Faith Shaw can't wait for another hometown Thanksgiving with the good people of Jasper Gulch. Turkey, mashed potatoes, apple pieand this year's centennial celebration. Yet there's one person who isn't happy to be there: Dale Massey, the Shaw family's reluctant houseguest. When a winter storm strands the big-city millionaire in Montana, he is far from pleased. But the mayor's daughter suspects Dale's all-business attitude is masking a deeper hurt. Faith can't help but feel he was sent to Jasper Gulch for a reason. Can an old-fashioned girl and some holiday tradition help bring his weary heart home?
BIG SKY CENTENNIAL: A small town rich in history and love
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Dale Massey yawned. He was used to traveling, even overseas, but today's flight to Bozeman, Montana, had wiped him out. During the layover in Denver, he'd managed to get some work done but not nearly enough to satisfy him.
Grabbing his suitcase in baggage claim, Dale headed for the rental-car counter. It didn't take long. The airport was small. Wood-beamed ceilings were a novel touch as well as the stonework and robust-patterned carpet. He'd heard that Montana was rugged land, but he'd take Fifth Avenue any day.
In New York, he knew what to expect. And no one expected him to care. He hadn't earned the nickname Dale the Coldheart by shying away from the hard calls in business. His ability to cut through the frills was the reason his father made him in charge of delivering the uncomfortable decisions made by Massey International.
Ten minutes later, Dale kept his voice low and controlled. No need to ever rant. Dale always got what he wanted. "Check again. I have a BMW reserved."
"I'm sorry, but we have no record of that, sir." The young woman's face grew red.
With embarrassment or fear, Dale wasn't sure. He knew his assistant, and Jeannie never let him down. Reserving the 528 Bimmer was a given. The mistake had to be on the rental service, one of only two in the airport.
"Then what do you have available?"
Now the girl looked scared. "An economy car, sir. We're waiting for more vehicles to arrive, just like the other car rental store."
He'd fare no better with their competitor, then. Shaking his head, he signed the paperwork. "How do you run out of cars?"
"It's a big week at the ski resorts and there's this homecoming in Jasper Gulch"
"I get it." Dale held up his hand to stop the service clerk's overly chipper-sounding rattle.
The girl did her job.
It wasn't her fault that Dale had to represent the Massey family in Jasper Gulch. In an economy rental, no less.
She gave him the keys with trembling fingers. "Right through those double doors. You can't miss the car. It's yellow but it has a turbo engine, no extra charge."
Shifting his briefcase, Dale found the ugly little car bearing the same color as a lemon. The stupid thing wasn't much bigger than a lemon, either.
He looked around the empty lot. Not much he could do. Only a few more of the nonturbo toy cars sat parked. Not even a minivan graced the spaces reserved for rentals. He'd rather be dead than caught in a minivan, but that'd be more comfortable than the subcompact before him. Turbo or not.
"Nice." Gritting his teeth, Dale threw his baggage in the rear hatch and then folded his six-foot-two frame into the driver's seat.
He had an hour's drive yet to reach Jasper Gulch. He touched the GPS app on his phone. Jeannie had reserved him a room at the town's one and only inn and downloaded the directions. He started the car and pulled out with a squeal of tires. He aimed to find out how fast this little turbo could go.
By the time Dale drove past the Jasper Gulch, Montana, Welcomes You sign on the one road into town, his spirits had recovered. He had to own that the view of snow-tipped mountains beyond the tiny town impressed him. There was a wide main street with diagonal parking on either side. Dale might as well have stepped back in time. Old pickup trucks and even a couple of horses stood parked by storefronts that looked straight out of an old Clint Eastwood Western.
Where on earth was he?
He found the hotel he'd been booked into and that's when his good time ended. Leaning against the counter of the Fidler Inn, Dale tried to keep his voice even. "What do you mean my lodging has been changed?"
A gray-haired woman named Mamie Fidler, who owned the place, tapped her foot. "The mayor saw to it personally and has a room for you at Shaw Ranch."
Dale scanned the hokey inn with its crackling fire and various aged people milling around near the warmth. Mamie wore hiking boots with tall woolen socks and a denim skirt. He ran his hand through his hair. He was a long way from Fifth Avenue.
"Well, Mr. Massey? We're full up." Mamie was running out of patience.
So was he. Nothing about this trip had gone as planned. Who changed a person's reservation without asking? And what kind of lodging would he find at this Shaw Ranchsome kind of dude ranch?
He looked at Mamie and sighed. "How do I get there?"
She smiled and pushed a Jasper Gulch Chamber of Commerce illustrated map at him and drew a black marker line to where he needed to go. "See here. Not too far."
Minutes later, Dale was back in the tiny car headed down a street that bore his last name. He turned north onto Shaw Boulevard and chuckled. Was this place for real? The Masseys had taken off for New York long ago, but the Shaws had stayed and grabbed a grand-sounding name for their street.
