Montana Rescue

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Chapter One

Nick Wilde was a man who liked to ride the edge. He knew when to play loose and free, when to yuk it up for the crowds, and when to turn on the charm for the cameras. But he was also a man who knew when to shut it down and be 100 percent focused. And when climbing atop an eighteen-hundred-pound beast named Death Comes to Your Door, it was time to focus.

He paused before swinging his leg over the gate and into the chute and, as he’d done before every ride for the last seven years, he sent up a silent prayer. Then he pulled in a deep breath, and with his thoughts focused solely on winning, he got down to business. Thirty seconds later, with his gripping hand firmly in place and Death’s muscles rippling under his thighs, Nick gave his cue. It was time to ride.

The gate swung open, and the clock started. And Death intended to win.

The bull bucked, shook, and twisted, doing things a lesser man would have crumbled under. But using his legs, and the strength of his core, Nick rode the animal, his free hand whipping in the air with each motion and his teeth rattling hard against his mouth guard. When the bell sounded eight seconds later, he flung himself from the back of the animal in one fluid move.

On his feet in a matter of seconds, he watched the bullfighters run Death from the ring, and Nick’s smile fell easily into place. He was the last ride of the evening, and given how those eight seconds had played out, he’d be walking away with the pot tonight. His heart pumped. What a ride! He pulled the cowboy hat from his head and waved to the cheering crowd, most of whom were already on their feet. He was the reigning champ, two years running—a god to these people. And he loved that.

After tossing out one last wave, he dusted himself off and climbed onto the bottom rung of the exit gate to await his score. His agent patted his arm and gave a knowing nod.

“Going to take another season,” Charlie Scott said.

“Why do anything else?” Nick agreed. He played to win, after all.

“Got a call today. Cuts for the new commercial are looking great. Ratings on the last one are still high, so they want to push to get this on the air ASAP.” Charlie tilted his head and shot Nick a look. “And the minute you sign on for the PBR, they triple the payout for the endorsement deal.”

Everybody wanted him to go national. “I like Montana Pro just fine.”

Truth be told, he could have joined the Professional Bull Riders years ago. And won. And, at twenty-five, if he wanted to go that route, he should get to it. His time was limited. But he liked it here. He liked Montana. And he had yet to feel the need to change that.

“Nick Wilde takes an eighty-nine on Death Comes to Your Door.”

The crowd went wild, knowing the score landed him easily in first, and Charlie gave a nod of approval as several of the other riders descended. Congrats were tossed out all around, and Nick noticed that a handful of the usual buckle bunnies waited not far from the clump of men. He recognized all the women. They were around after most rides.

He winked at Betsy, a strawberry-blonde he’d recently spent some time with, and then he felt himself being tugged toward the center of the arena where cameras and the rodeo director waited. As did a petite brunette—the owner of the beast who’d just manhandled him, and a longtime friend. Due to Death’s own scores, the bull also took top billing this weekend. Nick gave Jewel a huge grin and took his place next to her, accepting the oversize winner’s check and additional congratulations.

Within minutes, the place was emptying out and he found himself standing with Betsy, the buckle bunny he’d been eyeing earlier, but whom he had zero time for tonight—unfortunately. He was three hundred miles from his family home, and he needed to be in Birch Bay shortly after daybreak.

“I couldn’t take my eyes off you tonight,” Betsy purred.

Adrenaline continued to run high, so Nick took a moment and did what came naturally. He kissed Betsy, who was now curling into his side, and he lowered his palm to outline the curve of her very sweet hip. There was nothing quite like a warm body after a thrilling win. But . . . sigh . . . he and this particular body would have to wait.

“We could—” she started.

“I can’t,” Nick groaned. He gave her lips a final peck before pulling away. “I’m heading out of town as soon as I wrap up here.” Assuming his truck was running. It had died earlier that day.

“I could go with you.” There was a brazen naughtiness in both her words and her eyes that gave Nick pause. Because what went unspoken was her guarantee of making his drive far more entertaining than it could ever be alone.

But he and Betsy had never taken things beyond the rodeo, and he didn’t think now was the time to change that. He was going home. To the house where he’d made it a point to visit just enough—but never too much—over the last seven years. His mind would be on things other than the hot woman at his side tonight.

When Betsy’s bottom lip pouted at Nick’s silence, his gaze fastened on that slip of pink, and he had the fleeting thought that he could call his dad and tell him that he’d be late. Like, maybe by a day or two. It wasn’t as if Nick had to be there before his dad left town, anyway.

But at the same time, it wasn’t as if Betsy wouldn’t be around next weekend, either.

He gave a growl of need when her hand slipped under his protective vest, but he caught it in his before she could burrow down to skin. “You’re tempting, Bets. You know you are.” He leaned in to whisper across her lips. “But I really do have to go.”

She nipped his lip in response, and he kissed her once more. They weren’t serious or exclusive, but she was a hell of a good time.

“I’ll be in Great Falls next weekend,” he said when they separated. The annual event in Great Falls was one of his favorites of the year. “Find me Friday night?”

