FREE FRIDAYS: WEEKEND READING—ON US.

Falling for the Hometown Girl

Shelli Stevens

“I need to cancel our weekly lunch, Cal.” Katie Marshall pressed her fingertips to her temple. “I have three guys from Seattle, ready to get drunk and ride horses, checking into the ranch by dinnertime.”

Her brother’s slow laughter drifted over the phone. “Guess it really is wedding season. Bachelor party?”

She sighed and scrolled through her emails. “Yeah. Second one this month.”

“Well, hopefully they don’t do it at the same time. You know, get drunk and ride horses.”

“We tend to frown upon that.” Her attention caught on what she’d been searching for. There it was, the confirmation email for the bachelor party this week.

“No problem, Katie. We can reschedule lunch soon. Say hi to Wyatt and Claire for me.”

“Will do.” She ended the phone call and pursed her lips as she read through the email.

Somehow, it had become trendy to have bachelor parties on Montana ranches. And the Marshall Ranch was becoming one of the more popular ones.

Making the cattle ranch into a guest ranch during the summer had been her idea. One she’d unwaveringly believed in and pursued until she’d convinced her dad and brothers to get on board with the idea.

Since they’d opened, their dad had passed away, and their brother Cal had sold his shares of the ranch to Wyatt. Which meant she and Wyatt ran the whole show now. Or mostly her. Wyatt spent most of his time focusing on the cattle ranching aspect.

“The cabins are all set, Ms. Marshall. Clean and stocked.”

Katie lifted her head at the words from the cheerful teenaged girl she’d hired to do light housekeeping.

“Thanks, Jane. Sorry the job was a little more extensive this time around.”

The freckled redhead smiled. “I hear you’re full up with a bachelor party?”

“Yes. Three of them coming over from Seattle. I’m still not sure why these city boys want to come hang out on a ranch for a bachelor party. It’s not like we have…” She trailed off, blushing before she could finish that thought.

“Strippers?” the younger girl supplied brightly.

“Jane.”

“Sorry.” She gave a shrug that implied she wasn’t apologetic in the least. “That’s just what you always see in the movies and stuff. But not every guy wants to get drunk and go to a strip club before they get married.”

Katie hid a smile. “No, not all of them do.”

“You know it makes sense, actually.” Jane pulled her red curls back into a ponytail. “Some of these guys are stuck in the city on a hamster wheel. I bet they just want to get out of town, get back to nature, and do cliché manly things.”

Katie shook her head. “Sometimes I swear I’m talking to a forty-year-old woman stuck in a teenager’s body.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. Also, I watch a lot of reality TV, so I get it. Anyway, just text me when you need me to clean again. It sounds like it’s going to be a busy summer.”

Katie sighed as she watched Jane disappear out the front door.

It certainly was going to be a long summer and it was only the middle of June. Which made her thankful that, while the cattle ranch they ran was a year-round business, the cabins they rented out were only seasonal.

Katie closed her laptop and stood from her desk. She made her way out of the main house to double-check the cabins that Jane had cleaned.

Out of the six cabins, three were booked. Every guest had wanted their own lodging. Which was a little unusual, because the cabins didn’t run cheap. Usually guests, whether a bachelor party or just a vacationing family, shared one. It just confirmed her hunch that these Seattle men probably had a bunch of money to blow.

A sudden prickle of bitterness rushed through her, and she drew in a deep breath before shoving the emotion aside. She didn’t get that feeling much—certain memories could trigger it—but when it did hit, she didn’t linger in the emotion. There was no point. She preferred to focus on the positive. To keep herself grounded in optimism.

She let herself into the furthest away cabin to inspect it. While many of the cabins had a queen- or king-size bed, two had a full bed and bunkbed, this was one of the larger cabins that more often was reserved for a family.

The bedding had been washed and changed, there were fresh towels and locally made soap in the bathroom, and the basket on the small table held a welcoming gift of bottled water, fruit, and granola bars.

A wave of pride swept through her as she closed the cabin door behind her. The cabins at Marshall Ranch were charming and personable. Staying there was an entirely different experience than booking a room at the local hotel.

Guests had the opportunity to immerse themselves in a working cattle ranch, nestled in the beautiful Montana landscape. Plus, there were guided horseback opportunities, fishing trips, and family style meals in the big house. It was real experience that their guests clearly loved.

Katie made her way to the second cabin when a low rumble and cloud of dust rose on the road that led to the ranch.

She paused, turning to watch as a shiny black SUV came to a stop next to the main house.

Her brows drew together. Could it be one of the guests from the bachelor party already? They weren’t due for a few hours yet.

The driver’s door opened and a tall, broad-shouldered man stepped out. Well, he certainly looked the Seattle type with his short beard that was the same dirty blond as his slightly tousled hair. She slid a glance over him.

He wore a burgundy hoodie, half zipped over a gray T-shirt with some logo on it. Jeans that looked as though he’d worn them for years fell to the tops of expensive-looking leather shoes.

Even though he wasn’t remotely her type, her stomach did a little flutter. All right, she could admit he was attractive in a weird Seattle way.

“Hello, Katie.”

She snapped her gaze back up his frame, her frown deepening, until she met his hazel gaze. “I’m sorry, have we met?”

“More or less.” He grinned, flashing white teeth, as he approached.

His stare, so confident and unwavering, had her stomach ramping up on the fluttery stuff.

“Are you with the bachelor party from Seattle?” She fought the urge to step back as he and that knowing gaze came closer. “Maybe you’re the one I’ve been emailing with? Kevin?”

“Nah, Kevin’s my assistant.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “You really don’t have any idea who I am?”

Should she? She bristled and offered a tight smile. “I’m sorry, but if you’re implying that you’re famous or something, I’d really have no idea. I don’t keep up on that celebrity stuff.”

He laughed, a low, genuine sound that reverberated through the trees that surrounded the ranch. “I’m not a celebrity.”

Then who was the heck was he? She opened her mouth to demand answers, when he reached out and caught her dark braid between his fingers.

“I remember this.”

Her breath locked and her pulse quickened.

“But the rest of you…” His gaze slid over her. “That’s changed.”

She jerked back, pulling her braid from his long fingers. So he not only knew who she was, but also assumed he had the right to touch her.

Her lips pursed and her mind raced back to her college days. She thought of every possible scenario on how and where they could’ve met. Some left her more nauseous than others.

“Our circles didn’t mix all that much. I graduated a few years before you.”

She blinked and some of the tension eased in her shoulders. Did he mean high school? “You’re from Marietta?”

“Born and raised.”

She mentally shaved the beard off him, and ransacked her mind for any memory of who he was. The first prickle of familiarity hit. A name danced on the tip of her tongue.

“Hunter.”

Falling for the Hometown Girl