Montana Inspired

Chapter One

Holy hotness.

Jewel Jackson licked the cherry-flavored ice cream of the two-scoop cone she’d just been handed as her attention snagged on the man manning the booth opposite where she stood. Bobby Brandon was home again. Which she’d known. Or she’d known he would be home. As he’d done the year before, after his father had died, Bobby intended to help out with his family’s stock contracting business. Jewel’s full-time hand was on leave for the next month, so Bobby had offered to fill the void.

But Bobby Brandon, back in town so soon after the last time . . . and with a full, thick beard? Not to mention, the wildly inviting messy hair pushed back from his face.

Good Lord.

It hadn’t even been seven months since she’d seen the man. Why the big change?

And who knew she liked bearded men?

She scooped out another bite of ice cream with her tongue, taking a moment to enjoy the sweetness of the locally grown cherries before swallowing. She’d always been more drawn to a clean-shaven face, such as what Montana’s bull riders typically sported. A few of the guys maintained trim goatees, but in her neck of the woods, most of the cowboys were fresh-faced and whip-cord tough.

Bobby was . . .


Bobby was the friend she’d always quietly lusted after while also knowing she could never have. He’d been hot before. A little beefier than the bull riders. A lot nerdier. And clean-shaven with short, neat hair.

He’d also always been taken. He had Bria.

He’d always had Bria.

And they had big plans.

Yet now, there was a sexy, just-say-the-word-and-I’ll-back-you-against-a wall look about him as his blue eyes seemed to twinkle from the middle of all that hair, and Jewel found that she couldn’t drag her gaze away from him.

He hadn’t seen her yet. He remained focused on the mother and son who stood in front of him. They were at Birch Bay’s annual cherry festival, and as Bobby had done occasionally over the years, he’d rented a booth to sell his wood carvings. He’d dabbled in the hobby for as long as Jewel had known him, even gifting her a tiny bull after she’d started working for his dad back in high school.

The pieces had an unpolished roughness about them, but at the same time were exquisite. The curves weren’t smoothed out. Instead, everything he made showcased the small slivers shaved off to form each shape. However, the added details were phenomenal. He mostly did animals, but she’d seen holiday themed items, as well. Santa Clauses and snowmen. Cupids and leprechauns. That sort of thing. His pieces had been in one of the local tourist shops for the last couple of years, and Jewel found his creativity humbling.

“When are you going to stop ogling from afar and simply go for it?”

The unexpected question had her entire body jerking in surprise, her gaze shooting from Bobby to the man now standing at her side, and as the top scoop of her ice cream wobbled precariously, her free hand barely made it up in time to catch it.

Nick Wilde,” she hissed. She held the cold pink blob in her right hand and did her best to reattach it to the cone. “I am notogling. I was just admiring Bobby’s carvings.”

His laugh was half snort. “Well, you were certainly admiring something.”

She scowled, but he didn’t notice because he’d reached over to the booth where she’d bought the ice cream and snatched up a handful of napkins. The booth was a miniature version of his family’s local store, The Cherry Basket, which was a side business to their cherry orchard. The Wildes had one of the largest operations on the eastern shore of Montana’s Flathead Lake, and though several of the Wildes no longer lived in Birch Bay, most usually returned for the annual harvest and subsequent cherry festival. Nick was one of those who regularly returned.

He wiped her hand off when she thrust it out for him, and though she wanted to further defend herself against “ogling” Bobby, she used the excuse of her now very unstable ice cream cone as a detractor.

Focusing on smoothing out the scoops, as well as catching every dribble oozing over the edges of the cone, she made sure her gaze stayed trained only on her ice cream.

“Admit it, J,” Nick murmured as he leaned in to whisper in her ear. “You’ve had the hots for Bobby since he was a mere boy.”

“Shhh.” She glared at him. “And no. I haven’t.”

She moved away from the booth, as well as the clump of other customers standing nearby. The streets were packed today since it was a perfect seventy-six-degree July day. Residents of Birch Bay, as well as tourists from all over, looked forward to this festival every year.

Nick gave her a bored look as he shifted to remain standing next to her. He was one of those cowboys she’d just been thinking about. There was a good chance he’d top the list in the Montana Pro this year, especially if he finished the season the way he’d started it. However, he wasn’t a cowboy she’d ever lusted after. They’d been friends since the fourth grade.

“I hear he’s come home to help you for the next few weeks,” Nick prodded.

The fast spread of information in her hometown never failed. “He’s home to help out in his family’s business.”

