Ally Beaumont stared at the guest list and quietly cursed under her breath.
She knew there was a possibility her asshole of an ex-boyfriend would be at the destination wedding she’d been planning for a close friend, but she had no idea he was one of the groomsmen, and that he was going to be one of her main contacts during the festivities. Since when had he and the groom gotten that close?
A fun event had turned into something she was now dreading, putting Ally on a luxury ranch weekend with the man who had jilted her two days before their wedding, and no date of her own. She’d been informed that Lars, her ex, was bringing his lady friend for the weekend. She was his soulmate, apparently, and he had never been happier.
But Lars in the mix or not, her focus had to be on the bride and groom, and her goal was always to make the weekend special for everyone attending the wedding. Even her asshole of an ex. The venue was perfection. She stared at the pictures of the ranch pinned to the project board in her office. She couldn’t stop looking, and considering the view from her office window consisted of Puget Sound, with Bainbridge Island in the distance, that really said something.
The truth was, as much as Ally enjoyed her life in Seattle, she was still in love with her home state of Montana. And she knew the beauty and vastness of the Whispering River Ranch, set in the western mountains, was going to blow the guests away. There was nothing like a Montana spring.
“Ally?” Turning to the door of her office, her assistant nodded to the phone. “It’s a woman named Lisa Barnes. She said you know her from home. Something about an auction?”
Lisa Barnes. Wow. She hadn’t seen her in years. Lisa was one of her best friends at Marietta High School, and the two of them used to hide in the corner of the library, dreaming about finding Prince Charming. “Hey!” she said when she picked up the phone. “Fancy hearing from you! I saw your name on the wedding guest list…”
“Yup. Wedding. I can’t make it, unfortunately. Work. But tell me you’re coming home next week before you head out for that ranch.” Lisa was straight to the point and blunt as always.
“Hello to you too!” Ally said sarcastically. “I was planning on two weeks at home before I went to the mountains. I want to see my parents and catch up around town. What’s this you mentioned about an auction?”
“The second annual Marietta Bachelor Auction.”
“Wait… a bachelor auction?” Why the hell was she calling about a bachelor auction?
“It’s a fundraiser for the hospital. They’re raising money for a rooftop helipad. We’ve had them before, they stage it at Grey’s, lots of fun, but I thought you’d like to know that this round of bachelors went to school with us.”
“Who?” There were some fine looking boys back in school with her. One in particular she still thought about.
“Code Matthews, Nick Palotay, Colt Ewing—”
“Whoa.” Those were some gorgeous men going up on the auction block. “I bet there’s been a run on the bank.”
“You could say that, but there’s one more. Doctor Gavin Clark.”
Gavin. Clark. “R-really?” Gavin Clark was at the root of all her teen angst. He was her first crush, her first dance, her first kiss. Gavin was her first everything. It was quite possible, based on the way her heartbeat picked up, that she never got over him. He was sweet and handsome. A nice guy of the highest order—and of course, she’d managed to hurt him because she was stupid.
“He’s going up for auction? I’m confused.” Ally was definitely confused. “Gavin didn’t like to draw attention to himself. That doesn’t sound like his kind of gig.”
“Last year, Coach Downey’s grandson was killed in an on field collision. You had to have heard about that, you babysat him, didn’t you?”
“I did. Broke my heart when my mom told me. He was such a good kid.” Troy was a good kid, too. Whenever she ran into him in town, he was polite and sweet as could be. It was a tragic, tragic loss for the whole community.
“The roads were blocked, and he had to be airlifted to Bozeman because Marietta General doesn’t have a helipad. The guys were devoted to Coach. When he asked them to participate in the event, to raise money for the helipad, they were all in.”
That didn’t surprise her. They might have been hell raisers, but all four of them were good guys. For a moment, Ally wished she had a matchmaking business; those four hunky men would make her a fortune, and make some women very happy.
But Gavin was the one who set her heart racing. “My mom told me he’d gone to medical school.”
“He’s an emergency physician,” Lisa sighed. “Apparently, he’s up for anything regarding a date. Can you imagine?”
“Hmm.” She could imagine. She could imagine it very well. An idea started to form in Ally’s head. Maybe Gavin would be up for a weekend with her. At a wedding. “Do the bids go very high?”
“Sometimes a few thousand dollars. Although, word on the street is the guys opened up the dates to allow for some flexibility because they want to pull in some big money. What are you thinking?”
She was thinking she might have a date to the wedding, after all. Buying herself a big, handsome cowboy-doctor was very appealing. And Ally could afford it. Hell, her business just cracked the seven-figure mark, but even if it hadn’t, she could sell the engagement ring Lars left her with and have a grand old time helping out Marietta. That wasn’t a bad idea, actually. He’d been hinting that he wanted the ring back. What better way to give it back to him than by bringing a sweet, brilliant, handsome man to the wedding.