The town had been founded by his great-greatgrandfather, Silas Massey, along with a man named Ezra Shaw. Dale knew that from what his father, Julian, had told him and from what he'd been able to dig up on internet sites specializing in genealogies. Julian owed him big time for this one.
The road ended outside town at an expanse of green lawn leading to a lavish-looking ranch. Dale followed the winding driveway to the front door under a log archway covered by a large metal roof. Okay, this was more like it. At least they had valet parking. Dale would have to thank the mayor for making the change first chance he got.
He unfolded his legs and stretched. Dale wanted a shower, dinner and sleep, not necessarily in that order. The November sun had set behind the distant mountains, casting a rosy haze across the valley. Talk about a wide-open space. Staring out at the vast land untouched by concrete or steel made him feel small and unworthy.
Dale knew those feelings well. He'd battled them since he was six years old when his father had walked out on him and his mother. But this landscape whispered a challenge, a call to adventure. A man could face himself out here and come up empty or victorious. Which would he be?
Dale shook his head. He wasn't here to face who he was or wasn't. He was here to represent the Massey name.
He opened one of the heavy wooden doors that was pretty hefty for a bed-and-breakfast. Didn't they realize older folks might have trouble with such a door? Not wise for a commercial venture. Didn't they have ordinances in Montana?
He stepped inside. There had to be a valet somewhere. "Can I help you?"
"Ah, yes " Dale whirled around at the feminine voice.
A small woman, young, dressed in jeans and a Western-style plaid shirt over a white tank top, cocked her head. Her hair was that reddish-brown color that was neither light nor dark but lush. Her eyes were huge and blue like a storybook princess he'd seen on a preview for a Disney movie.
Those pretty eyes widened as she took in his height. They also looked interested.
"Sort of casual for a valet, don't you think?" He gave her a thorough once-over before tossing her his two keys. "My car's outside."
The keys slapped on the floor.
"Excuse me?" She raised one perfectly arched eyebrow.
Not a valet, then. "Are you the maid?"
The clothes she wore should have been a dead giveaway. Rugged Montana maids wouldn't wear aprons or cleaning uniforms. Of course they'd dress in jeans. And this one looked amazing in them.
Her hands made small fists on her narrow hips. Her head might reach his shoulders if they stood close. "Who are you?"
The lovely girl rolled her eyes as recognition dawned. "I should have known."
Yeah, she should have. Most everyone did. He'd been on the cover of Fortune magazine a couple of months ago.
But then, not a lot of workers in the service industry read that particular magazine. Maybe this one did.
Dale puffed up his chest in anticipation of the sweet apology she'd deliver. He wouldn't mind seeing those dusty freckles on her nose and cheeks blush a little.
"I guess I'll show you to your room." She didn't sound too thrilled. Not exactly good customer service.
"Don't I have to sign something? Get some keys?"
She pointed to the tiled slate floor. "Your keys are right there and you'll have to move your car. Dad will have a fit if you block the front."
Dale swallowed hard. "Dad?"
She tilted her head. "Mayor Jackson Shaw is my father.
I'm Faith Shaw."
"And this place is " His throat went dry as the air outside.
"Shaw Ranch." A mischievous twinkle shone in her expressive eyes. She enjoyed his discomfort. "Welcome to our home."
So this was the infamous Dale Massey who'd been too busy to return her brother Cord's calls. The Centennial Planning Committee had tried for months to get a hold of the Massey family. Cord said they'd been abrupt, dismissive and downright rude at times.
But my, my, my. This man was certainly handsomein a manicured sort of way. Even the stubble along his jawline looked meticulously groomed. His sleek gray slacks and pristine white shirt with coordinating tie screamed highend quality. The long tan woolen coat that probably cost a fortune made his green eyes look golden. This man knew exactly how good he looked, too. The smirk on his face confirmed his expectation of fawning adoration.
Faith nearly laughed. He'd get none of that from her. "You want to see the room first or move your car?"
The corner of his shapely mouth twitched. "Move the car. We wouldn't want to anger your father, now, would we?"
She waited for him to pick up his keys. She might be closer, but he threw them there.
A slow smile spread across his face. As if they shared a secret.
Faith's belly dropped and her pulse picked up speed. Oh, no. That smile meant big trouble. He was trouble. And Faith had a definite weakness for troublesome men.
Dale scooped up his keys with nimble grace and gestured for her to lead the way. "Ladies first."
Now she was a lady? Not the maid or valet?
Faith knew his type well. He had everything but gave nothing. She meant nothing to someone like him other than a passing flirtation. Dale Massey struck her as a maestro when it came to the art of male-female relations, and way too rich for her blood in more ways than mere money.
Faith waited for him to catch up and walked alongside him out the double doors. She openly stared at the tiny car in front of her. "You came in that thing?"
