Mr. Congeniality

Dean Sheffield has been hurt-in more ways than one. The car accident that robbed him of his baseball career also took away the woman he loved. Now he’s starting over with a new business, the Eagle’s Nest Dude Ranch in Whistle River, Montana. He’s also been asked to take his teenage nephew for the summer, but Dean has no idea what’s in store for him. The only thing he does know is that women are the last thing on his mind.

Annie Holladay is also starting over, gearing up for a new career and spending a few precious months with her daughter before Nessa moves in with Annie’s soon-to-be ex-husband. Annie also has her hands full working at the Eagle’s Nest for the summer, especially after she realizes that she and Dean are attracted to each other.

It’s too bad they agree it’s not the right time to start a relationship because the attraction between them is becoming a distraction for them both.

Coming to Kindle May 30, 2017

Coming in paperback June 20, 2017

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(copyrighted material)

CHAPTER ONE

Disaster.

That was the only word to describe the scene that greeted Dean Sheffield when he walked into the main lodge of the Eagle’s Nest Dude Ranch. He stared, open-mouthed, at scaffolding climbing one wall, boards for bookshelves stacked against another, and rocks for the fireplace heaped on a tarp near the chimney.

He turned slowly toward Gary Parker, his best friend and right-hand man. “Tell me I’m dreaming.”

Gary’s dark eyes narrowed slightly and he stroked the thick handlebar mustache that bracketed his mouth as he took in the mess in front of them. “I wish I could, buddy. But I think this is for real.”

Dean lowered the toolbox he’d been carrying to the floor. “Any guesses where the construction crew might be?”

Gary followed a trail of muddy footprints across the polished hardwood floor with his gaze. “On break or taking an early lunch? I didn’t notice any of their trucks when we pulled up, so they might even be through for the day.”

In spite of the warm spring sun and the call of a meadowlark in the distance, a chill worthy of a Montana winter inched up Dean’s spine. “The foreman promised they’d be finished yesterday,” he said, instinctively checking his watch. “We only have two weeks until we’re supposed to open for business.”

“They’ve almost finished.” Gary pushed back the brim of his cowboy hat and took another long look around the room. “It just doesn’t look like it. Why don’t you try to relax?  There’s plenty of time to finish everything before Memorial Day. I’ll look for the foreman and find out what the holdup is.”

Dean reached to pick up the toolbox. Worry and frustration almost made him forget to use his left hand, but the warning flash of discomfort he felt as he stretched reminded him in a hurry. “Thanks, but I’ll talk to him myself. I’m just glad you’re still optimistic because I’m having trouble staying upbeat. The furniture’s not here yet, none of our food or supplies have arrived, and unless I’m mistaken, nobody’s heard from Miles in days.”

Gary’s cowboy boots echoed on the wooden floor as he trailed Dean across the room. “Barry said the furniture would be here tomorrow and I checked with our other suppliers yesterday. We should start receiving things in the next couple of days. As for Miles, he’s a good friend and reliable as the sun. He’ll deliver the horses before we open, guaranteed.”

Dean shoved through the swinging doors that led into the kitchen and stopped just inside. In spite of Gary’s reassurance, the sight of the renovation crew’s sawhorses and temporary workbenches made him very nervous.

Was he making a mistake to think he could run a dude ranch? The business courses he’d taken in college were a distant memory and the research he’d done on the vacation industry suddenly felt skimpy rather than extensive. But it was too late to back out now. His savings account was almost depleted and he’d borrowed heavily against the money in his retirement plan. Besides, Dean didn’t back out of commitments—at least not willingly.

“Maybe I should ask Les and Irma if I can store the furniture in their barn in case it arrives before the crew clears out.”

Gary took the toolbox from Dean and carried it toward the bank of windows overlooking the wide clearing behind the lodge. “Good idea. And if they don’t have room, they’ll know someone who does. That’s one thing there’s no shortage of in Whistle River—storage space.”

In spite of the turmoil his life had been in lately, being surrounded by friends helped keep Dean grounded. He’d met Les and Irma just four years earlier on his first visit to Montana. Two years later, he’d met Gary, and now Dean felt as if he’d known them all forever. He counted himself lucky that they’d all offered to help him get back on his feet again.

