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Grey’s Saloon, Marietta, Montana. His favorite watering hole in America. And he’d been in a lot of them. But Grey’s, with its worn, wide-planked floor that had survived the stomp of thousands of cowboy and cowgirl boots over its century and a half, and its wide, battered bar that had smoothed the slide of whiskeys straight up for the thirsty for just as long, was the best. And it was home. Or so he’d always believed.
Bowen Ballantyne turned away from his reflection in the tarnished and warped mirror behind the bar and stared moodily at the dance floor that was surprisingly busy for a Sunday night. Too early for most cowboys to be hitting town to prepare for the Copper Mountain Rodeo next weekend but eager to arrive at the ranch to see their granddad, Bowen and his two cousins had hopped in their rigs the minute their events at the Panhandle Rodeo had wrapped and driven home.
Home. Damn. That word again.
He’d ignored the two beers his cousin Bodhi had ordered for him and instead picked up his whiskey and stared at the amber liquid like it had the answers he needed. He was the oldest. He needed to figure out a solution to the problem Granddad had casually dumped in their laps tonight—he was thinking of selling the ranch. The idea was as out there as a one-hundred-point ride. Five generations of Ballantynes. For as long as he could remember, the three of them had planned to join Granddad at Three Tree Ranch. Sure, they knew they’d have to have side gigs—the ranch was massive, but not economically viable to support all of them initially. But that’s why they’d busted it on the pro rodeo for the past handful of years, saved their money, invested.
He and his cousins—Bodhi and Beck—would need to sit down to see if they had enough to offer on the ranch. They’d never figured Granddad would sell. It had always been handed down. The money they’d saved had been to make improvements on the ranch, take care of Granddad’s needs if and when he decided to retire—even that concept seemed foreign. Granddad epitomized hands-on.
So what was up?
Had his mom and two aunts put too much pressure on him? Had he finally caved?
And since all the moms were descending on Tuesday “to spruce up the ranch for sale, and give Papa one last Ballantyne Bash to remember,” Bowen doubted their combined rodeo earnings and investments would begin to cut into the multimillion-dollar sale price his real estate mogul mother would dream up. Sure, all three of them were top earners on the pro tour and had their fair share of endorsements, but they weren’t the pop stars, A-list actors or tech start-up kingpins his mom had in her client base. She’d even gushed about a new K-pop star client she had. Bowen hadn’t even imagined his mom knew what K-pop was. Heck, he wasn’t sure he did.
Without the ranch, Bowen would feel lost, and he was sure his granddad would too—his mom and aunts would see to that. Not deliberately. They just thought they knew better than any man alive.
Of course they were all long single. And pretty happy about it from all Bowen could tell. Not that he could point a finger. He’d never once had a serious relationship and didn’t figure he’d change that stat anytime soon.
He held the whiskey to his lips but paused. The amber swirl caught the light and reminded him of a girl…what was her name? Little barrel racer in summer stock rodeo when he’d been a teen. She’d had eyes the color of whiskey and hair the color of clouds and a mouth that rarely stopped challenging him.
He shook his head.
Why was he thinking of her? Just because he was back in Marietta? What was her name? He remembered her nickname—the one he’d accidentally bestowed and Bodhi had used with reckless abandon. Damn, she’d been tough. Young. And obvious. And sweet. Too sweet. And another ranch kid who had to grow up tough because her daddy didn’t stick around.
And as usual he’d been…aloof was the nicest way one woman had described him.
Bowen owned who and what he was.
“Dang, but that girl’s drunk,” his middle cousin Bodhi briefly interrupted his flirt session with an auburn-haired beauty to point out. “I think she’s going to drown Beck. Time to launch a rescue?”
“Nope.” Bowen looked away. The fact that Beck had been alone and pounced on by a determined, and quite drunk female was his own fault. He’d lost his focus this year—both on the rodeo and with his long-time girlfriend—and it looked like she might have either pulled the plug on his vacillating or she was making a point. No matter. Beck had been alone at Grey’s and fair game, and he had no idea of the skill level of female hunters since he’d had Ashni by his side since high school.
“That’s cold.” Bodhi laughed, clearly enjoying schooling the beautiful woman he’d picked up on the art of shooting whiskey too much to interrupt his fun by bailing out his flailing cousin.
