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A billionaire cowboy, a divorced teacher with nowhere left to turn, and a fake engagement they thought would solve all their problems. They never meant to fall in love.
Gwen Alder is starting over — divorced and broke, she’s come to Billings, Montana for a new beginning. But waitressing in a roadside diner for the summer isn’t paying the bills, and she finds herself in over her head with no hope of catching up.
Heath Montgomery has it all — fame, fortune and a mega-watt smile, but one thing he doesn’t have is a date for his cousin’s wedding.
When they cross paths, Heath has an idea — what if he paid her to be his date? No strings, no complications, just a simple business transaction — a way to finally win his father’s trust, and get his parents off his back about settling down once and for all.
She’s poor and plain. He’s wealthy and arrogant.
They didn’t want anything more than a simple arrangement. They never planned to fall in love. But sometimes cupid has a mind of his own.
Release date: May 24, 2018
Publisher: Black Lab Press
Print pages: 234
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Some things, Heath Montgomery understood, he knew about horses, and about ranching, and how to run a business. And he understood poker. Women? Nope. But poker he got.
He leaned forward in his chair and peered over the cards in his hand to survey the three faces staring back at him. The air stank of stale peanuts and sweat. His mouth turned up at one corner. He chuckled silently and drew in a long slow breath as his friends frowned and squinted at their own hands. Finally, he fanned his cards out on the table. “This is it, then.”
Adam Gilston, his co-worker and best friend, lay down his hand and rolled his eyes. “You’re cruel.” He pushed the pile of chips in the middle of the table toward Heath. “Remind me why I ever thought it’d be a good idea to play poker with you?”
Heath laughed and ran his fingers through his hair. “Sorry, dude, I can’t help it. I was born to win.”
Adam punched him in the shoulder.
“Hey!” complained Heath with a chuckle. “Sore loser.”
“Someone’s got to bring you back to earth.” “Anyone need another drink?” asked Tim, holding up a pitcher of Coke with ice, his dark eyes gleaming in the dim light.
Heath shook his head. “No thanks, I’ve had enough. It’s just about time to head home. How many hours have we been at this?”
Heath’s kid brother Dan groaned and covered a yawn with his fist. “Too many.”
“We’re getting too old for this,” added Adam, blinking reddened eyes as he scooped the cards into a pile.
“But it’s tradition,” Tim insisted, stacking his chips neatly, his biceps bulging beneath the sleeves of his plain white T-shirt. Every time Tim was around, Heath made a mental note to go to the gym more often. He had a home gymnasium, but preferred the outdoors – riding a horse or roping cattle always seemed preferable to pumping iron.
“Maybe we could come up with a new tradition,” Dan oﬀered. He’d always played the peacemaker, even when they were young.
“One that doesn’t involve staying awake for an entire weekend to play poker,” added Heath, rubbing his tired eyes. He pushed his chips into a drawstring bag and handed it to one of the casino staﬀ standing against the wall. The man, dressed in a black uniform with red trim and a badge that said “RAMON – I’m here to help,” took the bag, nodded and headed for the cashier’s cage.
“You’re all soft,” Tim huﬀed.
Heath laughed. “Old and soft. That sounds about right.”
Adam stood and stretched. “Thirty is hardly old.” “It feels a lot older than twenty,” said Heath. “We used to be able to stay up all night and keep rolling all day without so much as a single yawn.” He missed those days, but at the same time he was glad they were behind him. He liked a quieter life these days – his ranch suited him just fine. He reached for his Stetson and put it on with another yawn. “Let’s get some breakfast on the way back. I’m starved.” He walked to the door and pushed it open, letting the bright lights of the casino filter into the small dark room.
Ramon returned with the bag, now full of cash. He almost ran into Heath, then took a step back and pulled out a pile of hundred-dollar bills. “Here you go, sir.”
“Thank you.” Heath stuﬀed the bills into his jeans pocket as Ramon nodded and hurried oﬀ. It was surreal the way the casino always looked the same – day or night, who could tell. Patrons wandered between the tables, drinks in hand, ready to gamble their savings away.
He frowned. There wasn’t much about the place that he liked, but he’d put up with the stale air, bright lights and piped-in music for the three men who followed him. He, Tim and Adam had become fast friends at the private high school he’d attended in San Francisco all those years ago, and they met up at least once a year ever since to play poker. His brother Dan joined the group several years ago, tagging along with Heath as he often did.
The voice to his right made him squeeze his eyes shut for a moment. Then he turned to face the speaker, pasting a smile onto his face. “Chantelle. Fancy seeing you here.”
She flicked her long blonde hair over one shoulder and grinned. “I get around.”
He resisted the temptation to agree. The last thing he wanted in that moment was to have it out with his ex-girlfriend in the middle of a crowded casino on zero sleep. Instead he nodded and set his hands on his hips. “We’re just heading out. Good to see you.” He stifled a yawn and managed a farewell smile.
But she stepped in front of him, resting a perfectly manicured hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to go just yet, do you?”
“It’s 7 a.m. and we’ve been up all night,” explained Tim, coming up behind him. “We’re going to grab some breakfast and hit the hay. And you are?”
