Julie Shaw is up to her ears in parade preparations and cowboys! As the mayor's daughter, she needs to make sure the centennial celebrations for her beloved hometown of Jasper Gulch, Montana, go off without a hitch. Surely that's why she's feeling so flustered. It couldn't have anything to do with the handsome Ryan Travers. Of course she'd noticed the visiting rodeo star with the sparkle in his eye. But Julie is way too sensible to fall for his obvious appeal. As the town gossips about a century-old mystery, Julie's thoughts keep drifting to the charming cowboy. Despite her father's objections, she may soon find herself roped in by love.
Big Sky Centennial: A small town rich in history and love.
Read an Excerpt
The glorious day! Finally!
"Here they come!" Julie Shaw jumped up and down, clapped her hands, whistled and shouted with the rest of the spectators lining the parade route.
After months of preparation and thousands of volunteer hours, the Jasper Gulch centennial celebration was finally kicking off with their Fourth of July parade.
Proud beyond words, Julie placed her hand over her heart to honor the American flag as the mounted color guard rode beneath one of the vibrant banners spanning the street and passed the reviewing stand filled with local dignitaries. Seeing the entire two-block stretch of old-town Main Street decked out in red, white and blue, with myriad flags flying, brought tears to her eyes. What a country. What a town. And what a beautiful state Montana was.
Her eldest brother, Cord, was one of the riders chosen to carry the fluttering Stars and Stripes and open the festivities, following a short speech from their father, Mayor Jackson Shaw, and a prayer by the new pastor, Ethan Johnson.
Feeling blessed, Julie watched the passage of the various homemade floats bearing veterans, the Little League team, 4-H members and many others. Her happy heart was beating in time with the drums of the Jasper Gulch Bobcat Band as it marched by. Those kids might not have fancy, matching uniforms, but they were all dressed in their best Western wear, as was she, and their enthusiasm was contagious.
Following the float bearing Miss Jasper Gulch came a mounted group of rodeo participants, led by the clowns, who much preferred to be referred to as bullfighters. Of all the events scheduled for the six-month-long celebration, it was the rodeo Julie loved best.
Her sister, Faith, elbowed her in the ribs. "Hey, look."
"I know. I'm looking." Julie blushed and fanned herself with her straw Stetson to exaggerate her reaction. "Wow!"
"And you said there were no handsome men in Jasper Gulch."
"Not exactly. What I said was, there's nobody around here I'd consider marrying, no matter what Dad wants."
"It's the same thing."
Julie shook her head. "No, it isn't." She would have continued to spar with her older sister if her attention had not become focused on one passing cowboy in particular.
She couldn't decide what it was about the man that had caught and was holding her attention. It had simply happened. There was something so special, so compelling about him she could not tear her gaze away.
He sat comfortably in the saddle with his hat pulled low enough to shade his dark eyes. Fringes of dark hair were visible at his nape, leaving the rest of his hair to her imagination.
It would be thick and wavy, she told herself. And it would feel
Another poke in the ribs startled Julie. She jumped.
"Whoa," Faith said, giggling. "Earth to Julie. Where was your mind just now?"
"I'm not telling." The warmth of her flushed cheeks did the talking for her and caused her sister to laugh louder. Julie tried to quiet her. "Shh. You're making a scene."
"Not me, baby sister. You should see your face. It's almost as red as your hair."
"We have auburn hair, not red," Julie countered. "I just wish I didn't blush so easily."
"Comes with our blue eyes," Faith told her. "That, and freckles, which I could do without."
"Don't be silly. You have beautiful skin."
"Speaking of beautiful, take a gander at the barrel racer your cowboy is riding with."
"He's not with " She'd been going to finish with "anybody," until she looked back at the procession. The good-looking rodeo rider who had caught her eye did seem to be in the company of another woman. Not only that, the horses they were riding sported similar tack. They certainly looked as though they were a couple.
Nevertheless, Julie shaded her eyes with one hand and boldly studied the man. She hadn't met nearly all the rodeo contestants because many had arrived in Jasper Gulch very recently. Their normal schedule would have had them competing here for two or three days, then packing up and moving on to the next PRCAProfessional Rodeo Cowboys' Associationsanctioned rodeo. There were plenty to choose from and she was doubly thankful that so many talented contestants had opted to honor her town with their presence.
Not only that, some had agreed to remain or return for a second and third weekend. It didn't hurt that the invitational events included some of the biggest names in rodeo, plus monetary grand prizes and serious day money for the top qualifiers. That kind of reward was definitely worth vying for.
The muted clip-clop of hooves on the wide main street sounded soothing. If Julie had not been so keyed up, she might have been able to relax and enjoy the rest of the parade more. The sights were certainly pleasant enoughparticularly one of them.
Suddenly deciding what to do next, she clapped her hat back on her head, turned away and started into the crowd lining the curb.