And Bowen was in no mood after his granddad’s news. Hearing that his mom and both aunts were coming for the week had only made everything worse, and now Bodhi was proposing a Rodeo Bride Game.
Wildly creative and ridiculous with more than an outside chance of paying out.
Bodhi had barely let them order their first drink before he’d concocted the scheme: get engaged by the end of the Copper Mountain Rodeo and bring a prospective bride home to the Ballantyne Bash. Bodhi’s rationale was that granddad would see that his grandsons were ready to settle down. He would have family around him at the ranch and feel the Ballantyne legacy at Three Trees Ranch was assured. He’d feel less pressure to sell. Then Beck had had to put in his two cents’ worth. Now the engagement had to be public and showy, with Granddad and the moms becoming unwitting judges.
As if all three of them hadn’t been judged and pitted against each other and everyone else since they’d exited the maternal Ballantyne wombs. And with Bowen being the oldest, he had to be the best. And watch out for the others—guide them, teach them, keep them safe.
Bodhi had made that job a bitch this season. He’d been reckless. Bold. Taking too many chances and not pacing himself. Burning it at both ends, as Granddad used to say.
And then because he’d had to put his boot in his mouth and make the whole…whatever Bodhi had created—a dare, a challenge, an alcohol-tinged impulse—into a game because he’d asked about a prize. He’d thought that would shut the whole thing down. It wasn’t as if one of them could win the ranch. They all planned to settle there with Granddad. But no. Instead, he’d lit the funeral pyre.
Beck had shouted out Plum Hill.
The most beautiful, scenic, memory-evoking spot on the entire ranch—for all of them.
Bodhi had shut that down fast, but the fake engagement challenge was out there, and Bowen felt he had no recourse but to throw his hat into the ring. No matter how small or silly or crazy the slapped-down dare, challenge or competition was, Bowen didn’t back down, and he always played to win.
Bodhi could probably persuade a woman to do almost anything, but the only thing Bodhi stuck was eight seconds on a bull or a saddleless bronc. Or saddle bronc when he was looking to twig Beck, as that was his specialty along with bulldogging.
Bowen was unconvinced that if he or Bodhi brought home a woman, swearing they’d fallen heads over boots with at the rodeo, their granddad would believe them. And Beck just had to drop to one knee in front of Ashni and pull out a sparkly and he’d have the deal cinched.
But why should Beck have everything handed to him?
He watched his cousin try to disentangle himself from the drunk bridesmaid once again. It was kinda sweet how Beck was trying his best to keep his hands in G-rated places while the woman kept aiming for the X-rated zone below Beck’s new shiny buckle.
Arrogant show-off. Bowen had saved all his buckles but didn’t rotate them for show. He still wore his first win as All-Around Cowboy at Copper Mountain Rodeo from twelve years ago. Marietta was home.
But would it still be if Granddad sold?
Did Bodhi’s crazy scheme have a chance to work?
But if they didn’t try to persuade Granddad to stay, the future would feel so uncertain. Bowen had never once considered settling anywhere but Marietta and the ranch. And he’d never be able to sit up on the massive granite rock in the old orchard and play his guitar and watch the stars come out. He’d never once envisioned his future without Three Tree Ranch and his granddad and cousins by his side.
He’d need to get Granddad alone. Talk to him. Man to man. If Granddad was being pressured, well, Bowen was a master at dodging the moms. If Granddad was short of money, all of them would help. If Granddad was ill—his stomach pitched—he could peel off the tour and take care of him. But that would leave Bodhi without an anchor. And Beck cut adrift without Ashni, possibly. Though Bowen didn’t do long-term, he knew what an unhappy woman looked like. Ashni’s light had dimmed this year.
“You’re the oldest—help Beck out. He’s too good for his own good,” Bodhi mocked, interrupting Bowen’s brooding.
The responsibility he wore as naturally as his Kevlar vest and chaps felt especially heavy tonight.
And for a moment, he kicked against it.
Beck was a big boy. He could launch his own extrication.
But that seemed less likely as the woman, grinding against him, wrapped her arms around him and started staggering toward the door. Too much liquor and high heels hampered a graceful exit.