Gary pulled two scrapers from the toolbox and handed one to Dean. “Now how about we wait and see if something actually goes wrong before we start coming up with solutions?”

Dean stared at the tool in his hand. “I’m not trying to sound pessimistic. It’s just that life’s thrown me a few curve balls lately.”

Sitting on his heels in front of the window, Gary started to work on a label stuck to the pane of glass. “Things are finally looking up for you. Why can’t you just accept that and be grateful? Everything’s going to be fine. Trust me.”

Dean let his gaze linger on the broad sweep of landscape outside the window. He could see the red-roofed stables at the bottom of the hill, the shadow of forest separating the lodge from the fire pit, the slow slope of tree-covered hills rising toward snow-capped mountains.

“This land is the first thing I’ve allowed myself to want since the accident, and renovating this lodge is the first risk I’ve let myself take.” He took a deep breath and brought up a subject he usually refused to talk about. “Sometimes it’s hard to be grateful when you’re only thirty-six and the only career you’ve ever wanted is a distant memory.”

Gary peeled a long strip of paper from the window, shrugging as if they were discussing something inconsequential. “Try looking at it this way—you’re only thirty-six and you’ve been given a chance to start over. How many people get that?”

“I’m grateful,” Dean said, stretching toward a label high overhead. “I’m downright giddy when I can go a whole day without taking a pain pill, or when I get a full night’s sleep.” Agitated by their conversation, he reached too far and pain blazed through the muscles in his right shoulder. Before he could stop it, the scraper tumbled uselessly to the floor at his feet.

Frustrated and angry, he grabbed his shoulder and fought back the unwelcome tears that still came with the pain. Turning away from Gary, Dean headed for the sink, pulled a prescription bottle from his pocket, and shook a capsule into his hand. He scooped water into his mouth, swallowed the pill, and swabbed his chin with his sleeve.

Gary kept working as if nothing had happened. His tactfulness was one of the things Dean liked best about him.

When Dean could breathe easily again, he leaned against the counter and took up the conversation. “I know I was lucky to even have money after the accident. I had great insurance, too. Most people would be buried under a pile of medical bills and fighting just to survive, and here I am with a piece of the most beautiful country in the world and a new business on top of that. I keep telling myself how lucky I am, but I can’t shake the feeling that something major will go wrong before we open.”

“You worry too much,” Gary said with a grin. “Fortune’s getting set to smile on you. I can feel it.”

Dean returned the smile half-heartedly and started toward the window again, determined not to let the pain immobilize him for long. The sound of rapidly approaching footsteps caught his attention just as he bent to retrieve his scraper and Jill Beck, the woman he’d hired as cook for the ranch, burst through the swinging door.

Her short blond hair was tousled as if she’d just climbed out of bed, her blue eyes were as round as silver dollars, and her wrinkled white shorts and bright pink halter-top looked as if she’d slept in them. She was young, flighty, and inexperienced, but since he had no reputation to back him, Dean had been damn lucky to find her. He’d tried for months to lure a more experienced cook away from one of the other lodges, but none of them had been interested in taking a chance on a completely unknown establishment.

“You’re never going to believe what’s happened,” Jill gushed before the door could even begin to swing shut. “Never in a million years.”

Dean picked up the scraper and nudged the toolbox out of his way. “Whatever it is, please tell me it’s good news.”

“It is . . . in a way.” Jill ran her fingers through her hair and shifted her weight onto one thin leg. “I’m getting married! Can you believe it? Scotty finally asked me—after six long years.”

Dean grinned at her. “I’d say that qualifies as good news. Congratulations.”

Gary covered the distance between them in three long strides and swept Jill into a bear hug. “It’s about time that guy of yours pulled his head out. When’s the big day?”

Jill’s smile faded slightly and she glanced sideways at Dean. “That’s where things get sticky.” She clasped her hands in front of her and twisted her fingers. “The thing is, we want to have a real small wedding. Just immediate family and a few close friends, you know? And we want to do it before Scotty’s brother leaves for basic training. The fifteenth of June is like the only day we can do it and have everyone there.”

