The Cowboy’s Return by Jamie Dallas

Chapter One

August Jones sped down the lone highway to town, accelerating so that the needle pointed to five miles per hour past the speed limit. Hopefully, there was no officer parked on the edge of the usually deserted stretch of highway that led to a handful of ranches and ranchettes outside Garnet Valley, Montana.

Or if there was an officer, hopefully it was someone she knew and who was a little lenient with the speed limit. She could not be late to this project meeting. If she wanted to successfully take over Jones Construction and break into landscaping, she needed to be at this meeting, on time. This project was her opportunity to finally follow her dream, and she wasn’t going to lose it.

Unfortunately, she had been so focused on preparing for this meeting, reviewing the project requirements, and figuring out who they could team up with, that she had not noticed her horses had gotten out. By the time she got them back into their pen, it was too late to change out of her button-down shirt and jeans. She just grabbed her boots and ran out to her truck.

Gus barely noticed the herd of deer in the yellow-green field of grass flattened by the past winter snow. Her truck charged up the worn gray highway. The top of the hill led to one of her favorite views—the wide endless range of purple-blue Absaroka mountain range, capped with snow, surrounded by the valley of greens and yellow flora. The truck hit the top of the hill and she accelerated a bit more.

Up ahead, a small white dot on the side of the road caught her eye. The dot grew as her truck flew closer.

An SUV. A shiny one without the layer of dust that usually caked the cars from endless drives up and down the dusty dirt roads. She squinted at it and let off the gas a hair.

There were only a handful of neighbors that lived on this highway. None of them drove a vehicle that looked like this. At least that she could recall.

She eased up on the gas a little more. The miles of wood and wire fence continued to whip past and the SUV grew closer.

Did one of her neighbors need help?

Gus glanced at the clock and tucked her hair behind her ear.

She could not afford to be late. This was the initial meeting that kicked off renovations for the town’s two parks and their surrounding structures. Projects this large did not come by frequently in Garnet Valley, and she didn’t want to miss this opportunity.

Now what to do about the man?

She could call highway patrol. Then she would have done the neighborly thing, and she’d still make her meeting on time. That wouldn’t make her a terrible person. Right?

Her truck was now close enough that she could see someone standing outside the car with their cell phone in the air.

Not a neighbor. Anyone who lived in this area even six months knew this spot on the top of the hill was a dead zone for cell service. You had to go a half mile in either direction to get it back.

Okay, perfect plan, she would call highway patrol in a half mile, they would be there in twenty minutes, tops, and she would still have helped a person in need.

The guy was hatless, and his dark hair shone in the late morning sun. He waved frantically at her, one hand stretched high in the air, making his tall, lean body seem even longer.

She roared past him, her foot frozen on the gas.

No way.

Absolutely no way.

She swallowed hard.

That looked like a Hartman brother.

Her brain kicked into gear, and she hit the brakes, slowing her giant three-quarter ton pickup until she could ease onto the side of the road, gravel crunching under her tires. Glancing at the clock, she gave up any hope that she would make the meeting on time.

She was just like her mom—couldn’t help but stop for a neighbor in need.

Even if this man looked achingly like Colton Hartman.

Her heart hammered against her ribs.

As far as she was aware, Colton had not stepped foot in Montana in over a decade. She hadn’t seen him since the night she told him she loved him, and he told her he was leaving the state for good.

Twisting around in her seat, she peered behind her. The man was looking down at the ground, his cell phone in his hand.

It had to be Ty, Colton’s younger brother. Ty still lived in Garnet Valley and frequently went out to his father’s ranch, even more so since Beau Hartman passed away in a car accident only three weeks ago.

But then it would also make sense if Colton was back in town as well. The funeral was only two days ago.

Her breath caught as she pieced the connection together. Butterflies unfurled in her lungs and stomach, beating against her diaphragm so hard, it was impossible to breathe.

“Get a grip, girl,” she muttered to herself. “We’re moving on from this stupid high school crush, remember?”