To his credit, Beck tried to keep her upright and clearly had it in mind to somehow get the bridesmaid safely back to her table or home. Beck cast him an anxious glance, and Bowen felt the familiar tug of family war with his deep-set reticence and self-preservation to engage with drunk females. It never went well.
But family was family. And he’d had Beck’s back since his mom had forced him to sit in a hard, white hospital chair, his legs dangling, and wrapped his toddler arms around the red-faced, screaming, blue-wrapped newborn.
“You’re the oldest cousin. You look after Bodhi and now you look after Beckett. That’s what Ballantynes do.”
And he had.
He pushed away from the bar just as the drunk bridesmaid opened the swinging double doors with her hip and dragged Beck out into the night. As if his earlier thought of Ashni manifested her, Bowen saw Ashni and another woman with long, dark hair and a pale complexion quickly step to the side before the double doors of the saloon swung shut.
Stifling a curse, Bowen was on the move, determination making him fast even as resignation flooded his body. The night couldn’t get much worse, and now he was about to tangle with a drunk woman, and hand Beck a prime opportunity to make an ass of himself as he pleaded mea culpa. Hopefully he could get drunk bridesmaid home without having to wash and detail the inside of his truck—again. Not enough Febreze in Monroes’ grocery store or Big Z’s Hardware to get that smell out. He knew from bitter experience that rarely did a good deed go unpunished.
Bowen pushed open the doors and supported the woman as she teetered on her high heels, and clung to Beck, nearly tumbling him to the sidewalk.
“Thanks,” Beck said, his stricken gaze immediately glued on Ashni.
“Evening,” Bowen tipped his hat to both women as Beck just gaped—flushed, and dismayed. Ash should have been his sister-in-law years ago, but something had kept Beck balancing on that deteriorating fence.
She should have kicked his ass to the curb. Ring or move on.
Bowen had never seen her look so angry.
“I got it from here,” Bowen said and disentangled the woman’s octopus hold on Beck.
Ashni’s narrowed eyes—a beautiful obsidian—sparked fury, and even Bowen felt burned.
Ouch, he mouthed to Beck, who’d already taken a step toward Ashni, arms out, face apologetic, clearly going into soothing mode, which suited him far more than troublemaker or womanizer ever would.
“I’ll get…ah…” Bowen looked down into the woman’s upturned face. She might be pretty. Hard to tell with that much makeup and her unfocused stare.
“Shauna,” Beck said quickly. “I think, or maybe Shannon?”
Great. So now what? He was going to have to get her in his truck and rummage through her purse. Well, couldn’t be helped. And it wasn’t as if Beck were to blame.
Again, the no good deed goes unpunished theme played in his head.
“Hey, you’re cute,” the woman said, a delicate hand reaching up to cup his face. “A cowboy. I did get me a cowboy. I said I would. Wait.” She stood up more fully. Tall. Slim. But curved in all the right places—and pretty obvious about it.
Too bad she couldn’t hold her liquor.
“Are you the same cowboy?” she blinked. Wide, blue eyes.
But not whiskey colored.
Where the heck had that come from?
Shauna or Shannon was the buzzed one. Not him. He’d never even got a sip of that whiskey, he thought regretfully. And his earlier beer had remained untouched. Bodhi’s fault. Fate’s fault.
“You look sorta the same.”
He, Bodhi and Beck could easily pass for brothers. They were closer than many brothers he’d met over the years.
“Doesn’t matter,” Bowen said, a little amused, but also sad.
She could be a really nice person, but why’d she feel the need to get so wasted? And where were her friends? Someone thought enough of her to invite her to stand up with them at their wedding, but not enough to make sure she didn’t get plastered? Or if she did, that she got home safe?
“Let me take you home, ma’am.” He tipped his head rather than his hat because his arms were full. She was strong. No wonder Beck, who easily controlled bucking broncs, had struggled. But Bowen rode bulls. And he often won.
“I love the ma’am thing. It’s just like a cowboy romance novel.” Shauna or Shannon sighed. “This is the wrong way. My room is down there.” She gestured the other way down Main Street as Bowen practically carried her toward his truck.
“At the big hotel. Sorta fancy. Wow, that’s a lotta stars. Don’t see those like that in Seattle. Or cowboys. I’m moving.”
“So you’re visiting. You staying at the Graff?”