“I’m Chantelle. Pleased to meet you.” She gave Tim her most dazzling smile.
Heath willed his eyes not to roll. She really knew how to turn on the charm, but after dating her for six months he’d seen that charm was her only asset. Ever since they broke up, he’d done his best to steer clear of her, but she kept showing up like an unlucky penny everywhere he went. It was like she’d pinned a tracking device to him.
Tim smiled knowingly at Heath as he shook Chantelle’s hand. “The famous Chantelle. What a pleasure.”
Her eyes glinted. “I’m famous now, am I?”
“In our little circle you are,” said Adam, kissing her on the cheek. “How are you doing?”
By the time she’d greeted Dan, Heath was itching to get out of there. “Well, good to see you, Chantelle.” He spun on his heel and headed for the exit, hoping his entourage came with him.
When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw they were following. But he also saw them smirking and grinning. Great. He knew what they were thinking – why’d he let go of Chantelle Ryan? She was beautiful, charming, accomplished – everything his parents were hoping for in a daughter-in-law.
Which is where she’d set her sights. Never mind that he wasn’t in love with her. She didn’t care about that – she even told him so. She was happy to get married and wait for the love to come later, she’d said. Just so long as they could be together. That’s when he’d known it was over. How could he love someone so shallow, so manipulative, someone who only wanted to be Mrs. Montgomery.
And then she’d laughed at his return to church. She not only refused to join him in his weekly atten- dance, but her mockery had been like a knife in the gut. How could anyone settle for someone who treated his beliefs like that? He’d rather stay single the rest of his life than marry a woman he wasn’t head- over-heels in love with, a woman who’d scorn his faith. And he hadn’t found anyone else yet – much to his family’s dismay.
The automatic doors slid open and he walked out into the glaring sunlight. His pupils constricted and he held up a hand to shield his eyes, trying to locate the valet parking stand. He saw it to his left and headed toward it, feeling around his pocket for the ticket stub.
Tim bumped his elbow and grinned. “So that’s Chantelle, huh? How come you never mentioned she was so hot?”
“Eh, I guess she is.” Heath wasn’t in the mood to talk about his ex.
“You guess?” exclaimed Tim, with a whistle. “I can’t imagine how high your standards must be if you think she’s mediocre.”
Heath shrugged and rubbed his eyes as they waited for the parking attendant to retrieve their vehicles. “I know she’s pretty. But when you get to know her …”
“Oh, I’d love to,” said Tim with a chuckle and a backward glance.
Heath’s eyebrows arched.
“Don’t worry, bro, I know the code – I won’t date your ex. No matter how hot she might be.” He sighed and held a hand to his heart as though it were broken.
Heath laughed. “In this case, I’d say you’re welcome to her. But I don’t think you’d be happy.”
Tim frowned. “Oh?”
“She’s only interested in a thick wallet, if you get my drift.” Heath shook his head. It had taken him longer than it should’ve to figure that out. But once he had – and once she’d aired her views on his beliefs – he’d parted ways with her and hadn’t looked back.
Tim nodded, his short brown hair shining in the bright morning sunlight and his blue eyes twinkling. “Ah, I get it. Only in it to win it, then. Shame …”
“It’s not like you don’t have your pick of women throwing themselves at you, Fireman Tim.” Heath grinned.
Tim laughed. “It’s not like that – trust me. Anyway, none have really caught my eye yet.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
“So what type of woman are you looking for?” asked Tim.
“Someone real and genuine, fun, down to earth … I don’t know. Just someone who isn’t impressed by my name, but who really sees me. You know?”
Tim, Adam and Dan looked at him as though he’d lost his mind. “And where do you think you’ll find someone like that?” asked Adam, one eyebrow raised high.
“That’s the question,” said Heath. “Probably not in a place like this.” He nodded toward the casino.
“You might be right about that,” replied Tim with a chuckle.
A beat-up blue truck rumbled into the space in front of them. The attendant jumped out, jogged around the front of the truck and up to Heath. “Here you go, Mr. Montgomery,” he said with a smile.
Heath handed him a tip. “Thanks.”
“Why do you keep this old thing?” asked Tim as he climbed in the passenger side.
Heath sat in the driver’s seat and shut the door behind him. He sighed and relaxed against the uphol- stery, glad to be back behind the wheel. It felt like home. “Because I like it. It’s comfortable.”
“You could aﬀord to buy every truck on the lot,” replied Tim with a chuckle.
“So what? Shiny things don’t impress me. I want something that feels right, that I know I can depend on.” Heath pressed on the accelerator and glanced into his rearview mirror to see Adam’s car following them with Dan in the passenger seat. He pulled out onto the main road, his mind wandering over every- thing they’d discussed.
His own words rang in his ears – is that what was missing? He’d dated plenty of women through his twenties, but none had ever felt quite right. Since Chantelle, he’d sworn oﬀ dating – he was sick of the awkwardness, the games, and how it never resulted in anything but heartache. He was older now, and knew what he wanted. Someone genuine, a woman he could depend on, who was loyal and loving and real.
Heath sighed as he remembered Adam’s words.