Flipping a U-ie, she started back for the SUV. Her best friend, Steph, would no doubt have an earful to say about this.

Pulling up on the opposite side of the road, she parked her truck and turned it off. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one was coming, she stepped out.

The smell of prairie grass and old asphalt greeted her nose, and a spring chill pricked through her jacket.

Her body felt overly light as she walked to the car, nerves making her hands and legs feel numb. Her pulse throbbed in her ears, louder than a ticking clock when she couldn’t sleep.

The man looked up as she headed across the empty highway, and his gray-blue eyes connected with hers.

Old, familiar emotions slammed into her, nearly knocking the air out her body.

“Gus?” His voice was warm with recognition.

The man had somehow gotten sexier over the years. The lean ropes of muscles that filled out his long-sleeve black Henley shirt now swelled into broad shoulders and tapered into a narrow waist. The designer jeans were not Wranglers, but they still did a fair job showing off those thighs of his. His face, which had been handsome but softer in high school, had become chiseled, a shadow of beard on his square jaw.

Not fair. Not fair at all.

Suddenly that cool spring breeze wasn’t cool enough.

“Colton,” she squeaked out. Unsure of what to do or say, she waved awkwardly at him.

On those late nights, when she would reminisce about her late teens and imagine what she would do if Colton ever returned, the awkward wave was never something she had envisioned herself doing.

Heat crept over her entire face. There was no way her skin was anything less than fire engine red right now.

No. Not these feelings. Not for him. Why, now that she was determined to move on from her past, did her past have to show up?

“What are you doing here?” he asked. As though her being here was more ridiculous than Colton coming home.

Looking his car over, she noticed the front tire was no longer round.

Great. She was already late to her meeting. This was going to make it worse. However, she couldn’t leave him stranded on the side of the road with a flat in a cell phone dead zone. The alternative was to take him into town with her. It was weird enough seeing Colton; she wasn’t sure if she could handle sharing the small space of her truck with him.

Thankfully, years of working for her contractor dad had made her far handier than half the men she knew, and she was able to change a tire in fifteen minutes.

She forced a smile to her face.

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m here to rescue you.”

*

If someone hadtold Colton Hartman a month ago, he would step foot back in the great state of Montana, he would have told them to go to hell.

If that same person told him that he had an older brother he never knew about for the first twenty-nine years of his life, he would have laughed and smacked them on the back for a good joke well played.

Turns out he would have been wrong on both counts, and Colton hated being wrong.

More than anything, he wanted to snatch the cream-colored envelope, the one notifying him about his father’s will, off his passenger seat, rip it in half, and scatter it in the wind.

But destroying the envelope wouldn’t make up for the fact that he was stuck on the side of the road in his rental car, a nail through the wall of the tire, and late to a meeting with the lawyer he absolutely couldn’t miss if he wanted to get out of Montana as quickly as possible.

Damn it, damn it, damn it. He should have gone with his brother, Ty, rather than insist on driving himself. However, Ty’s surly attitude and facing a new brother had been more than he wanted to deal with on the drive into town.

Now he was stuck on the side of a ghost town highway without a car in sight. If he was back in San Francisco, a carshare was a call away. Instead he was being rescued by the one woman he never could forget.

Like an idiot, he couldn’t stop staring at August—Gus—Jones.

He swallowed as Gus walked past him to the front of his SUV, greeting him with a hint of a musky vanilla scent.

“I thought you were some sort of lost city slicker,” she said as she passed by, apparently unable to resist sneaking in a jab.

“I gave up the jeans and boots years ago.” As if it was some sort of explanation for leaving all those years ago.

Somehow over the past decade, Gus had become more beautiful. Even squatting on the side of the road, her fingers running over the nail in the tire, the woman was gorgeous.

“Need a hand with the spare? I’m pretty good at changing tires.” She flashed a quick, brilliant smile, as though amused that she would be changing his tire for him.