Faith grabbed her arm. "Hey! Where are you going? The parade's not over."
Exactly where was she going? Julie hesitated, her mouth slightly open. "I just "
Her sister hooted as she let go. "You're going to move up so you can watch those attractive guys ride by again, aren't you?"
"Of course not." That was true if she took the question literally. It was not guys, plural, she wanted to study more. It was just one of them.
Yes, it was crazy, she admitted to herself. And yes, it was a tad embarrassing. At least it would have been if she'd imagined for a second that the rider had even noticed her. Cloaked in anonymity, she had no qualms about watching him pass a second time. And maybe a third.
Julie shook her head, slightly disgusted with herself for even contemplating changing her position along the parade route. That didn't stop her, though.
She approached the corner of Main Street and Shaw Boulevard, the street named after her ancestors. Here, the marchers would turn south toward the fairgrounds and rodeo arena. This would be a perfect place to wait and watch.
It occurred to her to wonder if she would even recognize the handsome cowboy again. In an instant, she had her answer. There was no way she'd ever forget him. It was as if his image had been permanently imprinted on her mind.
"I am certifiably unbalanced," she murmured. "If Dad heard what I'm doing, he'd blow a gasket." Knowing that her father fully intended to choose her boyfriends, or at least vet them, she smiled. Wouldn't it be funny if she showed up at the picnic later on the arm of a rodeo rider?
Oh, yeah, like that's going to happen, she told herself wryly. Still, she began to work her way through the mass of bystanders lining the streets bordering the old bank building that housed city hall and the chamber of commerce. All she had to do was get close enough to peek over the heads of some children and teens standing at the very front. Being taller than Faith by a few inches had helped her see well before. This time, she aimed to put herself in an even better position.
Smiling and being as polite as possible, Julie said, "Excuse me? Please?" then "Thank you" as she wormed her way forward.
She reached her goal and looked up just as the group of riders began to arrive, found the man she was searching for and stared directly at him, never dreaming he'd pay any mind to her unjustifiable interest.
Her sharp intake of breath sounded a lot like a gasp. Her jaw dropped. The cowboy's glittering brown eyes were boldly meeting hers. She was captured as fully as if he'd dropped a lasso around her and pulled the loop tight to reel her in.
He inclined his head, touched the brim of his hat politely, smiledand winked. At least she thought he did.
No, that wasn't entirely true. She dearly hoped he'd winked on purpose. At her.
* * *
Ryan Travers was used to encountering rodeo groupies and had learned that the best ways to discourage them were to either face the problem boldly and announce that he wasn't interested, or to avoid them entirely. In the case of this pretty admirer, he decided to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
Besides, he thought, letting his grin widen, she was different somehow. Naive, maybe? She certainly looked it. Then again, looks could be deceiving. In a small community like Jasper Gulch the girls were likely to be He started to think of derogatory terms, then abandoned them in favor of simply enjoying the view.
The rider beside him inclined the brim of her pink Stetson. "Heads up, Travers. You have an admirer. The one in the bright blue shirt."
"I noticed. Kinda cute, too."
"If you like sheep."
"Beg your pardon?" He knew Bobbi Jo was competitive in the arena, but he had no idea she carried that attitude over into her personal life. "What have you got against her? You don't even know her."
"Matter of fact, I met one of her brothers yesterday and he pointed her out. She was helping decorate the fairgrounds' picnic area. She actually does raise sheep."
"Apparently for their wool. She's got some kind of internet business selling yarn or some such thing. Sounds pretty dull."
Ryan huffed. "Sounds downright suicidal to me. Sheep in cattle country? How does she get away with it?"
"It might help that her daddy is Jackson Shaw, the town mayor and owner of the largest ranch in this part of Montana. I guess he can afford to designate some of his pasture land to his little girl's sheep ranching."
"Ah, I see." Too bad, he added to himself. The lovely young woman seemed hospitable enough, but chances were her well-to-do parents wouldn't welcome an itinerant cowboy into her life, any more than the old-time ranchers had a hundred years ago, back when Jasper Gulch was founded.
Bright sunlight peeked between the flat facades of the commercial buildings, temporarily blinding him. When he looked back for the auburn-haired sheep rancher, she had gotten lost in the sea of similar cowboy hats.
He stood in the stirrups of the barrel-racing horse he'd borrowed from Bobbi Jo's string and scanned the onlookers for a bright blue shirt. There was no sign of the young woman.
The horse instantly reacted to his change of balance, prancing as if getting ready to race into an arena and compete.
By the time Ryan got the fractious horse under control, the riders had crossed Massey Street and were on their way out of town to the fairgrounds.
What shocked him most was his clear disappointment over losing sight of the mayor's daughter. Try as he might, he could not shake the feeling that they would meet again.
Matter of fact, he assured himself, he would see that they did, one way or another.