“You can count on it.” Her words lost some of their heat as her eyes caught on something behind him, and Nick glanced over his shoulder to find Jeb Mauley passing them by. Jeb was a rookie, and far less experienced than Betsy, but that wouldn’t stop her. She turned back to Nick. “I . . .”

Nick chuckled. “Go. Have fun.” He inclined his head to where the nineteen-year-old rookie had stopped and was now talking to a couple of lingering reporters. “But leave the kid in one piece, will you? He has a lot of potential.”

Laughter floated out behind Betsy as she made her way toward Jeb, and Nick caught himself wishing it bothered him to know that she’d be sleeping with another man tonight. Yet, it didn’t. It never had. And though he’d never been one to envision tying himself to one woman for any length of time, he did occasionally wonder if he was missing a key ingredient to make him “normal.” Didn’t most men want the woman they were hooking up with to sleep only with them?

Or maybe they didn’t. He honestly didn’t know.

But there was a persistent voice in his head these days telling him that something wasn’t right. That he wasn’t right. Which struck him as oddly funny because if anyone in his family stood a chance of being “right,” or “normal,” he’d always thought it would be him. Not that they weren’t all royally screwed up.

Turning away from Betsy and the now-grinning Jeb, Nick retrieved his phone and saw that he’d gotten a voice mail from the garage. He listened as the owner explained that it would be late next week before they could get the part in they needed to fix his truck. Which meant . . . how in the hell would he be getting home tonight?

The answer came in the form of a five-foot-two bubbly brunette barreling toward him.

“Nick!” Jewel Brandon threw her arms around Nick’s neck when she reached his side, leaving her toes dangling above the ground. Her husband waited behind her with the patience of a man used to seeing his exuberant wife in the arms of other men. Nick and Jewel had been friends since being paired together in a fourth-grade science project and finding out neither was particularly fond of science. And though he’d moved out of town immediately after high school graduation, he’d seen her around the rodeos for years. As a stock contractor, she not only raised several of the bucking bulls utilized at regional rodeos, but it was her job to get them there.

“Such a great job tonight.” Jewel grinned up at him once she dropped back to her feet. Her cheeks were rosy. “Eighty-nine points! I thought for sure big Death was going to toss you.”

Nick chuckled. They’d been standing side by side in the winner’s circle earlier, but with all the people and cameras crowding around, the two of them hadn’t had a chance to talk. “You know better than that.” He winked at Jewel, then reached for her husband’s hand. “Good to see you again, Bobby.”

“You, too. Great riding tonight.”

“Thanks. Couldn’t do it without good bulls.” Nick spoke to Bobby, but his attention had shifted to the woman now heading their way. A woman he hadn’t seen in years. And one that made him feel twelve again.

Same as thirteen years earlier, he couldn’t take his eyes off Jewel’s oldest sister. Harper had the same facial features and hazel irises as all three of her sisters, but that was where the similarities ended. She strode with the same badass purpose she’d had as a teen; her expression announced her approachableness, while also making it clear that if you got too close, you might get scorched; and her hair—an unruly bob no longer than the length of Nick’s fingers—was a mixture of navy blue and jet black. It had been pink the first time he’d met her.

“Harper Jackson,” he said as she reached their small circle, managing not to sound as awestruck as he felt. He offered his hand, telling himself the move wasn’t because he wanted to touch her, but who was he kidding? He’d wanted to touch her every time he’d ever seen her.

“Stone,” she corrected. Her palm slid across his. “I’m a Stone now.”

That’s right. She’d married a man she’d met in the army. Nick also remembered hearing about the accident that had taken her husband’s life. A knot formed behind his sternum. That had to be tough.

“How are you?” he asked.

The corners of her mouth tightened a fraction, and her eyes shifted slightly away. “Couldn’t be better,” she murmured. She turned to her sister. “Congratulations, hon. Death came through for you again.”

“That boy knows his job.” Jewel slipped an arm through Bobby’s.

Nick stood quietly as the sisters talked, registering the same thick throatiness in Harper’s voice that he remembered as a kid, but he tuned out her actual words. Instead, he replayed the day he’d watched Harper dive off a cliff on the west shore of Flathead Lake. The day he’d fallen in love with her. Only, ideal woman aside, she’d been three years older than him, and a lifetime more mature. While he’d been nothing more than a kid with his first bout of acne.

She turned back to him then, and her gaze locked onto his. He held his breath. “Congratulations to you, too,” she said. “Good to see Montana’s favorite cowboy is maintaining the status quo.”

“Montana’s favorite has an image to uphold.”

He gave her the smile reserved for women he deemed to be wearing too many clothes, but she didn’t appear impressed. She rolled her eyes at him. Embarrassment immediately flared, threatening to color his cheeks, and he suspected he’d forever make a fool of himself over Harper Stone.

“Harper came tonight to see what Bobby and I do during a rodeo,” Jewel explained.

“That so?” Nick lifted a brow at Jewel’s sister. “Planning to take up bull riding?”

She lifted a brow in return. “Been there, and done that.”

