The Montana Sheriff

by

Paula Altenburg

Down-to-earth sheriff Dan McKillop has always been more than a badge and a pretty face, but it turns out the ladies of Grand, Montana, find him far more appealing as the new co-owner of the Endeavour Ranch than they ever did as the town’s friendly, neighborhood playboy. Dan’s done with commitment-shy women only out for a good time. When a fiery beauty rides into his life on a sweet Harley-Davidson low rider, however, Dan fears he’s found trouble again.

Professional firefighter Jasmine O’Reilly is stationed to lead the airbase on the Endeavour Ranch for the summer. Having a safe and successful wildfire season could mean a promotion, and after raising herself out of poverty, Jazz has big dreams. She knows better than to put her future in a man’s hands no matter how charming, wealthy, or full of promises he is.

Good-intentioned but overprotective Dan soon realizes he has a type. Meanwhile Jazz, who thought she was long beyond even the slightest brush with the law, finds the sheriff too tempting to resist.

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“Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

Ryan O’Connell, a tall, lean man with the rangy build of a seasoned ranch hand, bent his head over the sheets of paper on the conference room table. A careless lock of brown hair untangled itself to dangle unnoticed above a brow crinkled in concentration.

Sheriff Dan McKillop listened with mounting incredulity as his friend listed off the newly founded Endeavour Ranch’s assets—115,000 acres of land, 3000 cows, 800 heifers, and 150 range bulls. That was for starters. Annual crop yields consisted of 25,000 tons of alfalfa hay and 700,000 bushels of wheat and barley. Not to mention, one hundred acres of cleared land that contained an airbase with three runways and hangar facilities.

“I still find it really hard to believe that someone bought three ranches, rolled them into one, then gifted everything to us in their will,” Dallas Tucker, the third member of their trio, said.

Dallas wasn’t the lone skeptic at the table. Even after three months of meetings with lawyers and accountants, Dan found it hard to believe, too. Only Ryan seemed to take it in stride—which, considering his connections, raised a number of concerns.

The three men sat in the small, windowless conference room of the Custer County Sheriff’s Office located off Yellowstone Drive in the small town of Grand, Montana. Coffee dripped in the pot, tendrils of its rich aroma drifting idly on currents of warm air billowing from the room’s purring heaters.

Dallas, a family doctor in Sweetheart, had driven eight hours especially for the meeting at the lawyer’s office in Billings. He was bunking with Dan for a few days. Meanwhile Ryan, who’d been at loose ends since giving up a position as an operations manager for an auction and rodeo house, had flown in from Houston, Texas. Grand had three motels and he’d opted to stay alone at the one closest to what passed for downtown because he claimed Dallas snored.

They’d all been tight buddies since their undergrad days, nearly fourteen years ago now. Of the three, Dallas and Ryan had always been the risk-takers. Dan wasn’t exactly risk averse—he’d raised his fair share of hell as a kid—but these days, he liked to think of himself as the calm voice of reason. While Dallas had settled down quite a bit, he wasn’t as sure about Ryan.

“It’s not like we’re suddenly rich. There are conditions attached,” Ryan reminded them. “We’re required to provide search and rescue and smokejumper operations for the state, a free medical clinic, and a group home for troubled teens, all out of the proceeds. We have to live on the ranch, too. Money has been set aside for a new house—or houses, whatever we agree on—and six bunkhouses for staff.”

Dan poured three cups of coffee and passed them around. The conditions were what made him less wary. It wasn’t as if Ryan’s estranged family members were known for philanthropy. Far from it.

But still.

“How are we supposed to meet all of those conditions and manage a ranch operation this size, too?” Dallas persisted.

Ryan’s dark eyes filled with humor. “You do realize there’s already staff running the Endeavour, right?”

“Are you willing to give up your family practice in Sweetheart to start over in Grand?” Dan asked Dallas.

“To live on a ranch, raise a few horses, and run my own clinic?” Dallas didn’t even take time to blink. Shaggy black curls bobbed as he nodded. “Hell, yes.”

Why was Dan not surprised?

“Who do you think left us the ranch?” Dallas mused.

Dan couldn’t begin to imagine.

Ryan took a slow, thoughtful sip of his coffee. “Likely Judge Palmeter. Remember him?”

“Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.” Dan rubbed the back of his neck. “I suppose anything’s possible.”