Where would he find a woman like that?
Heath turned the truck into the Lucky Diner lot and shut oﬀ the engine. “Does this place look okay?” he asked.
Tim nodded and licked his lips. “It looks fine to me. I could eat a horse and chase the rider, I’m so hungry.”
Heath chuckled. “Where on Earth did you pick up that saying?”
“In Australia. I was there last year running a collaborative training program for disaster preparedness.”
Heath arched an eyebrow. “You really do live a crazy life, you know that?”
Tim shrugged. “I guess. I’m traveling more than I’d like to – staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, meeting diﬀerent people everywhere …”
“My heart bleeds,” replied Heath with a laugh.
Tim chuckled. “Okay, I do love it. But lately it’s been a bit lonely.”
“I guess I can understand that.”
They climbed out of the truck just as Adam’s Prius pulled up beside them. The two tall, strapping men climbed out, Dan unfolding his limbs with a groan. “Did you buy the smallest car you could find?” he grumbled. Adam lunged for him, but Dan danced out of the way.
Heath smiled. Those two were always going at it, trying to one-up each other. They’d been that way even in high school, both so competitive, neither willing to give in. Even though Dan was two years younger, he’d always tried to keep up with the older group of friends.
“It’s good for the environment,” Adam growled as the foursome marched into the diner. “Anyway, my wife picked it out.”
A bell rang over the door. Heath glanced up at it and his eyes narrowed. A sprig of mistletoe hung beside the bell. It was July.
The smell of fried potatoes mingled with apple pie and coﬀee distracted him from the incongruous greenery. He stopped, wondering if they should seat themselves or wait to be seated. After a few moments, when no one came to assist them, he led the group to an empty booth against a window at the far end of the diner. Adam and Dan were still rough-housing. He glared at them, slid in beside Dan and quietly dug an elbow into his brother’s side.
The waitress walked over, tugged a pencil from behind her ear and held up a pad of paper, barely looking up as she asked for their order. Heath studied her with a half-smile. There was something about her that intrigued him. She was beautiful, but not in an obvious way. She wore no makeup, her blonde hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail and dark circles lined her eyes – it made her seem almost plain at first glance.
The other men gave their orders. Finally, it was Heath’s turn. She glanced up at him, then back at the pad. He smiled, watching her closely. She looked tired. Not that he knew what she usually looked like, but she seemed a couple of years younger than him and those dark circles couldn’t be there for any other reason. He wished he could ask her about it. “What do you recommend?” he asked.
She arched an eyebrow and chewed on the end of her pencil before answering. “Um … the waﬄes are good.”
He nodded. “Waﬄes then, please, and two eggs over easy.”
“Yes, please, with cream.”
With a curt nod and brief smile, she turned and headed for the kitchen.
Heath pushed himself out of the booth and jogged after her. “Excuse me?”
She faced him with a startled frown. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry. I noticed you’re not wearing a name tag – just wondering what we should call you, since you’re our server and all.”
One eyebrow arched. “Gwen. You can call me Gwen.”
“I’m Heath. Pleased to meet you, Gwen … is that short for something?”
Her eyes narrowed. “No.”
He chuckled. He seemed to be striking out at every turn. She wasn’t interested in a conversation or anything else with him, that much was clear.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. He yanked it out to see who was calling at such an early hour. He swiped his finger across the screen, nodding an apology to Gwen. She pasted a smile on her face and walked away. “Dad. How can I help you?”
“Where are you?” Graham Montgomery’s voice boomed down the phone line.
“I’m having breakfast.”
“It’s almost eight o’clock and there’s a senior leadership meeting at the oﬃce in ten minutes.”
Heath slapped his forehead. “Sorry, Dad – it’s my annual weekend with the guys from school. Dan’s with us too. We’re just having breakfast before heading home.” Silence on the other end of the line. “Hello? Dad?”
“So what have you been up to all weekend? All kinds of debauchery, no doubt.”
Heath frowned and shook his head. “No, Dad, we just played poker at Montana Nugget, and before that we were out at the ranch. I’m heading back to the ranch now and can be in the oﬃce within an hour or so. What’s the meeting about?”
“Forget it. Finish your breakfast.” “Come on, Dad …”
“No. I’ll take care of it this time, son. But let me ask you … when are you going to take yourself seriously?”
“I mean it. It’s time for you to settle down, son.
You’re not twenty anymore.”
“I know that, Dad.” Heath took a quick breath. It was always the same thing. “I know I gave you trouble when I was younger, but like you said, I’m not a kid anymore. I work hard every single day, Dad. You know that. I’ve earned a weekend oﬀ.”
“You should be married by now. At your age, I had two children and was running my own ranch.”
His eyes closed and he frowned. “I know.”
“It’s time to take responsibility, son. Responsibility for your life, for the company … you can’t live this way forever. These weekends with the boys are just another symptom of you trying to hold onto your childhood. But you’re not a child any longer – you’re a man. It’s time you started acting like one.”
A hint of sarcasm crept into his voice. “And what does that mean, Dad, to act like a man?”
“It means… well, who are you bringing to your cousin’s wedding?”
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