"My reservation was lost." He popped the hatch with a click of his key. "Speaking of reservations, why'd your father take it upon himself to move me out here when I was already booked into the Fidler Inn?"
"He thought you'd be more comfortable. The inn's pretty packed with homecoming and all."
Faith knew her father's matchmaking when she smelled it, and Mr. Fancy Pants sure smelled good. Not too much scent, but enough to make a woman want to step closer.
Even though her little sister, Julie, was happily married to a cowboy and her older brother Cord also recently got hitched, Jackson Shaw pushed Faith toward the altar, as well. If it wasn't that anxious banker Wilbur Thompson, it was their pastor who her father encouraged her to chase. They were both good, dependable and solid men. The trouble was, Faith Shaw had never wanted good and dependable. She loved the challenge of a chase. But she'd learned a thing or two when she'd left home. Some wild things didn't want to be tamed.
Faith didn't chase anymore. Not after catching way more than she'd bargained for with Scott in Seattle. Bad boys didn't reform, and flashy flirts were a heartbreak waiting in the wings.
She gave Dale Massey a quick once-over and sighed. He looked like all those things and more. He lifted his designer luggage out of the trunk. No matter how attractive the wrapping, Faith wasn't ready for marriage. If she were, good and dependable would have more appeal. Anyway, she liked her life nice and simple. Dale Massey had complication written all over him.
"Where should I park?"
Faith gathered her wits and pointed. "Around the corner. Next to my car is fine. It's the navy blue Honda."
Dale nodded and climbed into his rental. Even with the seat pushed back, he looked cramped.
Good! Might knock him down a peg.
Faith gave herself a mental shake. It wasn't nice to wish discomfort on a person. Not exactly her best what-would-Jesus-do moment. She rubbed her arms at the chill in the air and waited for Dale Massey's return.
In moments, he stood tall before her. Very tall. And broad shouldered. Still flashy, though. "Thank you."
Again with the lady-killer smile. "You could have gone inside."
Faith shrugged. Was he being polite or flirting? It shouldn't matter, but tell that to the shiver that raced up her spine. "Come on."
Dale silently followed, but his presence spoke louder than any cymbal. He had a very manly presence for a well-groomed city slicker. She had a feeling this man knew more about high fashion than she did.
Faith spotted her mom charging down the hallway. Ranger, their white poodle, pranced right alongside her.
Dale bumped into her. "Sorry."
Faith ignored her skin's gooseflesh at the brief contact. "Mom, this is Dale Massey. Daddy arranged for him to stay here."
Her mother's smile broadened and she extended her hands. "Dale. How good of you to come."
"Mrs. Shaw." He reached for her mother's hand, but Nadine Shaw pulled him into a hearty embrace and even slapped his back before letting go.
Faith bit her lip to keep from laughing at the shock on Dale Massey's face.
"Call me Nadine. Everyone does." Her mom scooped up the dog. "This is Ranger. And it's a pleasure to finally meet you."
"I'm honored." He flashed that smile and ignored the dog.
Nadine pinched his arm, getting mostly wool coat. "Ooohhhh, nice material. Faith, look out for this one. Pastor Ethan's got competition here."
Faith felt her eyes bulge as she gave her mom a pointed look.
But her mother kept going. "Faith's our only daughter left unwed. Julie, our youngest, hitched up last month. As did my oldest boy."
"Well it's true." Nadine smiled.
Dale listened with forced interest. This guy was polished with a capital P, but he humored her mother, who made them sound like a bunch of backward clodhoppers.
"Show Dale to his room, honey. Your father's at a meeting in town, so dinner will be a late. Dale, you're dining with us." Her mom gave him a wink. "Do you have any allergies we should know about?"
Dale cocked an eyebrow. "None, Nadine. And dinner sounds fine."
If he was put out by her mom's orders, Dale didn't show it. Well, maybe not too visibly, but Faith had seen his chin lift a tad. The man had manners and ironclad control on his facial expressions.
She gestured for him to follow. "Come on."
Dale hoisted his suitcase and followed her without a word. He was probably shell-shocked.
Taking each step of the wide staircase, Faith was aware of every movement made with Dale behind her. What was he thinking? Wait, she didn't want to know. Men like him thought women were trophies or belt-buckle notches.
Not this woman. Faith rubbed her hands, made rough from ranch chores, her fingertips callused from her violin. She was smarter now.
She glanced back at the man who'd be underfoot for at least a week. He'd be around long enough for the homecoming celebration this weekend and the Thanksgiving parade the following week. "Will your family join you?"
A muscle rippled along Dale's jaw. "No."
"Oh." Faith kept moving. They were worlds apart. She couldn't imagine a holiday without family. Maybe she was as naive as ever to think family mattered to everyone.
Cord had told her that Dale was the head of an international real estate services company, built strong by the Massey family. No doubt Dale had been surrounded by important people all his life. She peeked back at him. Right now, he looked terribly alone.