“As much as I would love to see you as the princess in shining armor, the rental company did not include a spare with the car. Are you heading to Garnet Valley?”

She lifted a brow. “What kind of a rental company doesn’t keep a spare tire in the back of the car? This is Montana after all. Preparation is key.”

“The kind of rental company that is going to pay dearly for this and send someone out to fix it,” he said drily as he glanced at his watch. Shit. He was beyond late to the meeting with the lawyer.

“Mind giving me a lift?”

Gus opened her mouth, as though to speak, but stopped. Instead she glanced over her shoulder toward town. “I guess I can’t leave you stranded, can I? Those shoes don’t look made for hiking.”

He was pretty positive she could leave him stranded. He looked at her truck and then in the direction of Garnet Valley. He couldn’t even see the edges of town yet, and, as Gus had pointed out, his fancy leather shoes he had shelled out five hundred for were already making his feet ache as he stood on the side of the road.

“I’d rather you didn’t.” He offered the smile he used when pitching to clients.

She pushed against her knees, granting a brief flash of her bare back as the edge of her shirt rode up, and straightened. She tugged at her sleeves, as though considering her options. “If you don’t mind getting dropped off in downtown, I can give you a ride.”

“Downtown works.” Whatever got him to that lawyer’s office.

“Well, I need to get going. So if you don’t want to hike, we leave now.” She smiled then walked past him without a backward glance, as though she didn’t care if he went with her or not.

A weird ping shot through him as he watched her walk away. He brushed his hand over his forehead, almost as though he expected a cowboy hat to be there, but of course it wasn’t. He had left that behind when he had left Montana.

“I’ll take the ride.” He jogged to catch up to her.

“Good choice.” Gus opened the truck door and swung up into the cab.

He followed suit and soon they were heading down the worn black ribbon of highway to town. Gus muttered under her breath as she kept glancing at the clock.

“I’m late,” she offered quickly, her voice breathless, as she eased her truck around a turn.

Her scent filled the cab. She smelled different. No longer that sweet, innocent fruity scent of their high school years. Now it was something more mature. Something sexier. A sultry hint of vanilla that toyed with his senses.

He repressed a groan and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Thanks for the ride.” His voice came out as a growl.

“Happy to help,” she replied.

That was the Gus he remembered. She was always willing to help someone in need, even when her life was filled with stress from her mom’s illness. The other thing that didn’t appear to change—“Still never on time, I see.”

Her shoulders stiffened and her knuckles on the steering wheel turned white, but she dipped her chin and a small grin appeared on her face. Her voice did not match the smile. “I guess some things never change. Where are you off to?”

He let out a breath he was holding. “It’s the law office on Main. I’m supposed to be there for the reading of Dad’s will.”

“I’m sorry to hear about Beau.” She really did sound sorry.

“You’re probably one of the few,” he grumbled.

Gus cleared her throat. “He was never an easy man.”

He didn’t want to think about the reason he had left Montana, much less talk about him. He glanced at the clock, gauging how late he would be.

Twenty minutes late, at least. He clenched the edge of the seat until his knuckles hurt and the sickening blast of panic wrapped around his gut.

His phone buzzed. Then buzzed again, then once more, vibrating like a bomb ready to blow.

Finally. They had hit cell service. He pulled the phone out of his pocket to find three voice messages and numerous text messages.

Not good.

He shot a text over to Ty letting him know that he was on his way after a flat tire.

The phone buzzed with another message.

Get here soon. They’ll reschedule if you aren’t here in another five.

“Dammit,” he muttered under his breath.

“What?” She glanced over at him.

“They’re going to cancel the meeting if I don’t show up soon.” It was probably already canceled. He tapped out a response letting his brother know he was on his way. “Any chance we could pick up the pace? No offense, I don’t want to be in Montana any longer than I have to be.”

“God forbid you stay in your hometown another day. I would love to speed, but I’m going five over as it is, and I’m not going any faster.”

