drinker at the time, nor had Lil, so they were the go-to designated drivers. It’d seemed safe enough to stay out all night, go to the post-prom party, watch the sunrise, then get everyone home. Her mom was visiting a friend in Idaho and Clinton was supposed to be in Helena all weekend.

He wasn’t.

Instead he was waiting at the door when Jacie got home at noon on Sunday, her prom dress rumpled from having slept in it for a few hours at Lil’s house. And since Anne wasn’t there, he gave full rein to his anger—made all the worse by the fact that an “important” associate had told Clinton that Jacie had been seen staggering around at a drunken party, her prom dress half off. Not true. He didn’t care.

He raged. He accused her of slutting around, his anger intensifying each time she attempted to defend herself. Finally he lost it and grabbed her arm when she attempted to storm away, but Jacie had yanked free, tripped on her dress and fell sideways into the wall, hitting her head on a protruding shelf. That had snapped him out of his fit.

“You tripped,” he announced coldly.

“What?” Jacie had asked while rubbing her head, checking it for blood. There was none.

“Be more careful,” he said, then abruptly turned and marched down the hall to his office.

And Jacie had gone to her room, shaking. Mentally bruised and battered. Beaten. In need of her mother, who wasn’t there.

And who probably wouldn’t have been of any help had she been.

Jacie spent the day in her locked room, overwhelmed by anger and a need to escape the craziness her life had become. The next day after her mother had returned home, she left on a spring break college tour—a tour that Clinton had gotten her into and therefore couldn’t keep her from attending without losing face. Jacie might have been a thorn in his side in all other ways, but she was academically talented and Clinton wanted something else to boast about.

So Jacie set about making him proud.

She did everything she’d been accused of. She slipped out of her room with a few other rebel students on the tour stops, partied with college students, drank too much—which wasn’t difficult for a non-drinker—and ultimately slept with someone she didn’t know.

Sex with a stranger hadn’t been part of her plan, but for once she wanted to break free, do what she wanted, take pleasure in life instead of constantly worrying about a guy who’d find fault no matter what she did. And she’d enjoyed herself. The sense of freedom had been breathtaking…right up until she’d discovered she was pregnant.

She’d peed on the stick the same day that Clinton announced to Anne that he was running for the state legislature the following year and that they had a lot of work ahead of them to set the stage for a successful campaign. Never in her life had she seen a more frightening sight than that + sign.

She literally had no way to support herself. No skills, nowhere to go. It wasn’t like she could head off to college pregnant. And it wasn’t as if she could stick around Cherry Lake—she had no one to turn to, except for Lil, who was heading back east to college late in the summer and who didn’t have the greatest family life herself.

The only thing Jacie knew was that she had to act fast so that she could get herself and her baby away from Clinton and her mother, who would no doubt take Clinton’s side. The hell they would have put her though…she hadn’t been able to face it.

Jacie smiled grimly as she turned onto Sweet Street, where Lil lived. Worst time of her life, but it was over. She’d survived and grown and now she had a daughter to raise and set an example for. And her mother had finally, finally, seen Clinton for what he was—but only after he’d forbidden her from seeing her new granddaughter. Grandbabies apparently trumped man-need. The fact that she’d been in Facebook contact with an old high school boyfriend, who she eventually married, had also helped. Now Anne had a warm relationship with Darby, even though her relationship with Jacie was still stilted and uncomfortable…but she had begged Jacie not to take this job—because of Clinton.

Finally she showed some motherly concern where that intimidating asshole was concerned. Well, Jacie was done being intimidated. Even though she had no intention of engaging the man, she wanted him to see that she wasn’t afraid to come back to her hometown, visit her friends, introduce her daughter to the beautiful area where she’d grown up.

Okay…maybe she wanted to engage him a little, because she hated walking away a loser—more than that, she hated Clinton walking away feeling like a winner.

She pulled up in front of Lil’s cozy house and Darby raced out the front door. Her kid didn’t seem to have any speed except for fast.

“How was it, Mom?”

“Good.” She met Lil’s dark eyes over Darby’s head. “Did you girls have a good time?”

“Actually, we were about to head off to the ranch store. Darby got the list of items she needs for horse camp and we were going shopping.”

“Then I guess I got here in the nick of time.”

“We were going to text you so you could meet us there,” Darby said.

“We were.” There was laughter in Lil’s voice. She seemed to be enjoying her time with Darby and vice versa.

Half an hour later they left the ranch store with a riding helmet and new western boots. After that they stopped at the grocery store to buy a loose leaf binder for Darby to keep her lessons in, then headed off to the Pizza Shack for lunch. Darby went to the restroom and as soon as she was gone, Lil asked about the hotel.

“It’s going to be challenging, but I’m excited.”

“And what about Brett?”

Jacie blinked at her, ignoring the small jolt she felt at the sound of his name. “Don’t tell me he’s a contractor.” Because the electrical and plumbing contractors were local and it would be a special kind of hell having contact with him every day.

Lil shook her head impatiently. “I’m talking horse camp. Being his neighbor. That stuff.”

Jacie shrugged with more nonchalance than she felt, since she was wondering the same thing. “We talked last night and now that Darby’s enrolled in horse camp, I think we might talk again…just to make certain we’re on the same exact page.”

But more than that, to convince herself that she was in control of the situation—her brain, her logic, not old memories or longings. It was a matter of recognizing the priorities in her life and acting accordingly.

A simple thing, really.

End of Excerpt

The Montana Bride is available in the following formats:

ISBN:

September 15, 2015