The explanation tumbled out of her mouth in such a rush, Dean felt a tingle of apprehension in his scalp. “That’s quick, but nothing we can’t work around. Any idea how much time you’ll want off for your honeymoon? I should probably start trying to find a temporary replacement right away.”

Jill’s smile disappeared completely and the knuckles over her tangled fingers turned white. “Well . . . ? That’s another problem.” Her gaze danced around the room, never landing anywhere for more than a second and touching everything except Dean’s face. “The thing is, Scotty’s been doing a lot of work in Cheyenne the past few months. I told you about that temporary job he’s got . . ..”

Dean nodded, but he was starting to get an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Well, anyway,” Jill went on, “he’s making a whole lot more there than he can here, and he just got offered a permanent position, so that’s why he finally proposed.” Dragging in a deep breath, she shot a glance at Gary and then finished at top speed. “The thing is, with his job and everything, we’ve decided we should live there. In Cheyenne, I mean.”

The tingles on Dean’s scalp turned into ice. Gary kept his gaze locked on Jill’s face so Dean couldn’t make eye contact, and asked, “When are you going?”

“Next week.”

Dean raised both eyebrows but his heart sank. “I guess this means I’m not looking for a temporary replacement.”

“No. And I’m sorry.” Jill’s hands sprang apart and her fingers fluttered nervously. “I know this is a horrible thing to do to you at the last minute. Do you hate me?”

“I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a stumbling block,” Dean said, forcing a smile. “But that’s my problem not yours. And I’m not the kind of guy to begrudge someone a little happiness just because it inconveniences me. I’m happy for both of you.”

Jill let out a sigh so heavy and filled with relief, Dean thought she might fall over. “Oh, thank you. Scotty kept telling me everything would be okay, but I was still so worried. I didn’t know how you’d react because, you know, sometimes—.” She broke off, tittering, and flapped a hand between them. “Well, anyway, I just know you’ll find someone to take my place. Someone a whole lot better than me, I’ll bet.” She turned toward the door, obviously anxious to be away. “If I can help, just let me know.”

Dean sighed heavily as the door closed behind her and turned toward his friend.

Gary held up both hands defensively. “Don’t say it.”

“Say what?”

“That you told me so.”

Dean rotated his shoulder gently. “I don’t need to say it, do I?”

“No, but you want to. I can see it in your eyes.” Gary stared at the door, still swinging gently behind Jill. “It’s not the end of the world, you know. There’s a solution out there. All we have to do is find it.”

Dean rolled his eyes, exasperated that nothing seemed to shake his friend’s optimism. “Just for the record, if this is your idea of good luck, I’d rather have fortune smile in another direction.”

“Joke if you want to. I’m dead serious.” Gary gathered the small pile of paper shavings he’d accumulated and carried them across the room. Dropping it into the trash can, he stood for a few seconds without moving, then turned back with a grin. “In fact, I’ll bet a hundred dollars I can have a replacement for Jill before the day’s out.”

Dean took a couple of steps toward him. “What do you have in mind?”

“It just so happens, I have a cousin who’s a gourmet chef. I haven’t seen her in years, but my mom mentioned her when she called the other day.” Gary dusted off his hands on the back of his pants. “Apparently, she and her husband are splitting up and she’s been applying for jobs all over. Mom said she’s accepted a teaching position at some cooking school this fall but she’s at loose ends until then—or was three days ago.”

Dean shook his head with a laugh. “Great idea,” he said sarcastically. “I could barely afford the salary I promised Jill. There’s no way I can afford a gourmet chef. And that’s assuming she’d even want to come here.”

Gary glanced around in surprise. “Why wouldn’t she?”

“For one thing, we’re pretty isolated. For another, we’re not a gourmet restaurant or a four-star hotel, or a spa, or a country club. And let’s not forget that the people who have made reservations so far are coming because they want a rustic experience. You think your cousin would be interested in fixing meat and potatoes for a bunch of weekend cowboys?”

Gary shrugged. “Why not?”

“I can’t imagine that any gourmet chef would find our setup even slightly interesting.”

“Oh? And how many gourmet chefs do you know?”

“A few,” Dean lied without batting an eye. “I haven’t always lived in Whistle River, and I used to eat at plenty of high-class restaurants.”