“Smart reply from someone who never left,” he shot back at her.

The smile on her face fell. Not cool. He was taking his stress out on her, and it wasn’t fair. “I’m sor—”

“Not all of us want to leave,” she said evenly, her voice smooth and careful. “This is my home, and I’m proud of it.”

“I shouldn’t have said that. I know your life wasn’t the easiest when I left.” He took in the clothes she was wearing—worn jeans and leather boots. She never wore a belt. “Are you still working for your father?”

“Something like that,” she said, but did not elaborate. Just like that, she closed herself off from him quicker than the snap of a book.

Silence fell, as he stared at her, suddenly aware of a ravine between them, and one too wide to cross in the span of a fifteen-minute trip to town.

He looked out the window and watched a small herd of deer pop their heads up as they drove by. Their slender bodies tensed, ready to run if they sensed a threat.

“San Francisco has made you happy?” she finally asked, breaking the silence. A peace offering in the form of a question. Yet, even he knew the question held more than what was asked at the surface level.

He went for the easy answer. “Yes. Started my own company. Farm to You.”

It would be even better if his company financials weren’t causing him heartburn.

“Cute name,” she offered.

Once again, he glanced at the clock. Still late. He ran his hand down his face. If he was stuck here one more day, it was one more day he was away from work and one more day that he was not focused on productivity and income. “Life in San Francisco is better than what I left behind.”

She flinched, and he wanted to defend himself. It wasn’t her he’d left behind. It was his father.

Not that it mattered. What they had was so long ago.

Too long ago.

The soft spring sunlight shone down over the gold-green fields. The rugged blue-purple mountains rose into the background, framing the ranch homes and herds of cows, making the scene feel picture perfect, even with the mud puddles and bite to the air.

His chest tightened as he watched the familiar scenery pass by until the historic brick buildings of downtown came into view. He glanced over at her odometer to make sure she was still going five over.

“Well, in a few more minutes, you will never see me again. I hope you enjoy the rest of your life.”

His gut twisted. Being back home was bad enough. The last thing he needed was a guilt trip. “Gus—”

“Here we are,” she sang as she pulled up in front of the law office. Ty was standing outside, his hands on his hips, his eyes on the ground as he paced. Jace, his other brother he had met only two days ago, stood a few feet away, his shoulders tense and his expression grim.

Gus turned toward him, her dark eyes wide, but carefully blank.

He should say something. Anything. “Thanks for the ride,” he said gruffly.

“Happy to help.” Just like she always was, as though he was any old neighbor that she would lend a hand to. After all what else was there to do? She was still stuck in Montana.

“Look, if you ever want to get out, please look me up in San Francisco.”

She arched a brow at him. “Thank you, kind sir. You are so magnanimous.”

“You don’t need to be sarcastic.”

“You don’t need to insult my life.”

“I—” He stopped before he took the bait and took a breath. He couldn’t sit in this cab forever. There was a will to hear, a flight to catch, and a company to fix. “It was good to see you.”

He opened the door, and the fresh, clean smell of mountain air greeted him as he stepped out of the truck.

“No problem. Have a nice life.” She barely glanced in his direction as he closed the door, the smile still carefully on her face.

“Where the hell have you been?” Ty snapped the second Colton slammed the truck door shut. His brother shaded his eyes as he came closer, two vertical lines between his brows. As usual, Ty didn’t mince words. “The meeting is canceled. We’re scheduled for tomorrow.”

“Flat tire. Right at the top of that giant hill. There’s zero cell service out there.” He glanced over at Jace, who looked warily back. The other man’s resemblance to himself and Ty was striking. The same dark hair, the same square chin, the same tall, broad-shouldered build. There was no denying the relation. The lucky jerk who grew up without their dad.

Jace’s words were sharp as he spoke. “Guess we’re in town for a day longer than planned.”

