All the Stars in Montana


Debra Salonen

She’s the first woman to tempt him to lower his carefully constructed walls…

Aspiring screenwriter Jade McCall looks at every temp job as inspiration for her next screenplay. Her latest boss, nicknamed the “Realtor to the Stars,” is sit-com gold: handsome, rich, charismatic and intensely brooding. But it’s his intelligence, dry humor and thoughtfulness that reels her in deeper than she’s ever been.

Mega-successful real estate broker Zachary Masters revels in his prestigious reputation—and why not? He wrote his own story, and hides the truth of his past behind the glamorous facade of his success. Jade intrigues him from the start, and soon he’s tempted to take their agreed upon fling to the next level. But then Jade’s career takes off, sending her home to Montana.

He thinks he’s lost her for good, but the consequences of their brief affair create an unexpected second act. Zach never thought he’d have a shot at a real family until Jade returns with a secret of her own.

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Early spring, Hollywood, California

Jade McCall felt—rather than heard—her phone. Hearing anything above the music blasting over the Hollywood Hills’s palatial home’s turbo-charged sound system was nearly impossible. The workmates who’d twisted her arm to come to the party had resorted to sign language to communicate in the home’s white-on-white living room. The designer couches and chrome tables had been pushed back, creating a makeshift dance floor roughly the size of her 1940s bungalow.

Dollars and sense are soon parted. Her sigh disappeared into the thumping beat of a song she didn’t recognize. Twenty-five is the new fifty?

She wound her way through the throng, heading toward the patio and pool area. An entire wall of glass somehow folded accordion-style to connect the two areas. Discreet lighting had been replaced by a disturbing laser projection that created creepy, disjointed shadows.

Covering her mouth so her words weren’t carried away on the intense beat that seemed to follow her, she shouted, “Hang on, Maggie. I’m almost outside the DJ’s blast range.”

At the far side of the infinity pool, which lived up to its name by showcasing a wall-to-wall view of the LA skyline at night, she spotted a break in a shoulder-high hedge. She and her new friends had arrived by Uber around nine. Too late to explore the grounds, but someone had mentioned the property’s “Zen” garden, complete with koi ponds and a bridge. The owner of this mansion—her temporary boss—was a single man with no family she’d heard mentioned.

What would an urban jetsetter like Zachary Masters be doing with a Zen garden?

I can use this.

As an aspiring screenwriter, everything that came into her life wound up in notes for either her current work in progress or some future story. Even though she barely made enough money each month to break even, she liked to think her decision to work for a temp agency had been a stroke of genius. New jobs meant a plethora of new characters, good and bad situations and experiences, and enough detail to flesh out dialogue and make her plots sound plausible.

As she’d told her sister on the phone that morning, “Working for the ‘Realtor to the Stars’ has been pure gold. I’m almost sorry to leave.”

Amber, her analytical and ever-practical older sister, had asked, “Why not apply for a full-time job?”

“Because it’s a real estate office, silly. I’m an observer of the human condition, not a salesperson.” She’d tried to picture herself at one of the many desks where busy, well-dressed men and women sat with eyes locked on a computer screen and a headset connected to their phones. “Ye gods, girl, are you trying to put this horse before a cart of bologna? Not happening. Although I might enjoy a little one-on-one time with the man behind the persona. Heartthrob handsome. Brilliant marketer. So well connected, he doesn’t have to name drop. You just know he knows people.”

“He sounds too good to be true.”

“Well, there’s that. I’ll let you know if I run into him tonight. My new besties invited me to a party at the boss’s house. Some quarterly big deal. I was taking notes, but missed that part.”

She slipped through a cleverly hidden passageway created by overlapping hedges, which immediately muted the dance music that had to be punishing the dancers’ eardrums. She took a deep breath of crisp, early May air. They’d had a warm spell the week before—which had coincided with a spot of snow in Montana, her mother had mentioned.