“By traveling to the rodeos with you.”

She once again glared at him. “Yes . . . So?” It wasn’t best practice to handle the bulls solo at the rodeos, and she couldn’t bring either of her other two employees due to them needing to stay back and care for the rest of the stock. Therefore, yes, Bobby would be traveling with her for the next five weekends as a second set of hands.

So,” Nick stressed. “I’m just saying that maybe it’s time you finally go for it.”

“There’s nothing to go for, even if I wanted to. He’s engaged to Bria.” She bit down into her ice cream.

“That’s not what I hear. Crawley’s brother dates Bria’s sister.”

Jewel couldn’t help herself. She peeked over at Nick as he continued talking. Bria’s sister did date James Crawley, one of the other guys on the circuit.

“Word is that lover boy over there and Bria broke up over a month ago. For good this time.”

Jewel made a face. Bobby and Bria never broke up for good. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” He would likely head straight back to her the minute he finished up here—if not before. Bobby and Bria Riggs had dated on and off since freshman year of high school, all the way through college, and had gotten engaged sometime in the last couple of years. It was unclear if the engagement had happened before graduation or after, but nonetheless, “they” weren’t going anywhere.

Bobby would return to Missoula next month to start school for his pharmacy degree—he’d delayed beginning the year before due to staying in Birch Bay after his father died—then the two of them would eventually walk down the aisle, buy the perfect house, pop out a few kids, and live happily ever after. It was the plan, after all. Which made it a good thing shewasn’t interested.

Nick shook his head. “It’s different this time. He’s the one who broke up with her.” He nodded toward Bobby. “Plus, look at him. He’s different. Something has definitely changed. I think Crawley might be right.”

She did look at Bobby then. And what she saw set her pulse pounding.

The mother and son had left, presumably with their purchases, and now Ashlee Anderson stood at his booth. Ashlee was leaning in, a hefty dose of cleavage showing, a smile a mile wide, and Bobby looked more than interested.

He leaned her way, as well.

His mouth curved naughtily in the middle of all that facial hair.

And his eyes couldn’t seem to keep from straying to her chest.

“For the love of . . .”

She let her words trail off, and Nick laughed again.

Nick nudged. “You going to sit back and let another girl swoop in after all this time?”

“He’s just a friend,” she reminded him. But even to her own ears, she knew the proclamation sounded weak. The fact was, though, that Bobby had always been just a friend. Or more like a big brother.

She’d worked for his dad for the last seven years, since the day she’d turned sixteen, and had volunteered out at the ranch even before then. Due to Blake Brandon’s unexpected death, she’d been promoted to manager of Double B Pro Rodeo, and throughout it all, Bobby had never shown even the slightest hint of interest.

Still . . . she wasn’t about to sit by and watch him make a stupid mistake with Ashlee. That girl would chew him up and spit him out in a single bite. While smiling the entire time.

Tossing the remainder of her uneaten cone in the nearest trash can, she pumped a squirt of waterless soap into her palm from the hand-cleaning station, and after removing any lingering stickiness, wiped her hands down the sides of her jeans. She then reset her sights on the opposite side of the road.

“Interested or not,” she mumbled, “I won’t stand back and watch him get mixed up with the likes of her.”


Chapter Two

Bobby kept his eyes trained on Ashlee even as he sensed Jewel nearing. He’d caught sight of her standing on the other side of the street earlier, and he’d wanted to wave her over. He hadn’t managed to catch up with her since arriving back in town yet. But then Nick Wilde had shown up, and something unexpected spurred to life. Something that had caught him completely off guard.


For Jewel.

He had zero reason to be jealous of Jewel Jackson talking to another man. But the feeling was even more illogical given the man in question was Nick.

She and Nick had been thick as thieves ever since elementary school. But more importantly, he and Jewel had never been anything other than friends. Nor had it ever crossed his mind that they could be. He’d been in a steady relationship for years. At least, up until a month ago. And even during the many times he and Bria had been “on a break” . . . Well, he couldn’t say that Jewel had entered his mind during those times, either. She’d always just been Jewel.

Yet one look at Nick leaning into her, whispering something only she could hear, and white-hot spears of jealousy had shot through him.

What the heck?

He’d have to give that more thought later on. He was a man who often lived by intuition, and something shouted loud for him to pay attention to this one.

“So, what do you think?” Ashlee held two of his pieces up in front of her, elbows bent, leveling the carvings directly in front of her breasts. “Which one suits me the best? The deer”—she cocked her head to the right—“or the cute little sheep?”