The last thing he wanted was another night on the ranch in the rundown bunkhouse with the leaking roof. Another night with bad memories, an angry brother edging around him, and a mysterious brother who looked completely out of his element on the ranch.

And now memories of Gus were haunting him.

He couldn’t get out of this state fast enough, and now he was stuck here for one more night.

*

And once again,Gus was late. Super late. Like, holy smokes, she was late.

Her heart pounded, a mix of seeing Colton for the first time in over a decade and straight panic that she was late to a meeting for a project she desperately wanted and needed.

The first meeting was important. It showed the selection committee which companies were interested, and it gave an opportunity to meet the other players proposing on the project as well. If Gus played her cards right, she could take advantage of this opportunity to connect with some landscape architects who would boost her chances of a successful bid.

She forced herself to slow down her big truck and pull calmly into the parking lot instead of screeching to a halt in the first spot she could fine.

The community hall entrance was surrounded by trees on either side, the leaves bursting with new spring life. Birch trees, if she had to guess, but she didn’t stop to check as she rushed through the glass double doors. Her bag bounced against her hip, and her thighs burned as she sped-walked to the conference room at the end of the hall.

Half an hour late to a ninety-minute meeting wasn’t that bad, right? Now if she could just sneak in with no one noticing, she’d be golden.

She pulled the wooden door to the conference room open and paused as everyone turned to stare.

So much for going in unnoticed.

The room was filled with people interested in the park project. The only empty seats were the folding metal chairs on the peripherals of the room.

She shuffled inside the over-conditioned space and eased past women in clean dark slacks or skirts and men in dark jeans and blazers.

She glanced down at her holey jeans and worn leather boots. Note to self: when attending a meeting about new work for the town, wear nicer clothes. At the very least, she could have put on lipstick.

There were a handful of people she recognized from over the years. The people at the head of the table were all members of prominent families in the community. The man running the show, Adam Hearst, was part of a family who’d lived in the area for generations, longer than even the Hartmans. There were also a handful of men from competing construction firms that had far more experience in landscaping.

“Gus, glad to see you made it,” Adam called before returning to the meeting. She could see the contractors, her competition, snickering as Adam called her out.

The room seem to shrink to the size of a ring box as some people turned to look at her.

She pulled at the collar of her shirt. Why had she bothered to pick up Colton Hartman when she could have just called highway patrol?

She knew the answer, even if she wanted to pretend otherwise. Afterall, he was the one man she had ever fallen for. He had made the trials of her life seem bearable, even when she didn’t know what to expect through her mom’s illness.

As much as she wanted to sink down into her seat, she forced herself to keep her back ramrod straight—so straight she didn’t even touch the back of the cold metal chair.

If she was going to branch into landscaping, she had to show everyone she was serious about these projects.

Two men in front of her leaned close. She recognized them immediately from another firm—Wood Builders.

“Did you know Jones was going to be here?” she heard one man ask.

The other man shook his head. “Not sure what their plan is, but as far as I’m aware, they don’t have the necessary experience for this project. There’s no way they’re going to get selected.”

She cleared her throat and pulled a notebook out of her bag. She began to take careful notes, forcing herself to focus on the meeting and to ignore the comments from her competition.

After the meeting ended, she started toward Adam, ready with her list of questions to figure out just how to qualify for the project. She was quickly waylaid by one of the men who was sitting in front of her.

“Gus,” the guy said smoothly, as though she hadn’t overheard him earlier. “I hadn’t realized you would be here.”

“Well, here we are,” she said, her sweetest smile in place.

“Does Jones Construction have the necessary background to win this project?” the guy asked, cutting to the chase.

“That’s none of your concern.” She tried to sidestep around him, but he stopped her.

“We could team up,” her competition tried. She looked him up and down. Wood Builders was a larger construction firm in Bozeman. They had grown immensely in the past decade and were now expanding into other towns. They frequently tried to take projects away from Jones Construction, oftentimes using underhanded methods. “You’re a local business; we can add our experience. We’ll win for sure.”

