The Montana Ranchers #8; Montana Heat, Book 2
When Cole Stevens travels from Montana to Texas to close a business deal with his old friend, Heath McCoy, he never expects to close in on a relationship, too. But with one brief moment of contact in the airport with a pretty young woman carrying a guitar, his heart starts to unravel.
Sarah McClendon, fresh out of the gate after landing the runner-up spot on American Star, is touted as the up-and-coming country music star of the year. When she tangles with her manager at the Highlands Ranch annual barbecue, Cole steps up to the plate to protect her from the smarmy, poor excuse of a human being.
But it's just a weekend right? Cole will be back home on the ranch in Montana come Monday, and Sarah has a career to get off the ground. Can a love-at-first-sight weekend turn into the happily-ever-after neither of them are sure they even want?
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“What in the hell am I doing here?”
Cole Stevens muttered that question to himself while he wedged his way through the crowd and up to the rotating conveyer belt at Dallas-Fort Worth airport. He grabbed his one piece of luggage, wishing he had traveled lighter and only carried on, avoiding this whole mess at baggage claim altogether. But he hadn’t. He’d known he couldn’t pull off his second pair of boots in one of those stuff-under-the-seat bags. Plus, the one personal bag he carried on—an old, out-of-style leather briefcase—contained all of the paperwork he’d needed to bring with him to Texas. No room for anything else. So, he’d checked the larger one.
Forcing a thin breath through his lips, he reminded himself it really was okay that he disliked crowds. One of the reasons he generally kept to himself, quietly living out his life on a working ranch in the vast open spaces of Montana.
He was ready to be home again. If it hadn’t been for the fact that over the past couple of years he’d reconnected with a childhood friend—which eventually had led to a business deal—he’d have never considered leaving Montana and the ranch he ran.
But there was business to discuss, and according to his friend, more business was done over a barbecue weekend at Highlands, than anywhere.
So he came.
Business and barbecue—he was definitely in Texas.
Luggage secured now, he twisted back to push through the people again when a small commotion off to his right caught his eye. A young woman, who looked about as happy as he probably was right now, stood waiting too. As she reached toward the belt, her long blond hair glinted off the fluorescent lights—one of the things that drew his attention to her. But more than that, he was concerned about the man next to her who simultaneously reached for that same bag.
They had words. He couldn’t exactly hear what they were arguing about over the hubbub of the airport, but both appeared frustrated and angry. She jerked her arm and reached to the floor to snag the handle of a guitar case at her feet, and as she lifted her face to stand again, her gaze caught briefly with Cole’s. For a fleeting moment, they connected, her big blue eyes soft and misty, like she was holding back tears—and then she broke away. The scowl on the man’s face spoke volumes as he grabbed the suitcase—and her elbow—and marched her off toward the exit.
Cole hadn’t realized he’d halted during all of that, and stood there watching them go. As the man hurried the young woman off, Cole got a sinking feeling in his gut that something wasn’t quite right with that couple, and for some reason, that worried him.
As much as he wanted to do something about it, he couldn’t. Of course.
Not my business.
Still, it nagged at him. Her teary blue eyes nagged at him.
Resigned, he glanced up at the signs indicating the way to the car rentals, located where he needed to go, and headed that way. He had about a two-hour drive to the ranch but that was okay, because he’d likely need every minute of that time to pull his thoughts together. As he rounded the corner, however, he stopped short.
Leaning against the counter with a big grin on his face was Heath McCoy.
Heath stepped forward; grinning wider, he slapped Cole on the back and reached for his hand. Cole dropped his bag and shook it, then leaned in for a quick bear hug. “What in the hell are you doing here? I was looking forward to the drive.”
“Now you don’t have to.” Heath picked up Cole’s luggage. “I had some business in Forth Worth, and the timing was right, so I decided to attempt an interception. Besides, once we get to the ranch I don’t know how much time we’re going to have to just sit and talk, so I thought this would be as good a time as any.” He ticked his head toward the sliding glass doors. “C’mon, my truck’s in the parking garage out this way.”