“So are you coming? I’d love to see you. I’ve missed you the last few times you’ve been in town.
“You bet,” Ally proclaimed. “It’s a good cause.”
“Yay! I can’t wait to see you! Vivi is coming too. It’s been too long.”
Ally smiled. She, Lisa, and Vivi Walker were inseparable in high school. They each went their separate ways for college, but kept in touch through social media and email, getting together at odd times. The auction at Grey’s was going to be a fun reunion. And if she won Gavin Clark in the auction, she’d consider the trip home an epic win.
Opening her desk drawer, Ally pulled out the velvet box that held the custom-made diamond ring that Lars had given her two years ago. The stone was flawless and it was massive, having been appraised at over thirty thousand dollars. She had a friend in downtown Seattle who owned an estate jewelry store who’d offered to take the ring off her hands whenever she was ready to unload it.
Gazing out at the ferries crossing Puget Sound, Ally decided it was time to make a phone call. The big, fat diamond was going to get her a wedding date.
Family dinners at the Clark Ranch were noisy and chaotic. There was always a friend at the table, along with family, and no one ever left hungry. Gavin tried to get home at least once a week, because aside from missing his parents and his brothers, he wanted to fill up on his mother’s stews, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and home baked biscuits and pies. He wasn’t the least bit ashamed of wanting to see his family, or for wanting to eat.
He enjoyed the hard physical work of ranch life, and as stressful as his life in the ER was, he could expend more energy in two hours in the barn than he would in a full day at the hospital.
What he did was serious, Gavin knew that, and important, but the land was in his blood. His family had been on this patch of acreage for almost two hundred years—a few members of his family were driven from England for being sympathetic to the Scots during the rising in 1746. Eventually, after fighting their way through several wars on the East Coast, the Clarks found their way to Montana.
“Ma,” he said though the bite of food he was still chewing. “This is the best meal I’ve had in ages.”
“You mean since the one you had here last week?” His mother grinned.
“That’s a long time when you’re hungry.” Gavin survived on takeout and frozen food when he was living in Bozeman. He loved the work, but didn’t love life in the city. He couldn’t imagine how people survived in really congested places like LA or New York. Yet a lot of people his age were doing just that.
Maybe the fact that he didn’t want to brave the big city made him unsophisticated, but he liked space. His idea of a workout was training a difficult horse, fixing a fence, or throwing hay bales.
A pickup game of football with his brothers and a couple of beers at Grey’s after was his idea of a good time.
Simple. Unsophisticated. Yeah, that was him. Doctor Hayseed as he was called by a few at work.
Of the five Clark brothers, Gavin was in the middle. Eli and Dan were older, while Jonah was five years behind him. Luke, the youngest, had just turned twenty-three and was serving his country overseas in the Marine Corps.
Eli was the only one married, and he and his wife were expecting the first grandchild. The only one who hadn’t embraced ranch life at all, his brother was a lawyer living in Minneapolis. Their parents hadn’t liked losing their oldest child to the city, but he wasn’t that far away and he was happy. That was all his folks really wanted.
Dan sat next to him and gave him a quick elbow jab. “So me and the boys will be down at Grey’s tomorrow to watch you auction yourself off to the masses tomorrow. I hear many lovely Marietta ladies have broken into their piggy banks to bid on the group of you.”
Gavin still didn’t love the idea of the auction, but he’d do anything for Coach D, and having been the one who was there when Troy died, who signed the death certificate, he really had no choice but to do his part.
“If it brings the helipad to the hospital, I don’t care. The minutes lost getting Troy to Bozeman might have saved him.”
After that night, Gavin dove into his work with a vengeance. Taking extra shifts and learning all he could about Traumatic Head Injuries, as well as collision injuries like Troy’s, he’d vowed nothing like that would happen again on his watch. Not without his best effort. Gavin knew, intellectually, that he wasn’t responsible for Troy’s death, but he still felt guilty for not saving the kid. He felt like he let his coach, Troy’s family, and the whole community down.
“It’s a good thing you’re doing, son.” His father wasn’t much for showmanship, but even Ben Clark understood where it was coming from. “Besides,” he said to Dan and Jonah, “I don’t see you boys doing your part for the Coach.”
Gavin raised an eyebrow. “That’s because they’re both ugly. You drop them or something, Ma?”
“The three of you can stop now,” his mother chided. “I’m sure you boys will raise a lot of money for the hospital.”
He hoped so. It would be the only consolation for having to put himself through the humiliation of being sold off like a prize stallion.