The Graff was one of the nicest historic hotels in the West. It had been saved and remodeled by Cormac Sheenan a handful of years ago. Judging by Shauna/Shannon’s dress, shoes and handbag—the label of which he recognized, as his mother only thought top-shelf everything would suit her—Shauna/Shannon was all about appearances. His mother claimed it was to exude success so that her clients felt comfortable. But even when reading at home by the fire, his mom often slipped into a Chanel jacket or Gucci something. Her clothes were those most people only saw in magazines, and she also had no reservations telling him exactly what she wanted for her birthday, Mother’s Day and Christmas, so Bowen knew how much that shit cost.
“That’s it,” Shauna/Shannon said. “And I got a nice room. Not a suite though, but the bed’s pretty. And I bet comfortable especially for a big man like you, not that I imagine we’re going to do much sleeping.” She slipped her arm around his waist and leaned into him.
True. They wouldn’t be sleeping—not together. Hopefully she’d get some shut-eye as she was going to have a doozy of a hangover. And he doubted he’d get any sleep after his grandfather’s announcement and the subsequent challenge Bodhi had drop-kicked into his and Beck’s teeth.
Get engaged? Hell, he didn’t even have a date to the Saturday night steak dinner.
And he’d never had a woman cheering him on in the stands, but he’d had his share of opportunities to indulge over his career. Many women lined up for autographs or showed up at sponsor parties or the sponsor bar after the rodeo looking for a good time. So he wasn’t worried about getting a date.
But a bride?
Bowen started thinking about women he knew in Marietta. He’d spent summers here growing up. Holidays. He came back on most tour breaks to help his granddad with the ranch.
This is dumb.
He could hardly call an old acquaintance and ask them for a favor. Laughably awkward. Someone local from a family his granddad knew might be more believable but could potentially cause more heartache. It would feel even more like a lie.
Shauna or Shannon hummed. He quickly walked the few blocks to the Graff and practically carried her up through the front entrance, hoping he could somehow retrieve her room key from her fire-engine-red clutch. She smiled up at him and draped her arms around his neck.
“I’m on the second floor,” she said helpfully and with surprising strength lifted herself up so that he had no choice but to scoop her fully into his arms. She leaned back and laughed and began to sing a Lizzo song about a new man and a Minnesota football player.
That was at least unexpected. She had a good, although slurred, tone. Good pitch.
He crossed the lobby, gaining more than a few smirks. A beautiful bartender with long, white-blonde hair in some kind of fancy braid caught his eye.
“I’ll send up some seltzer water with lemon and lime and a wedge of candied ginger. It will help,” she said. “Which room?”
Hell if he knew. Might as well go full white knight and get the drunk princess to her bed and bring her a glass of doctored water. Maybe the bartender would even spot him an aspirin.
“I’ll come back down and get it.”
He took the stairs two at a time.
“You are strong,” she cooed.
He may not have grown up full time on Three Tree Ranch, but he was rodeo and ranch-work ripped.
“It’s like we’re married and you’re carrying me over the threshold. So romantic.” And then, because Bowen’s luck with women often sucked, she began to sob.
“Problem, cowboy?” The husky voice stopped him in his tracks.
A petite woman, two stairs ahead of him, blocked his path. Her lush, full lips mocked his predicament, and because she was staring down at him, Bowen found himself in the unusual position of having to look up at a woman.
The eyes hit him—crinkled in the corners in amusement and a rich amber like his favorite whiskey. Familiar, and yet no name rattled out from the past to help him.
“You don’t remember me.” Her gaze cooled a fraction and at the same time challenged.
Dammit. He hadn’t slept with her, right? He would have remembered that. And he never played in Marietta because, well, small town and one he hoped to settle in the moment he could get his cousins to retire from the rodeo and put down the roots they’d always talked about.
Three Tree Ranch.
And all that might be in jeopardy now.
“Ummmmmm,” he delayed. “It’s been a while. How you doing?”
Her nostrils flared; she clearly wasn’t buying his half-assed stall. She tossed her head as if a mane of hair would bounce around her shoulders, but her short, sleek mannish bob stuck like a helmet. Still, the movement triggered something in his brain.
“Bowen Ballantyne,” she said, clearly at an advantage. “You fixing to break another girl’s heart tonight?”
End of Excerpt