Cole nodded his agreement and kept up the pace with his old friend. Heath had matured a lot since their younger days, growing up in Louisiana. Back then, they were both hell on wheels in their early teens. Cole moved to Montana when he was a freshman in high school. If he thought about it long enough, he’d probably come to the conclusion that moving had helped him calm down quite a bit. But Montana hadn’t been an easy transition, and he didn’t make many friends once he was there—until he met Gage and Amanda. The three of them had been the “three amigos” throughout high school. Through thick and thin, and through good and bad times. There had been plenty of each.
Years later, he was now managing Gage’s ranch, and Amanda?—well, Amanda struggled with life. But for this weekend he wasn’t going to worry about her, or the work he’d left behind for Gage. Gage didn’t care, of course, but Cole sure did. He was a man who pulled his weight. Always.
Heath led him toward the parking garage, and Cole followed at a quick pace. They chatted and after a few minutes, Heath said, “I’m over here.” He pointed to his right and pulled a set of keys out of his pocket. He tossed Cole’s bag into the bed of an old red truck.
“What a beauty,” Cole said, admiring the vehicle.
Heath snickered. “For a long time I loved her more than I loved any woman,” he said. “Then I met Cato.”
Cole smiled. Heath had married nearly a year before and he was as surprised as anyone he had. After his ex left at him standing the altar a while back, Heath had sworn off marriage. Then came Cato.
“I’m looking forward to meeting her,” Cole said to Heath.
“She’ll remind you of home,” Heath said. “Sweetest little southern girl…” Health’s face lit up as he talked about his wife.
“You’re a lucky man, my friend.” Cole got into the passenger side of the truck.
Heath joined him in the cab from the other side, and then punched his arm. “So what about you? Got a woman on the hook up in Montana?”
Cole stared straight ahead. Briefly, his mind wandered to the blue-eyed woman in the airport. “No. Nothing serious anyway.”
“Good.” Heath started the truck.
“Yeah. There will be horny Texas women crawling all over the ranch this weekend, just looking for an eligible bachelor like yourself.”
“Well shit.” Maybe this weekend would get interesting, fast. And then just maybe, it would be a pain in the ass. He seriously, really only wanted to spend time with Heath and discuss the land deal in process.
Health shifted the truck into drive and headed out of the garage and toward the highway.
“So,” Cole continued. “There will be a crowd there this weekend?”
Nodding, Heath said, “The usual plus a few more. My brothers and sisters, and any significant others they have hanging around. Some people we know from town, and then there’s my cousins from Tebow Ranch down near Kerrville. Never know for sure which of them will pop in and when. We’ve invited a few special guests too—mostly all business related, but some for pure entertainment. People like to be seen at the annual Highlands barbecue.” He grinned.
Cole stared through the windshield as they merged into traffic. “Business and barbecue.”
“Yep. But not all the time. Cato, Ryder, and Pepper have some fun things cooked up. We’ll be cutting bulls in the morning, so I hope you will help.”
“Be glad to, Heath.”
“Then we’ll play in the afternoon and evening. Pepper even found us an up-and-coming country music singer for a concert Saturday night. Supposed to be damn good.”
Cole sat back and relaxed. This weekend could turn out fine after all. “Sounds like good times.” He paused, watching the traffic slow in front of them. “So, you’re sure you will want to sell off that tract of land in Paradise Valley? It’s the last piece you have left, so I understand if you’ve changed your mind.”
Heath glanced his way. “Absolutely certain. I held onto it for a time thinking I’d get back there to hunt or just for a getaway, but now that Cato and I are married, I don’t see me being anywhere but Texas and particularly, at Highland Ranch.”
“She must be some woman.”
Heath grinned. “Damn, she sure is.”
“Well then.” Cole’s thoughts returned to the land in Paradise Valley. “I made a little trip up there last week. I definitely want to buy if you are selling.” The parcel of land was about two hours northwest from where he lived, bordering Yellowstone National Park and sitting not far from Gage’s cousins. It was time he started acquiring some land of his own, and there was the potential of some developing partnerships with Gage and his cousin Parker McKenna. Besides the McCoys, the Parkers and McKennas were the only other two families he’d trust to go into business with.
“We’ll make it happen.” Heath reached to twist the knob on the radio. A sweet country melody came wafting through the old speakers. He added, “I think that’s her.”
Cole looked at him, puzzled. “Who?”
“The singer who’s doing the concert tomorrow night.”
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