Jade shivered just thinking about it. The winters were one thing she didn’t miss about Montana, along with just about everything else. She’d picked UCLA for more than one reason—the glorious weather and a chance to live her life without the constant scrutiny of her loving, but too-involved, family. Plus, its MFA program in screenwriting was one of the best.

She spotted a concrete bench and sat.

“Okay. Finally. This place is humongous. Why are you calling so late? Is everything okay?”

Maggie Bentonfield, Jade’s agent of two years, was all business—even at eleven on a Friday night. “I was in meetings all day and just got home. The traffic on the 5 was abominable. Luckily, my sweet partner had a hot meal and large glass of wine waiting. Now, I’m catching up.”

Jade braced herself for the worst. Surely, if Maggie had had a solid offer—even a shopping agreement, she’d have called before fortifying herself to deliver bad news.

“It’s a ‘no’ for now, sweetie.” Maggie’s tone was as kind and gentle as Jade could remember hearing. “You’re getting closer. I can feel it. They liked your humor, but felt your characters were a little over the top, and they’re looking for rom-coms right now. With dogs. Do you have anything with a dog in it?”

Jade tilted her head back, the faint stars blurring from tears of frustration. The entertainment market turned faster than a tornado on speed. She took a deep breath and let it out. “No dogs…at the moment. Thanks for trying, Maggie.”

“Of course, honey. I’m disappointed too. I really thought you had a shot with your waitress/cop buddy series. I’m sorry.”

Jade swallowed against the thickness in her throat. “Me too. But, as they say, good things happen to the wrong people.”

Maggie’s snicker softened the blow. “You’re one of my favorite people, you know. Good things are going to happen for you, too, Jade. Soon. I’m sure of it.” She paused a beat, then asked, “So, can we put this script on the back burner for now and try again when the market changes? You mentioned a possible sitcom set in a Realtor’s office. How’s that coming?”

Her businesslike tone shook Jade out of her funk, even though her ego felt like fresh dog poo on the bottom of a sandal. “Still figuring out the best spin. You think romantic comedy is the way to go?”

“Very hot. Try to keep it real but not ‘in-your-face.’ People want to be amused without thinking too hard.”

Jade stifled a groan. “Thanks for letting me know right away, so I didn’t waste any dreams spending my nonexistent royalty checks. Love you, Mags. Give Gina a hug for me. G’night.”

She ended the call and then flicked through her apps, finding a popular rideshare that would probably cost a pretty dime this time of night. She’d just hit open when she spotted the red line in the upper corner of her phone. “One percent? You’ve got to be kidding me. Like having your hopes and dreams drop-kicked into the stratosphere isn’t bad enough? Now I’m going to have to walk home?”

Which is probably a good five miles.

“I hope you don’t mean Montana.”

Jade launched to her feet with so much fight-or-flight energy she nearly collided with the man who’d suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Well, from the same path she’d followed, to be fair, but she’d been too preoccupied to notice anyone else in the vicinity.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Once her heart rate downshifted to first gear, facts flew into her head to rev it up again. Zachary Masters. In the flesh. The too-damn-gorgeous-to-believe flesh. Irony, you suck green bananas through the nose.

“It’s Jade, isn’t it? Lillian introduced us last week. You’ve been filling in.”

“Yes. Jade McCall. I’m with Temporary Solutions. I can’t believe you recognized me. I’ve temped in a bunch of large offices, and I’m certain not a single CEO, CFO or COO had any idea I existed.”

His truly too-perfect-for-a-man’s lips curved upward in the corners. And even though it was dark, she pictured that smile making his blue eyes light up. The lighting in the garden was too discreet to see eye color, but when one’s workplace featured posters of the boss’s successes via magazine covers, charity events, red carpet galas, and newspaper accolades, it was impossible to miss exactly how blue his eyes were. Are.

His head cocked just enough for a subtly highlighted lock of hair to drop with skilled precision across his brow. “I like to know what’s going on in my office.” He took a step closer, his eyes narrowing as if he were trying to connect a dot or two. “Was today your last day with us?”