Gus snorted. “Right. We’re going to team with the company that has offered twice to buy Jones Construction and has tried to convince our clients to leave us when we turned you down. I don’t think so.”

“Like it or not, we’re getting established here and the surrounding area. We know you don’t have the experience necessary for this project. We can outbid you.” The guy smirked.

Her stomach turned. It was true. During the meeting, Adam emphasized time and again that they wanted an experienced team so that little could go wrong with the project.

“Think about it,” the guy offered, a sly smile on his face.

“Right,” Gus said, dismissing him and walking past him, but the comment stuck in her brain. What if the only way for her to win the project was to team up with another firm?

Clenching the strap of her purse, she headed to the front of the room. Adam had just finished talking to someone and smiled as she approached.

“I’m glad you’re here. Your father and I used to do a lot of projects together,” Adam said as she got closer. His thin gray hair was neatly combed, and his expensive shirt was tucked into dark Wranglers. “That was years ago though.”

Before her mother got sick.

“I’ve heard a rumor your father was thinking of passing the company to you?” Adam started packing up his notes as he spoke.

The rumor was correct. And her stomach still churned at the very thought of it.

“He’s starting to eye retirement, but he wants to make sure I’ve got full control of the reins before he leaves. Our focus right now are these park projects. We’re very interested.” She forced a bright expression to her face, her go-to expression when she was uncomfortable. Probably from years of helping her mom.

“I’m glad to hear that. I didn’t know you guys had experience with landscaping.”

She went for honest. “We’re trying to break in.”

“Hmm.” Two lines between Adam’s brows deepened. “Well, I can’t sway the deciding board one way or another, but I can say that they want strong experience. I would recommend that you team with an experienced architect or join forces with an experienced construction company—like Wood Builders.”

Gus hoped she didn’t flinch outwardly. “Well, we are the only local construction firm, and I hope that helps with the decision,” she said. She didn’t want to risk teaming up with a larger firm and then only have the mediocre work kicked down to them.

“I am happy to give advice. Some strong examples of community service and volunteer time would help. In addition, the timeline for these projects is especially important.” Adam lowered his chin and peered at her. “If you want to win this project, you need to show the board that you are serious about this. There are companies from Bozeman who are interested and have far more relevant experience who will easily outbid you.”

Her mind raced, desperate to come up with something that showed just how serious she was about this project.

“I work on mosaics and landscaping as a hobby,” she offered lamely. She didn’t dare add it was in her own backyard.

“What about volunteer experience?” Adam asked as he hefted his full leather briefcase off the table.

She clenched the notebook in her fist. Still, she was careful to keep a nice expression on her face. “No.”

Adam nodded and looked at her, a fatherly expression in his faded blue eyes. “Maybe think about volunteering. Interviews start in six weeks. Oh, and next time, arrive to the meeting on time. Showing up late doesn’t impress anyone.”

Gus opened her mouth, ready to place the blame squarely on Colton’s fancy leather shoes and her horses but stopped.

“If there is anything you can do in a month to turn it around, I’d start thinking about it now. It would be great to work with you, but the donors for this park want to see someone who has a lot of experience and a strong delivery,” Adam added.

Her heart hammered in her chest. She needed this project. This was her ticket into landscaping, something she had been studying for years, and a way to feel that she was paying homage to her mother. “We’ve done some small projects for Garnet Valley through the years.” Hopefully within the past decade.

“That will help,” Adam said. “But get some community service in as well.”

“I’ll do what I can.” Her voice came out a pitch too high, a bit too desperate.

Adam shook her hand as he said goodbye and then headed out of the room, leaving her with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

She knew that getting the park project would be a big reach for them, but now it felt next to impossible.

One thing was for certain, if she wanted this project, she had to find some volunteer work, fast. And no more tardiness. She had to make the deciding board realize she was serious about this project.

Pulling out some business cards, she looked around the room. And most importantly, she needed to find a landscape architect to team up with.