Gary waved his concerns aside. “Well, you haven’t met Annie. She’s completely down-to-earth.”

“If you say so.”

Gary leaned on the counter and looked Dean square in the eye. “Do you want me to call her, or would you rather give up before you try?”

“I’m just trying to be realistic.”

“Well, stop. We only have fourteen days until we’re supposed to open and I don’t see a whole lot of options out there. This isn’t the time to be practical and realistic. It’s the time to be bold and daring.”

Dean held up both hands in surrender. “Okay. Fine. Call her if you want to but don’t get your hopes up. When she hears what I can afford to pay, she’ll laugh you off the phone.”

“She might. But she also might be willing to do a favor for her favorite cousin. We won’t know unless we ask.”

“Then ask.”

“And if she is interested?”

Dean sat on the floor to work and smiled for that first time that morning. “If a gourmet chef is willing to work on a dude ranch in Whistle River, Montana for a fraction of what she could make anywhere else, I’ll eat crow. And she can cook it.”

_

Montana? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Montana,” Annie Holladay repeated. “And I’m completely serious.” She scooped pieces of diced mango into a saucepan and tried not to let her daughter’s reaction dampen her own high spirits. Fifteen-year-old Nessa might not agree, but to Annie, Gary’s phone call couldn’t have come at a better time.

Nessa kicked her feet onto the chair next to her and a lock of the straight brown hair she’d inherited from her father fell into her eyes. She blew it off her forehead, pushed another lock from her shoulder, and pulled the stack of CD’s she was sorting a few inches closer. “I’m serious too, Mom. This is a horrible idea.” She flipped open the expensive CD holder her dad had given her during their weekend visit and shook her head. “I can’t believe you’re even thinking about saying yes.”

Annie turned away from Spence’s most recent attempt to buy Nessa’s forgiveness and pulled an onion from the refrigerator. She put her frustrations into peeling and dicing as she talked. “I think that getting away from Chicago is exactly what we both need.”

“Maybe it’s what you need, but the whole point of me moving in with Dad is so I can stay in Chicago—remember?”

Annie stopped chopping and tried to ignore the emptiness that filled her whenever she thought about moving to Seattle and leaving Nessa behind. Her heart and her head had been at war since the first time Nessa had suggested staying, and she was no closer to truly accepting their decision than she’d been the first time they’d discussed it.

“Of course I remember,” she said, forcing a smile. “Just like you remember promising to spend this summer with me. It wouldn’t be fair to back out just because I’ve decided to do a favor for my cousin.”

From beneath her bangs, Nessa shot her mother a sullen look. “Yeah, but aren’t you the one who’s always telling me that life isn’t fair?”

With just a little over three months until September, Annie didn’t want to waste precious time arguing with her daughter. She managed a grin in spite of the ache in her heart. “Yes, but it’s easier to accept that when life’s being unfair to someone else.” She swept the onion into the pan with her knife and blinked back the tears caused by the onion’s pungent aroma. “It’s going to be hard enough to leave you here when I move. I’m not ready to let you go yet.”

Nessa dug through a stack of CD’s and found the one she wanted. “Well, I don’t want you to move to Seattle. As far as I’m concerned, things are fine the way they are.”

“Things aren’t fine,” Annie said firmly. “The culinary world isn’t big enough for your dad and me to stay in the same town. I’m constantly running into him and Catherine and it’s still hard for me to see them together.” She put a red pepper on the grill and turned up the flame. “I don’t like feeling hurt and angry all the time. That’s why I have to leave.”

Nessa’s gaze flickered across the room, then back to the stack of CD’s in front of her. “I know that, but I don’t want to move, and I don’t want spend the summer in Who-Cares, Montana.”

“Whistle River.”

“Whatever.” Nessa slipped another CD into her new case. “It sounds awful.”

“It sounds kind of fun to me.” Annie kept her voice light as she turned the pepper over. “My cousin and his friend need help, and I’m in a position to give it to them. You don’t really want me to turn them down?” She held up one finger and tried to change the tone of their conversation. “Only answer that if the answer is no.”

The corners of Nessa’s mouth curved and Annie’s heart soared. “I guess I wouldn’t want you to. But I can’t go, Mom. Not this summer.”