“I don’t mean to rub this in,” Dan said quietly. “But I hear Jenny Gaston is gearing up to bid on you big.”
Gavin groaned. He never liked to talk unkindly about any woman, but Jenny had been a thorn in his side since high school. Pretty in a very obvious way, she thought because her daddy had ranching money, she had a right to do whatever she wanted, including telling lies about people when it suited her needs.
He’d found out she was the reason Ally had cut him off. Jenny had been after him for the better part of the last fifteen years, going back as far as their second year of high school. And while he wasn’t sure what went down, exactly, he knew she was at the center of his fallout with Ally. The story Jenny told was all bullshit, but if Ally wasn’t willing to listen to reason, if she was going to believe the lies, there was nothing he could do about it.
There had to be some kind of sickness associated with Jenny’s obsession, but Gavin was hard pressed to put his finger on it. He’d been a target of hers for a long time, and it looked like nothing had changed.
“Maybe she’s moved on,” he said hopefully.
Dan chuckled. “Think again.”
“Shit.” Gavin regretted it the minute he said it, just like he regretted asking Jenny to dance at a school party. It happened once. They were both fifteen at the time.
“Language, Gavin…” His mother had no tolerance for strong language in her presence, even from her adult sons.
Finishing his meal, he excused himself to do some chores in the barn. He was hoping he could clear his head, and get his nerves under control. Good, hard physical work always seemed to do the trick. The April air still took on a chill at night, so he wanted to make sure all the horses had blankets and plenty of bedding.
He was giving some attention to a just foaled mare when he heard footsteps. If he had to guess, it was a couple of his friends, if not all of them. None of them were too happy about the auction. It just wasn’t something they’d have done. If ever the phrase ‘take one for the team’ applied, this was it. Because when Coach asked, there wasn’t a chance they were saying no.
“Are either of you nervous? I’m nervous.” Nick Palotay sat on a farrier’s stool that was in the aisle, and Colt Ewing leaned into the wall.
“This sucks,” Colt said. “I heard it’s going to be packed. Desperate women all waiting to bid on us. A fucking nightmare.”
“For a good cause,” Gavin added. “A very good cause. And you don’t know that they’re all desperate.” Jenny was desperate. And crazy.
“What do you have to wear?” Nick wondered. “My sister has been on my ass about every detail. She’s trying to make me look like a magazine ad.”
“I have a very expensive suit. I can thank Rowan for that,” he grumbled. “I think I’ve only worn a suit ten times in my life—on job interviews, to a couple of weddings and a funeral. I wear jeans or scrubs.” Gavin didn’t know what to expect, but he’d heard the same as the other guys—that Grey’s would be standing room only. Good for the fundraiser, bad for his ability to walk through town without getting shit for being a pretty boy.
“If we don’t raise a butt load of money, we’re never going to hear the end of it,” Colt added.
That was another shitty truth. The four of them had led their high school football team to the state championship. It gave them some minor local celebrity status, and brought the same amount of scorn from those in town who had dubbed them “entitled”.
The three of them settled into silence, the only sound came from the horses in their stalls, settling in for the night. That was until his mother came into the barn and gave them a good once over.
“My goodness. The three of you look like your best horse died. Why the long faces?”
Colt and Nick tipped their hats to his mother.
“Evening, Miz Clark,” Colt said. “We were just talking about the auction. It’s got us all a bit on edge.”
“You’re all going to be fine. Stop worrying about the darn auction, and have some fun with it.”
Christine Clark was the perfect rancher’s wife; a mix of sweetness and toughness, she handled her men like a pro. Taking no bull from any of them, she kept their lives on track, raising her sons to be good, responsible men. And while she kept a beautiful home, with her husband she also managed a successful business. “Now, why don’t you boys come to the porch? I made a cake. It’s chocolate.”
Without another word, she turned, leaving the barn and the three men with a directive. Gavin chuckled. He guessed they were having cake.
Nick rose from the stool. “I never turn down your mother’s cake.”
Colt grinned and pushed off the wall. “Yeah, me either.”
Colt had spent a lot of time sleeping on the floor of Gavin’s room when they were growing up. Living with his uncle had been hell and the Clarks always made a place for him whenever he needed it.
Gavin stroked the nose of his favorite mare and moved to his friends.
Nick shrugged. “I wish I knew what we were in for. The only good thing is that I didn’t keep the date open-ended. Not like you idiots.”
“Yeah. That was a mistake,” Gavin agreed as they exited the barn. “But we’re in it now, and I’m not going to say anything that might make Coach or his family feel bad. I just hate surprises.”
“Yeah.” Nick slapped him on the back, chuckling. “I remember.”
End of Excerpt