Children on bikes decorated with red, white and blue crepe-paper streamers followed the main part of the parade, taking care to dodge the droppings the horses had left behind. Julie had recruited members of the local 4-H club to follow and clean the street. That was one of the jobs she'd volunteered for years back when she was a member, and she saw no reason to abandon a tradition that helped build character.
That notion made her smile. It was her membership in 4-H and, later, Future Farmers, which had eventually led to her current career, and she was truly grateful. Raising sheep for wool was not only lucrative, it was rewarding in emotional ways. Seeing those tiny lambs struggling to their feet for the first time was akin to watching a sunrise on a summer day. Those woolly babies were a new beginning, new life, always bringing waves of joy as well as making her feel connected to the land, to nature, in a very basic way.
The rumble of an ATV approaching behind her caused Julie to step aside. It stopped next to her and the driver tipped his battered Western hat. "Howdy, Miss Julie. Like my new camo-painted Mule?"
Seeing ninety-six-year-old Rusty Zidek traveling via anything other than a horse or his dented antique Jeep struck her funny, but she managed to keep from giggling. "Hi, Rusty. I know that thing is called a Mule but it's still a surprise to see a veteran cowhand like you behind the wheel."
"Compliments of your daddy." The grizzled old man's grin crinkled his leathery skin, lifted the corners of his bushy gray mustache and exposed one gold tooth among his others. "He made me traffic manager and gave me these wheels. Pretty spiffy, huh?"
"Absolutely. We'll need your help a lot with all the visitors in town. Parking at the fairgrounds is bound to be a nightmare."
"Not with me in charge, it ain't. I got me a bunch of retired yahoos with nothin' better to do and put 'em to work directin' traffic."
Julie chuckled. "Good for you."
"How's about a ride? Or did you bring your truck?"
"No. I hitched into town with Dad so I wouldn't add to all the extra traffic." She stepped in and settled on the bench seat next to the bony nonagenarian. "Much obliged."
"No problem, ma'am. Where to?"
"The picnic grounds, I guess."
Julie was sorely tempted to ask him to drop her near the encampment where some of the rodeo participants had grouped their trailers, but quickly thought better of it. Competition was scheduled to last for three weekends. There was no hurry finding out who anybody was.
She huffed, then glanced at Rusty, hoping he hadn't noticed. It wasn't just anybody she wanted to learn more about. It was that cowboy who had smiled and winked at her during the parade.
And the first thing she'd need to learn, she reminded herself, was whether or not he was with someone, namely the gorgeous cowgirl in the pink Stetson. If he was spoken for, Julie figured she might as well go home and card wool or rake the barn. There was no way she could hope to compete with a blonde, shapely woman who looked as if she were Miss Rodeo America, or recently had been.
Man, that was a depressing thought, she countered, disgusted for having entertained it. Either she believed her life was in God's hands or she didn't. It was that simple. And that complicated. The hardest part of trusting her faith completely was making sure she stayed out of the Lord's way instead of trying to figure out His plans and help them along.
Pastor Ethan Johnson was one of the few people in whom she had confided a tiny bit of frustration with her personal life because she could tell he understood. He should. New in town, he was basically in the same boat: single, eligible and determined not to be pushed into anything by well-meaning do-gooders.
Julie's biggest problem was with her father. He wanted all his kids married and having families, as if that would help him hang on to the spirit of Jasper Gulch that was their heritage.
She had nothing against tradition. She simply wasn't positive her dad was right about some of the notions he insisted on espousing, such as leaving the old bridge the way it was instead of improving it. For a man who had been so instrumental in putting together this six-month-long commemoration of their history, he certainly was close minded about other things.
Yeah, like who I should marry, she added with a heavy sigh. If she "accidentally" ended up in the company of Wilbur Thompson, one more time she was going to scream. Oh, Wilbur was nice enough. He was just not the man for her, no matter how successful he was or how much money he'd invested in the town via his position as bank president. No man in a three-piece suit belonged on a sheep ranch. Period.
"And I don't belong in some fancy town house, either," Julie muttered. She didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until Rusty chuckled.
"What makes you say that?"
She shrugged. "I was just thinking about Dad. I'm only twenty-four, but he acts like I'm already over the hill and keeps pushing me to marry some rich guy. If I gave in, I'd probably end up living in town and trying to be somebody I'm not. Just picturing it gives me the shivers."
"I can sure understand that, Miss Julie. You and me, we're a lot alike." He laughed raucously. "If I was fifty years younger I'd propose to you myself!"
Julie joined his amusement and patted the back of his weathered, gnarled hand as it rested on the steering wheel. "Rusty, if I were fifty years older, I'd accept."
She nearly busted up laughing when he waggled his bushy gray eyebrows at her and said, "In that case, I'd be forty-six and you'd be seventy-four. I'm afraid you'd be way too old for me."