“And why not?”

“Because Tracee says Brian likes me. Really likes me. He’s thinking about asking me out—and you know I’ve liked him forever.”

Annie knew how important friends were to teenagers, but it hurt to think that Nessa would consider trading their last few months together for time with a boy. “You won’t be gone that long,” she said. “Brian won’t forget you, I promise. And by the time you get back here, you’ll almost be old enough to date.”

Nessa frowned, sinking back into her chair. “So you’re going to make me go?”

“If that’s the way you want to put it. I’d rather have you agree to go, but either way I want you with me for the summer.”

Nessa kicked one heel against the leg of her chair and studied the table. “Fine,” she said after what felt like eternity. “But this totally stinks.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“My whole summer could be ruined.”

“Try to keep an open mind, okay? It could also turn out to be the best summer of your life.”

Nessa rolled her eyes and stood. “Yeah. I’m just sure it will be,” she said over her shoulder as she left the room.

Annie watched until Nessa disappeared into the living room, then turned back to her dinner with a sigh. A year ago, she’d been happy and contented with her life. She’d had a loving and generous husband, a gentle and caring daughter, and the career of her dreams. At least, she thought she had. Since the day she’d walked in on Spence and Catherine eight months earlier, she’d felt as if she was walking in a stranger’s shoes.

Sometimes Annie believed that her life was on the mend; at other times, she felt as if she was free-falling from some great height toward a bottomless valley. On those days, there was nothing to do but grit her teeth, close her eyes, and pray that she’d eventually land on solid ground.

Her relationship with Nessa had been strained for weeks—months, even. She hadn’t expected that her divorce from Spence would be easy on Nessa, but she also hadn’t stopped hoping that Nessa would change her mind about staying in Chicago. She hoped this trip to the Eagle’s Nest would help to strengthen their bond. It would give them both three months away from friends, family, and other distractions—and that’s exactly what they both needed.

_

Battling exhaustion, Dean turned on the stereo in his office and dragged the day’s mail across his desk. He’d been working since sunrise and every muscle in his body ached, but he didn’t want to go to bed until he checked to see whether any new reservations had come in.

At least a few things were finally looking up. The furniture he’d been waiting for had been delivered on schedule three days earlier. One of their suppliers promised delivery by truck the following day. The crew had actually finished renovating the fireplace and building the bookshelves. And for the first time in weeks, Dean was starting to believe the Eagle’s Nest would actually be ready to open for Memorial Day.

Yawning noisily, he tossed bills onto his desk and junk mail into the garbage can at his feet. He fought the sinking sensation that swept over him when he finished sorting without coming across any new business. He knew that some of his old teammates were planning to come after baseball season ended, but that guaranteed business was still months away, especially if the team made the playoffs. Anyway, Dean had put some distance between himself and his old friends after the accident and he was nervous about seeing them again. He couldn’t even talk to them on the phone without painful memories of the past coming back to haunt him. They were all living a life Dean had been forced to leave behind. A life he preferred not to talk about and tried not to think about. No matter how much he needed the money, he didn’t look forward to a week of baseball talk.

He shoved the bills into a basket on the corner of his desk and walked across the room to the window. Leaning his shoulder against the window frame, he watched the sun setting over the snow-capped mountain peaks and tried to convince himself that Gary was right about everything working out in the end. He’d been right about his cousin, hadn’t he? And though he’d taken great delight in rubbing that in Dean’s face over the past few days, Dean couldn’t deny a strong sense of relief.

What they’d do with a gourmet chef on a dude ranch remained to be seen. He worried a little that she’d turn out to be temperamental or full of big ideas about what kind of food should come out of the kitchen. But he had plans to keep that from happening, and he’d know soon enough if Annie Holladay was going fit in. If she didn’t . . . well, he’d soon know that, too.

There wasn’t anything he could do about it now.

At least he’d have company at the Eagle’s Nest soon. Tomorrow, Gary would move into one of the dormitory-style rooms on the second floor so he could be on-site all summer. Annie Holladay and her daughter would arrive by late afternoon.

Much as Dean liked the quiet evenings, there were times when he had too much time to think, letting his doubts and fears get the best of him. A little company would be a good thing—as long as they didn’t make him lose his focus. It would take everything he had to make the Eagle’s Nest turn a profit in its first year.