Her lips pouted slightly as she waited for his answer, and he reminded himself that he wasn’t looking to hook up with Ashlee, good-looking as she might be. He wasn’t looking to hook up with anyone. He’d be home for five weeks, then he’d head back to school. That was what he had to focus on. His future.

“Is that sheep wearing wolf’s clothing?” The question came from her left, and Bobby couldn’t help the quick chuckle that slipped out as Jewel sidled up beside Ashlee. She offered an innocent grin to both of them. “Hi, Bobby. Ashlee.”

Ashlee mumbled something that might have been a hello but sounded more like a less-polite greeting. A perturbed look settled onto her face.

“Hey, Jewel.” Bobby’s gaze soaked her in. Brunette hair was pulled to the back of her head. Gray-brown eyes that were trimmed in green twinkled out from a halo of long thick lashes. And there wasn’t a speck of makeup anywhere to be found. She was refreshing and real.

She was the complete opposite of Bria.

“I think I’ll take them both,” Ashlee announced, speaking loud enough to capture the attention of customers from the next booth over. She clearly didn’t like the focus not being on her, so she’d taken it back. She handed the carvings and a debit card over with a beaming smile before turning to Jewel and crossing her arms under her breasts. The move lifted her assets, causing her shirt to gape even more, while her eyes narrowed the tiniest amount. The smile remained on her face. “How’s the bull business, Jewel?”

Bobby’s brows hiked as he rang up the purchases, but he didn’t say anything. Derision rang from Ashlee’s tone. Either she was unimpressed with Jewel’s career choice or she didn’t care for bulls. Or both. Or maybe she simply disliked Jewel that much.

Didn’t matter. None of those options would earn another glance from him, even if he’d wanted to give her one.

“The bull business is terrific,” Jewel replied. “So far, we’re on track to have the greatest season the Double B has seen in years, and I can only see that continuing. How’s Mateo?”

The abrupt question had Ashlee taking a half step back and her smile—and arms—dropping. A pink flush crept across her cheeks, and she glanced at Bobby before answering. “Mateo is fine.” The last word pushed out from between gritted teeth.

“You two are still dating, aren’t you?” Jewel didn’t so much as blink as she volleyed the next question. She then looked around as if to seek out the other man. “I haven’t seen him today. Did he not come with you?”

“Mateo had to work today,” Ashlee returned.


Bobby held in his smile as the two women fell silent, but his mind worked overtime. Had Jewel come over simply to run Ashlee off? Because it certainly seemed like it. And if she had . . . what did that mean? Or did it mean anything?

Did he want it to mean something?

The questions ran rampant, and he tucked them away for later consideration, same as he had the jealousy issue. This was a whole new thing for him, and he didn’t yet know what to make of it. Jewel?

He tossed another glance her way. He could certainly do worse.

Not that he was looking to do anything, he reminded himself.

These five weeks were a time for reflection and preparation for his future. Nothing more. He likely wouldn’t even work in the studio his mom had let him set up back in high school. He would hang out with his mother when she wasn’t busy at the hospital—she was an anesthesiologist, so she stayed busy far more often than not. He would spend time catching up with old friends. And he’d help at the Double B. That’s all. And in five weeks, he’d start the next chapter in his life.

Bobby finished wrapping Ashlee’s purchases and tucked them into a bag, and as she took the offering, she tossed out one last smile. It didn’t make it to her eyes, however. Her irritation was clear. She’d been caught and called out, and she didn’t appreciate it at all.

“Have a good day, Bobby.”

He nodded. “You, too.”

She left without another word, or so much as a glance in Jewel’s direction, and he and Jewel both watched until she’d disappeared into the gathering throng of people. The cherry spitting contest would be starting in ten minutes, and a large number of festival goers were now making their way to the spitting “arena.”

Once Ashlee could no longer be seen, Bobby turned back to Jewel and waited for her to look his way. And when she did . . . he totally let his grin stretch wide.

“What?” she demanded.

He couldn’t take his eyes off her. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

“Did what?” She lowered her gaze to fidget with some invisible irritant that suddenly seemed to be bothering her palm.

Uhhh,” he drew the word out, hoping she would look back up, but she only continued to scratch at her hand. So, he dipped his head to hers. “Jewel Jackson, you totally just cockblocked me with Ashlee.”

Her gaze shot up. “What? No I did not.”

With a knowing look, he merely stared back, and danged if her own cheeks didn’t take on an adorable shade of pink.