Judge Ian Palmeter had been presiding the day the trio had been dragged into court for stealing a police cruiser and underage drinking. A frail old man with white hair, stooped shoulders, and a gaze that could put the fear of God into an atheist, he’d delivered a blistering lecture in a deep, booming voice, asked them where they saw themselves in the future, then ordered each of them to fifty hours of community service. They found out much later that he’d also had their records cleared.

Joyriding in the police cruiser had been Ryan’s idea. Back in those days he’d been pretty wild—although Dan confessed that he’d been a willing enough participant. And for his part, Dallie could be talked into anything. After a few underage drinks in a sketchy part of the city at a bar where IDs were optional, they’d seen the empty, unlocked cruiser parked in front of a convenience store. Ryan had hopped into the driver’s seat and waved them both into the back.

Not one of their finer moments, true, but it had been fun while it lasted. Dan had learned his lesson, though. He was careful to keep his cruiser’s keys in his pocket and the door locked no matter where it was parked, although stealing the cruiser no longer bothered him nearly as much as the drinking and driving. He came across too many DUI fatalities in his line of work to look back on their crime with any pride.

“Given the terms of the bequest, Palmeter somewhat makes sense,” Dallas said. “The judge was a good man.”

“We kept in touch.”

“Really?” Dan and Dallas both looked at Ryan in surprise, mostly because he’d offered up a piece of personal information without them having to forcibly extract it.

Ryan shrugged his shoulders. “He looked into our prior histories. My background wasn’t as pristine as yours and he was curious about it.”

Not many people knew Ryan’s story. He’d told them a little about it—just enough for them to fill in the blanks. He and his mother had moved to Montana from Chicago when he was six or seven. There’d been a name change involved, a lot of secretiveness, and a vague reference to a family mob connection that Dan suspected Ryan wasn’t as uncertain about as he pretended. In fact, if Dan were to put money down, he’d bet that Ryan and his mother had entered the witness protection program. That was why he and Dallie never asked too many questions.

And why they were a tad skeptical about the source of their windfall now. Ryan’s Chicago connections weren’t the type to let go of family.

Ryan nudged the paperwork with one finger. “So. In a nutshell… We find ourselves the new owners of a ranch roughly the size of a third-world country, with obligations to set up search-and-rescue operations—that’s your baby, by the way, Dan—also a medical clinic and a group home. We have a year to get ourselves situated. After that, penalties start kicking in.

“It’s February right now. Calving season starts soon, but I can keep an eye on ranch business for us. We’ll have to get a jump on housing soon, too. The bunkhouses might be a bigger priority than the ranch house, although we’ll need to think about our own living arrangements.”

Dan’s head was already busy. While the US Forest Service oversaw smokejumper operations, the ranch would have to house their summer staff and any volunteers, plus provide equipment, aircraft, and space for training. Local forest service staff would need to be trained in search and rescue too, although those operations fell under the county sheriff’s responsibilities—who happened to be him.

He wasn’t sure how he was going to juggle being sheriff, help oversee the ranch, and get search and rescue and smokejumper operations up and running before wildfire season began, which was April.

For the first time in weeks, he felt a surge of excitement.

“There go our love lives,” Dallas said cheerfully.

And…

There went the surge, plunging straight to the soles of Dan’s boots. Andy had been dead for five months, yet every once in a while, at unexpected moments like this, he’d get the wind pummeled out of him all over again.

The last time he’d seen her, she’d been dancing on a tabletop and knocking back shooters at Lou’s Pub, a few days before her deployment. There’d been crowd surfing involved too, because Andy never did anything halfway. A weapons expert and sharpshooter, she was killed during a skirmish in Djibouti, a small country on the Horn of Africa. Dan had no idea why she’d been there. He only knew she wasn’t coming back.

And he was royally pissed about it. They’d been pals since they’d started kindergarten together. They’d lost their virginity together, too—at far too young an age. He’d hoped for something more permanent between them once she grew out of her wild streak, but deep down, he’d always known it would never happen, because “wild” didn’t begin to describe her. She’d been more like a weapon of mass self-destruction—dating older men when she was a teen, giving bi-curiousness a whirl…

None of that bothered Dan. The deal breaker for him was her joining the army. He had nothing against a woman wanting to serve her country. Wild, impetuous Andy, however, never content to sit still for long, hadn’t cared one bit about serving the good old US of A. She fed off adrenaline, always in search of the next thrill. Unfortunately, whatever she’d been searching for in the military, she hadn’t found it.