“Yes. My friends…er, work acquaintances…invited me. You have an amazing home.” She made her feet stay put, refusing to give into the sudden tension that probably came from being alone in a garden with a handsome stranger. Just because Zach Masters was rich, with a ridiculously gorgeous home, cleverly messy hair, a much-too-expensive scent, and a look of interest she’d seen in the eyes of a hundred other guys over the years, didn’t mean he wasn’t a serial killer.

Ooh. A real estate serial killer…I wonder if that’s been done?

She brought up her phone to type the thought into her notes app, but when she tapped the screen nothing happened.

“Dead. Darn it. Another million-dollar idea lost to the ethers.”

“That’s an iPhone, right? I have a charger in the house.”

The house. Exactly where a real estate serial killer would take his victims. But, not his house. That would be too obvious. She listened a second. And the party was still going on. “Thanks. I really should have at least a partial charge before I start walking home.”

“A charge? Yes. Walking home? No. I assume things are different in Montana, but this is LA. You can jog, but you can’t walk anywhere.”

“Great line. But not true. I walk a lot.” In the daytime. She tapped her phone again, nearly growling in frustration. “This is killing me. So…where exactly would I find that charger?”

Grateful his eyes had adjusted to the dim light so he could see the wide range of emotions play out on the young woman’s beautiful—and expressive—face, Zach switched gears from planning a marketing campaign for his latest acquisition to focusing on the person in front of him. Being present was his secret superpower. It had made him a lot of money over the years.

When Jade McCall looked at him with wide green eyes—he’d made a point of noticing after someone in the office mentioned the new temp’s eye color matched her name—he felt an odd but not unpleasant tingle of interest. Suddenly, his strategic escape from the controlled chaos in his house felt like the smartest thing he’d done in a very long time.

“I have a better idea.”

Instead of rejoining the masses—most of whom he’d never met or cared to meet—he gestured toward the path leading to his tennis court and detached garages. “The property came with an er…man cave, I guess you’d call it, above the garage. The owner was a friend of Jay Leno’s and also collected cars. We negotiated a couple of them into the purchase price. It’s where I tend to hang out when something big is going on at the house.”

“But, it’s your party.”

He shook his head. “The Quarterlies have taken on a life of their own. Staff invites current clients, old clients, prospective clients, friends, family…social media gets wind…Boom. By now my house is a madhouse. So, I’m out here.”

She stopped abruptly when they reached the bridge. “You do have a Zen garden.”

“I don’t know how Zen it is. I don’t get out here much, but it was part of the grounds when I bought the place.”

“Zen is as Zen does.”

He waited, expecting some sort of explanation, but she merely stood at the railing staring into the dark abyss of water below. “Um…how’d things work out for you at ZMR? Okay, I hope?”

“Actually, I learned a lot at Zach Masters Realty.”

“Like what?”

“Well, first off, the job is harder than I expected it to be.”

Hmm. Observant and intuitive. Interesting. “Most people just see the end results. Not all the starts and stops and showings where nobody shows up. The weight of the paper and red tape could kill a person if you don’t stay on top of it.”

She gripped her phone as if she wanted to throw it into the koi pond, but after a second, slipped it into the back pocket of her skinny jeans. The Quarterlies were always casual—not that that stopped people—mostly women—from dressing up to the nines. Her pale-golden hair hung loose across her shoulders. He’d never felt overly attracted to blondes in the past. So, what’s different here? Because he was attracted. Very much so.

He leaned closer and got a hint of her interesting scent. Lilac? “You seem lost in thought. May I ask why?”

She tossed her head. “Sorry. I’m a writer. When I hear something particularly pithy, interesting or provocative, I type or speak it into an app in my phone. Unfortunately, said phone is dead, so I was trying to commit it to memory.”

“What did I say that you found pithy, interesting or provocative?”

“I was picturing you…well, not you, you’re too well-built for that…but a smaller person, buried under a pile of paper, with red tape configured in a bow.”