She had a ballsy smugness about her that he could appreciate. And he remembered that same smugness directed his way any number of times when he was a kid. He’d been incapable of not looking away from her whenever she’d been around. And she’d seemingly been incapable of not showing off for him.

But did she really expect him to believe she rode bulls?

Not that he couldn’t picture her on one. Her lean thighs would grip its flank, her body would be tight and—

“She’s going to be helping me out for a few weeks.” Jewel’s words pulled Nick’s attention away from the idea of her sister straddling a wild animal. She put a hand to her flat stomach, and her smile grew wide. “We haven’t announced it yet, but we have exciting news.”

Nick’s eyes rounded when he realized what Jewel’s gesture implied. His gaze dropped to her stomach. “Pregnant?”

“Yes!” she squealed.

“Congratulations, J.” Nick closed the gap and gave his friend a hug—banishing Harper and her taut body to his later musings—then clapped Bobby on the back. “To both of you.” He turned back to Jewel. “You think the world is ready for a mini you?”

She giggled. She was what his Aunt Sadie would call a “pistol.” Full of energy, happiness, and always into the last possible thing someone would expect of her. Like raising bucking bulls. “It better be,” she said. She propped both hands on her hips and gave him a cocky smirk. “And if it’s not, it has a limited time to get that way.”

“When are you due?” He looked her over. “You doing okay?”

“Couldn’t be better. And not until the first of the year. I’m only six weeks, but I haven’t even been sick one time.”

“It’s early to tell everyone”—Bobby joined the conversation—”but we’re too excited to keep it a secret. Plus, I’m about to be out of town for the next six weeks. Finally taking the dream to the next level. Got a wood-carving apprenticeship just outside of Boston.”

“Congrats, man.” Bobby had been selling small handmade art in a local tourist store for the last few years. “I’ve seen some of your stuff. Impressive.”

“Thank you. If I make it through this six weeks, it should only improve.”

“Which is where Harper comes in,” Jewel added.

Nick’s focus returned to Harper, who was smiling politely at her sister.

“She promised to keep an eye on me,” Jewel added. She curled under her husband’s arm, practically cooing up at him. “Do the heavy lifting so Bobby doesn’t have to worry about me while he’s gone.”

“I’ll still worry,” Bobby corrected. He kissed the top of Jewel’s head, and she snuggled in tighter. Harper’s smile seemed to stiffen.

“That’s awfully sweet of you,” Nick said. His words brought Harper’s gaze back to his.

“I’m a sweet person.” Her tone was right: teasing and cheerful. And she even tugged up the corners of her mouth another notch. Yet her eyes seemed suddenly flat.

And she looked a little green.

“Are you—”

“Thrilled for my sister?” she interjected before he could ask if she was okay. She nodded enthusiastically. “Absolutely.” With a blink of her lashes, what Nick thought he’d seen disappeared. “I can’t wait to help her out.” Then she turned her back to Nick and addressed her sister and brother-in-law. “Anything else I can do before heading to the hotel?”

“You all aren’t leaving tonight?” Nick asked before Jewel could respond.

Jewel peeked around her sister’s side. “Bobby and I aren’t going home for a couple of days,” she explained. She sent a swooning look her husband’s way. “We’re boarding the bulls with a local rancher, then heading down to Big Sky for a romantic getaway before Bobby leaves town.”

And there went Nick’s hope of catching a ride.

“Did you need us to take something for you when we go?” Bobby asked.

“Yeah.” Nick shot them both a wry look. “Me.”

“Oh.” Jewel blinked. “Wait . . . you’re going home? I figured you’d go back to Butte.”

He lived in a furnished one-bedroom apartment three hours from his hometown. “Dad and Gloria are heading out on a belated honeymoon tomorrow morning,” he explained. His father had gotten married over the holidays the year before. “I promised to watch the farm while they’re gone, but my truck broke down today.”

Jewel’s brow scrunched as if the problem was suddenly hers.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. Along with a two-story, six-bedroom log home, his family owned one of the larger cherry orchards on the east shore of Flathead Lake. It was still early in the growing season, and though the crops would need regular maintenance during his father’s month-long absence, Nick didn’t actually need to see his dad beforehand to know what had to be done. Very little had changed since he’d performed the same chores as a kid. “I’ll hang around here until a car-rental place opens in the morning. I’ll still get home tomorrow, and I’ll see Dad when he gets back.”

“But I wish we could help out . . .” Jewel’s words trailed off as she shifted her attention to Harper. Then a light began to take root in her eyes. Harper’s shoulders stiffened slightly at the change, before she slowly turned to face Nick.

She gave him a small smile. “I’ll be glad to take you.”

“I wouldn’t want to impose,” he replied automatically. He and Harper hadn’t exactly been close in the past—the extent of their relationship had been his lusting and her barely suppressed laughter. He wouldn’t want to put her out for that long of a trip. “I’ll have to drive back in a few days to pick up my truck, anyway,” he added. “It would be best to rent a car.”

“But that’s the thing,” Jewel said. “She could bring you back, too. She could fly you back.” 

 

The Wildes of Birch Bay: Book Two
August 23, 2016

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