Then again, maybe she had.

“Yoo-hoo. Danny boy. You in there?” Dallas waved a hand in front of his face.

Both of his friends were watching him as if they sensed something was off. Dan didn’t want to have to explain his complicated feelings about Andy to them.

“I’m trying to figure out who we can hire to get those bunkhouses built,” he said, which wasn’t a lie. He dug his car keys out of his uniform pocket. “What say we take a drive out to the Endeavour and see where they should go?”

Jasmine “Jazz” O’Reilly loved nothing more than these first few chaotic seconds of freefall. She flung her arms wide and tilted her weightless body, turning into a self-propelled glider, and breathed in the sweet, cool air rushing past her as her heart pumped blood through her veins.

Then, far too soon, her parachute snapped to attention. The brilliant blue sky became silent and calm as she floated to earth, using the chute’s toggles to steer her toward the tiny speck of landing site drawing closer below her. Seconds before impact, experience kicked in. She tightened her grip on the toggles, checked her alignment with the wind, fixed her gaze ahead at a forty-five-degree angle, and brought her knees and feet together.

Her feet hit the dirt. With hands, arms, elbows, and chin tucked into her chest, she stumbled forward a few steps, but managed to stay upright. The bright orange and yellow parachute gently collapsed off to one side. Not bad for her first jump of the season.

The trainer assessing her performance concurred.

“Excellent, Jazz,” he said, nodding approval.

The next few hours of refresher training passed in a blur. She’d arrived at the Missoula airport a few days ago after finishing her final shift as a firefighter in Helena. This was her eighth year as a smokejumper. Word had it she was about to be offered a base manager position and she was beyond excited.

Until she found out where the base was located.

“I don’t understand,” Jazz said. She was seated in her base manager’s office in the US Forest Service Aerial Fire Depot at Missoula International Airport. “I thought it was Rory’s position that was coming open.” Rory was the base manager at McCall Airport in Idaho—one of the major smokejumper training sites in the country.

“Rory’s sticking around for another two years,” Will, Missoula’s base manager, said. “The national program manager asked me for a recommendation for Grand and I gave him your name.”

Jazz wished she could feel flattered, but she knew what was going on. The average age for smokejumpers was thirty-five. Women tended to tap out well before that and she was now thirty. Will planned to foist her off on this new tiny outpost—run by cowboys, no less—while one of the male teammates she’d trained with for years got the prime posting. McCall would never be hers.

You’re the one who chose a male-dominated industry so you could work outdoors. You knew what you were getting into.

She had. And she’d never once regretted it until this very second.

Will watched her, his eyes kind. “It’s not what you’re thinking.”

Right. “What am I thinking?”

“That I’m giving you a crap promotion because it’s easier work for a woman of your advancing years.”

Jazz had to smile. She liked Will. Most days. “It’s as if you’re psychic.”

“Not psychic, but I know you.” He scrubbed a hand over the stubble on his head, which he shaved to hide the beginnings of male-pattern baldness. He was forty-one years old and a smokejumper veteran. He’d been her boss for four years. “I recommended you because you’re young and could use more management experience before you try and go after McCall. The competition will be fierce. This position in Grand is the perfect opportunity for you to show what you can do. I might know you’re more than just one of the prettiest faces on my team, but now you get to prove it to the higher-ups.”

She let that sink in. Will wasn’t trying to edge her out in favor of one of the boys. He was doing her a favor. Some of the disappointment curdling her stomach disappeared. “What do you mean, one of the prettiest?”

“Please, Tinkerbell. You’re cute, sure. But Wayne and Jay can both give you a run for your money.”

Her smile loosened into a laugh. They could, indeed. Wayne looked like a Viking. He’d done some modeling in college and the other team members like to remind him of it. Jay was into bodybuilding. His face wasn’t quite as handsome as Wayne’s, and he was a lot stockier, but his picture had appeared in a number of sports magazines. In certain circles, he was quite famous.

Jazz, on the other hand…

The guys called her Tinkerbell, not because she was tiny—in fact, she was five ten—but because of her blond, pixie-cut hair, blue eyes, and baby face. She still got IDed in bars.

“Look at this another way,” Will went on. “You’ll be in charge. You won’t have to put up with the new guys hitting on you, anymore.”