He could see it. “Very visual.”

“Thanks. It’s either my superpower or my curse. Jury’s still out.”

“What jury?”

They resumed walking, squeezed shoulder to shoulder by the width of the path. “My family mostly. Two older sisters—highly successful—followed the party line: graduate with honors, go to college, settle into a real job, and make money. I’m a bit behind the curve on that last part.”

Still. Three out of four has me beat. “Of becoming a screenwriter? Lillian mentioned you put that on your employment form. We’ve seen actors temping, but you’re our first screenwriter. From what I’ve heard, that doesn’t happen overnight.”

“Overnight, or over months of nights. To my parents’ profound despair at my lack of a 401k. But I say, easy peasy isn’t me-zy.”

He grinned. His first real smile in a long time. I like her. How odd.

She turned enough to look over her shoulder. A dull thump of drums moved through the night air. “Aren’t you afraid of getting ripped off by people who read about the party online and think, ‘Ooh, cool stuff to steal’?”

Fast change of subject. “That happened. Once. Years ago. A few minor celebrities showed up…with people. To my profound shock, things went missing. Not exactly valuables, but my first Rolex and some family mementos.” Not.

He’d told this story so many times over the years, he’d nearly forgotten most of it was a lie. Yes, he’d been robbed, but the so-called family mementos had all been purchased at auctions and online to go with the image he was trying to project. But the Rolex was mine.

“I have no tolerance for liars or thieves.” She frowned. “You know that saying, ‘Drunks, kids, and leggings all tell the truth’? Well, I prefer: ‘Liars, thieves, and addicts all need to be watched.’”

Her version sounded too much like his childhood for comfort. “I hire security now. They handle the drunks, the brutes, and the light-fingered. Subtle, but effective, because word gets around.”

“Ooh, well done.” She looked around. “You’re not leading me into the woods to murder me, are you?”

He laughed again. “Wow. You really do have an imagination. But, for the record, no. I don’t plan to kill you. Or anyone, for that matter. I can’t believe I just said that.” He shook his head. “See that building? It’s a six-stall garage. There are chauffeur’s quarters above it, but that’s a bit over the top for me. I converted the living room into my home office. Phone charger. And a landline, if you would rather call a cab than wait for your phone to charge.”

She seemed to weigh her options, then she turned and held out her hand to shake. “I believe you, Zachary Masters. Thanks for being so nice to me. I think I’ll take you up on the phone call and splurge on a cab. Almost time for me to turn back into a pumpkin.”

He did the polite thing. He shook her hand, but letting go was surprisingly hard to do.

“Option number three: instead of calling a taxi, what if I give you a ride? There’s a phone charger in the car.”

She looked ready to turn down his offer, so he added, “I know this sounds strange, but I’d really like to pick your brain.”

She shuddered. “Serial killer vibe again. Not a good analogy.”

His laugh sounded strange to his ears. When was the last time he’d laughed like this? “Sorry. Let me rephrase that. I’d like to get an outsider’s view of the ZMR office. What works? What doesn’t? Where can I improve? You’d be helping me out. Really.”

Her expression said she knew a pick-up line when she heard one, but the weary slope of her shoulders showed she was tempted to throw caution to the wind. “Jade, I overheard the part of your phone conversation about you losing out on a script. I know what it’s like to get kicked down a rung or two on the ladder of success.” He pointed toward the garage. “Free ride? No strings…or body parts involved?”

She didn’t answer right away. “No body parts at all?”

The sexual innuendo took him by surprise. He had a firm rule to never get involved with employees. Good thing she doesn’t work for me anymore. “None disconnected from said body. I promise.”

“Well, okay then. It’s been one of those days. Sometimes you just have to trust that the universe is being kind. Let’s do this.” Her soft chuckle made a funny sensation hum in his chest. He didn’t recognize it at first, but then he remembered what it was. Anticipation.

End of Excerpt

All the Stars in Montana is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-952560-24-8

September 21, 2020


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