The CD player changed to a Toby Keith song. Dean aimed the remote at the stereo, turned up the volume, and sang along until the telephone on his desk rang. He stopped singing, left the window reluctantly, and picked up the receiver.

“Somebody’s got to do something with this boy,” a woman shrilled when he answered. “I’m about to kill him.”

Hearing his sister’s voice at such an unexpected moment jolted Dean out of his reflective mood. He aimed the remote at the stereo again and muted the sound. “Carol? What’s wrong?”

“Tyler’s what’s wrong. I swear, Dean, I can’t take any more of this.”

Sixteen-year-old Tyler had been a trial to Dean’s younger sister for most of his life. Carol had gotten pregnant in high school—long before she was emotionally ready to be a mom. She still hadn’t grown into the role.

Dean hadn’t been around for much of Tyler’s life, but it seemed to him that every scraped knee and cut finger over the years had reduced Carol to tears. Now that Tyler was older, signs of normal teenage rebellion sent her into hysterics.

“Any more of what?” Dean asked. “Give me a specific problem, okay?”

“You want specific? How’s this? Your nephew is completely out of control.” Carol’s heels clicked as she paced the floor and ice rattled in a glass as she drank something. Dean’s stomach knotted at the sound, even though Carol had been sober for years. There was nothing to worry about. “You know that Play Station you sent him a couple of Christmases ago? Well, it’s gone.”

“What do you mean, gone?”

“I mean gone. Tyler claims he doesn’t know where it is, but I know he’s lying.”

Dean tried not to fuel Carol’s hysterics. “Maybe he really doesn’t know.”

“Of course he knows.” Carol’s voice rose a couple of decibels. “He’s doing this to torment me.”

Dean kept his voice steady. “Maybe someone moved it, or—”

“This isn’t the first thing that’s gone missing around here,” Carol broke in before he could finish. “You remember Mama’s pearl ring? Well, it’s disappeared, too.”

That made Dean feel slightly sick, but he still had trouble believing his nephew was responsible. “Are you sure you haven’t just misplaced the ring?”

“No, I haven’t. I always put that ring back in my jewelry box when I’m not wearing it—and I hardly ever wear it. Tyler knows that.”

Dean rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “Maybe, but that doesn’t prove he took it.”

“Who else would?”

“Who else has been in your house?”

“Randy, of course. And Tyler’s friends. Randy wouldn’t steal from me, but I wouldn’t put anything past those kids Tyler hangs out with.”

The mention of her new boyfriend made Dean sit up straighter. He hadn’t met Randy yet, but Carol’s taste in men had always been a source of concern. Every time she brought a new man into her life, Dean worried that she’d gone back to the same kind of loser she’d once found so attractive.

He might have suggested Randy as the possible thief, but questioning Carol’s judgment when she was in this mood would be like tossing gasoline onto an open flame. He decided to save himself the grief and focus on the other possibility she’d named. “You can’t hold Tyler responsible for what his friends do.”

“Oh, can’t I?” Carol laughed harshly. “Tyler knows how I feel about his friends being here, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about anything I say. If his friends are stealing from me, Tyler is at least partially to blame.”

Dean used the remote once more and turned off the stereo. He had the feeling this conversation would take a while. He rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn. “What does he say when you bring up his friends?”

“What do you think he says? He defends them, of course. He refuses to believe that they’re as bad as I tell him they are.”

Tyler must have learned that trick from his mother, Dean thought, then immediately felt guilty—even though Carol did habitually defend the deadbeats she dated.

He rubbed the back of his neck, ignored the grit of exhaustion in his eyes, and tried to steer her toward the point of her call. “What do you want me to do, Carol? Would it help if I talked to Tyler?”

“Talking doesn’t do any good. I’ve talked myself silly, and so has Randy. Tyler tunes out everything we say.”

“Then why are you calling me?”

“Because I’m at my wit’s end. I need your help.” Carol took a deep breath and let it out again in a rush. “I called because I want you to take him.”

(copyrighted material) 


Coming to Kindle May 30, 2017

Coming in paperback June 20, 2017