“They don’t hit on me.” Not for long, anyway. A few new recruits sometimes tried to impress her at first, but lost interest when they found out she could keep up—and that she was ten years older than they thought.

She paid more attention as Will filled her in. The base in Grand, Montana, was brand new. So new in fact, it was a surprise the Forest Service had gotten it operational so quickly.

“Word has it a local guy with a crap ton of money to write off as a tax deduction footed the bill,” he said when she asked how the miraculous feat was accomplished. “What do you say, Jazz? Do you want the position?”

She could only imagine the mess she’d be walking into. A whole crew would have to be hired, including a materials handler to look after the firefighting gear. But it would be a step toward her real goal, which was McCall.

“I do want it. Thank you for the recommendation. It means a lot.”

She grabbed dinner with the rest of the team before settling into her bunk with the most entertaining of the three books she had on the go. A few pages in, just when the story was getting good, her phone, set to silent, vibrated. The screen lit up.

She checked the number and sighed as she answered. “Hey, Mom. What’s up?”

“Hi, Jasmine.” Only her mother ever called her by her full name. Her voice, soft and anxious, filled Jazz with dread. “Have you heard from Todd lately?”

Jazz closed her eyes. She was eight years older than her brother. When he was a little boy, she’d been more of a mother to him than a sister. She was tired of bailing him out of trouble. She was equally tired of their mother expecting her to. Old habits, however, died hard.

“What’s he done this time?”

“I didn’t ask,” her mother admitted. “He called from the police station and asked me to come post his bail. What do I do?”

You call your daughter and ask her for the money. Same as always.

Jazz longed to say it, but didn’t. Her mother was an aging former showgirl who couldn’t name her children’s fathers. That they were three different men, Jazz didn’t doubt. Her mother had been irresponsible for as long as she could remember.

“Do you know how much the bail is?” she asked.

There was a brief silence on the other end of the connection. She could almost see her mother doing the calculations in her head. “Two thousand.”

Which meant bail was really only a thousand, because her mother couldn’t resist skimming some off the top for herself. Still, the amount was large enough to suggest Todd had violated the restraining order his ex-girlfriend had taken out against him. He needed to grow up and move on.

She was tempted to tell her mother to approach a bail bonds company for the cash, but if Todd skipped out on his court date, which was a distinct possibility, Jazz would have to repay it. Either way, this phone call was going to cost her money she’d never see again. “I’ll send you an e-transfer.”

Her mother made a pretense of being grateful, but the call lasted only a few minutes after that. She never asked Jazz how she was doing, or even where she was.

Jazz tossed the now-silent phone aside. She’d once watched a few reruns of the TV series Shameless, but quit because it reminded her too much of her childhood. The biggest differences were that she’d had two brothers to care for and she’d grown up in Las Vegas. She left home when she was eighteen and never looked back, so her sense of family wasn’t strong, either. She did, however, send grocery money.

And, occasionally, bail money for Todd. Thankfully her youngest brother, Leo, had managed to stay out of trouble so far. She called both of her brothers for birthdays and Christmas, trying to lessen the guilt she felt over abandoning them, but figured she’d inherited her mother and unknown father’s stellar parenting DNA, because the biggest emotion she’d felt when she left them behind was relief.

She tried to go back to her book, but thanks to the call from her mother, the story had lost much of its charm. Sleep was out, too. She could switch to a less riveting book on world economies, but if it did put her out, she’d have to reread it on principle. She’d barely finished high school, and she hated sounding ignorant when the team got together, so she read a lot to compensate.

She slid from her bunk, and with her boots in her hand, tiptoed from the room. A few lights were still on but most of the others were sleeping. She wore sweats to bed when staying on base, but she stopped at her locker for her jacket, leather pants, and helmet. Then, she made her way to the parking lot. It was quiet outside. Except for the occasional plane, traffic was light around the airport at night.

Her bike was an aging Harley-Davidson Sportster 883L. She’d bought it used a few years ago after a months-long search and she loved it beyond belief. The racing green fuel tank and low mileage were what finalized the deal.

She tucked her fringe of blond bangs under the lip of her helmet so her hair wouldn’t get in her eyes, then dropped the visor over her face. Within minutes she was on the I-90 with the wind tugging at the sleeves of her jacket.

A long bike ride was second only to those few brief heartbeats of freefall for putting her world back to rights.

End of Excerpt

The Montana Sheriff is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN: 978-1-954894-68-6

February 22, 2022

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