“Stop it.” She shoved at his shoulder. “I didn’t ‘cockblock’ you. I was just . . .” Her words trailed off when he simply kept looking at her. And smiling. And as they stood there staring at each other, he decided that he liked both her boldness and her embarrassment. He’d always appreciated her boldness. That was one of the reasons his dad had hired her full time right after graduation.

Even as a teen, she would set her mind to something and wouldn’t back down. And most times, those decisions paid off. It was one of the reasons they currently had a bull in their stock who would likely win them big money before this season was over. Jewel had sought out the right genetics to breed Rolls Royce, and she’d badgered his father until the man had agreed to it.

But the embarrassment was new. He wasn’t sure he’d ever witnessed that before.

“You just, what?” he whispered.

The blush disappeared as quickly as it had come, and she pulled her shoulders back. She shot him a look of disgust. “Quit teasing me, Bobby Brandon. I was doing you a favor. You should thank me.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes, really. You haven’t been around a lot over the last few years, so you may not be up to speed, but Ashlee Anderson has men for dinner these days and spits out nothing but bone when she’s finished. Plus”—she jutted her chin out—“she’s currently dating someone.”

“Yeah.” He nodded. Had she always been this adorable? “I picked up on that. Mateo. And thank you,” he added, stressing the words she’d claimed he owed her. “I’d not only hate to get on this Mateo’s bad side by simply talking to his girlfriend, but I’d be equally disgruntled to wake up tomorrow as nothing but bones.”

She smirked. “You think you’re cute, don’t you?”

He stroked his hand over his recently grown beard. “Ashlee sure thought I was.”

“Oh, for crying out loud.”

He burst into laughter at both her words and the exaggerated eye roll, and if they weren’t separated by the counter, he’d have wrapped her in a huge hug. “God, Jewel.” He leaned on the counter, narrowing the gap between them. “I’ve missed you. You’ve always been such a bright light in my life.”

The words sent her annoyance packing, and he once again found himself smiling at her. And this time, she smiled back. The festival noises surrounding them faded as he again asked himself why he’d been so jealous at seeing her talking to Nick. And why he wanted to believe she’d come over just now as much for herself as to “save” him.

“I do appreciate the rescue,” he told her. She hadn’t looked away. “Not that I really needed it, though. I had no intention of doing anything with Ashlee.”



They both fell silent, and he had the thought that if anyone happened to look their way, they might think the two of them were about to kiss. But he didn’t care. Because he wanted to kiss Jewel. And he didn’t want to second-guess it.

“I suppose you weren’t going to do anything with Ashlee because of Bria, right?”

Damn. That brought the moment to a halt. But not because hearing his ex’s name bothered him. Which was excellent.

He pulled back, putting space between them, then he picked up one of his favorite carvings. A bull. Every bull he made always had him thinking of Jewel.

Not because of Bria.” He didn’t do anything with the miniature animal. He just held on to it.

“Why not?”

“Because we’re done.”


“Yes. Right.” He nodded as if to prove himself. “For good this time.”

Jewel studied him a moment longer, likely thinking “I’ve heard that before,” then her brows hitched up. But Bobby didn’t back down. He and Bria were finished. When he’d ended things, after she’d once again suggested they take yet another break, he’d worried he might come to regret that decision. That their breakup would hurt for more than the somewhat few days it had. After all, the two of them had dated on and off for almost nine years. He’d once thought her his soulmate.

But something had changed in the last year. Specifically, after his dad died. When he’d needed to be with his family, to help at the Double B instead of immediately jumping back into school. When Bria could barely hang around for two days after they’d put his father into the ground. Things had been different since then.

And when he’d corrected Bria in that moment a little over a month ago, stating that no, in fact, they weren’t going to take another break. That they were finished instead. The biggest weight had lifted from his chest.

Jewel studied him for another moment, thinking whatever it was she might be thinking, then she gave a single nod. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That must have been hard.”

Relief washed through him. She believed him—or, at least, she wanted to. And that mattered for some reason.

He set down the bull he suddenly found himself gripping. “Not as hard as you might think.”


I hope you enjoyed this small taste of my writing! Like I said in the email that brought you here, I (unfortunately) can’t give you the entire novella for free at this time. BUT . . . if you’re interested in finishing Montana Inspired and would love to get 13 *more* brand new novelettes—while also contributing $2.99 toward a donation to The Women’s Venture Fund, an organization that supports female run small businesses—then check out Summer Love: A Steamy Small Town Romance Anthology. It’ll release on June 1 for a limited time only. 

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