The Maverick Fakes a Bride!
Do You Take This (Faux) Fiancée?
Rust Creek Ramblings
All the single ladies in Rust Creek Falls know Travis Dalton. And they all know the sexy, rascally rancher is not the marrying kind. So how is it that our town's most notorious bachelor has wound up engaged on a Western reality TV show?
We here at the Gazette are pleased The Great Roundup has chosen our hometown heartbreaker as a contestant. And we are definitely rooting for Travis's unexpected union with childhood friend Brenna O'Reilly, the one girl we believe can keep this cowboy on his toes. But is it true this betrothal is strictly a fabrication for the cameras? Pass the popcorn, dear readers. We suspect this made-for-TV romance could be headed straight for a Hollywood happy ending!
Montana Mavericks: The Great Family Roundup
It was a warm day for March. And everyone in Bee’s Beauty Parlor that afternoon had gathered at the wide front windows to watch as Travis Dalton rode his favorite bay gelding down Broomtail Road.
The guy was every cowgirl’s fantasy in a snug Western shirt, butt-hugging jeans, Tony Lama boots and a black hat. One of those film school graduates from the little theater in nearby Kalispell, a video camera stuck to his face, walked backward ahead of him, recording his every move. Travis talked and gestured broadly as he went.
“My, my, my.” Bee smoothed her brassy blond hair, though it didn’t need it. Even in a high wind, Bee’s hair never moved. “Travis does have one fine seat on a horse.”
There were soft, low sounds of agreement and appreciation from the women at the window—and then, out of nowhere, Travis tossed his hat in the air and flipped to a handstand right there on that horse in the middle of the street.
The women applauded. There was more than one outright cry of delight.
Only Brenna O’Reilly stood still and silent. She had her arms wrapped around her middle to keep from clapping, and she’d firmly tucked her lips between her teeth in order not to let out a single sound.
Because no way was Brenna sighing over Travis Dalton. Yes, he was one hot cowboy, with that almost-black hair and those dangerous blue eyes, that hard, lean body, and that grin that could make a girl’s lady parts spontaneously combust.
And it wasn’t only his looks that worked for her. Sometimes an adventurous woman needed a hero on hand. Travis had come to her rescue more than once in her life.
But he’d always made a big deal about how he was too old for her—and okay, maybe he’d had a point, back when she was six and he was fourteen. But now that she’d reached the grown-up age of twenty-six, what did eight years even matter?
Never mind. Not going to happen, Brenna reminded herself for the ten thousandth time. And no matter what people in town might say, she was not and never had been in love with the man.
Right now, today, she was simply appreciating the view, which was spectacular.
Beside her, Dovey Jukes actually let out a moan and made a big show of fanning herself. “Is it just me, or is it really hot in here?”
“This is his, er, what did you call it now, Melba?” Bee asked old Melba Strickland, who’d come out from under the dryer to watch the local heartthrob ride by.
“It’s his package,” replied Melba.
Bee let out her trademark smoke-and-whiskey laugh. “Not that kind of package.” She gave Dovey a playful slap on the arm.
“It’s reality television slang,” Melba clarified. “Tessa told me all about it.” Melba’s granddaughter lived in Los Angeles now. Tessa Strickland Drake had a high-powered job in advertising and understood how things worked in the entertainment industry. “A package is an audition application and video.”
“Audition for what?” one of the other girls asked.
“A brand-new reality show.” Melba was in the know. “It’s going to get made at a secret location right here in Montana this summer, and it will be called The Great Roundup. From what I heard, it’s going to be like Survivor, but with cowboys—you know, roping and branding, bringing in the strays, everyone sharing their life stories around the campfire, sleeping out under the stars, answering challenge after challenge, trying not to get eliminated. The winner will earn himself a million-dollar prize.”
Brenna, who’d never met a challenge she couldn’t rise to, clutched the round thermal brush in her hand a little tighter and tried to ignore the tug of longing in heart. After all, she’d been raised on the family ranch and could rope and ride with the best of them. She couldn’t help but imagine herself on this new cowboy reality show.
True, lately, she’d been putting in some serious effort to quell her wild and crazy side, to settle down a little, you might say.
But a reality show? She could enjoy the excitement while accomplishing a valid goal of winning those big bucks. A few months ago, Bee had started dating a handsome sixtyish widower from Kalispell. Now that things had gotten serious, she’d been talking about selling the shop and retiring so she and her new man could travel. Brenna would love to step up as owner when Bee left.
But that would cost money she didn’t have. If she won a million dollars on a reality show, however, she could buy the shop and still have plenty of money to spare.
And then again, no. Trying out for a reality show was a crazy idea, and Brenna was keeping a lid on her wild side, she truly was. The Great Roundup was not for her.
She asked wistfully, “You think Travis has a chance to be on the show?”
“Are you kidding?” Bee let out a teasing growl. “Those Hollywood people would be crazy not to choose him. And if the one doing the choosing is female, all that man has to do is give her a smile.”
Every woman at that window enthusiastically agreed.
First week of May, a studio soundstage, Los Angeles, California
Travis Dalton hooked his booted foot across his knee and relaxed in the interview chair.
It was happening. Really happening. His video had wowed them. And his application? He’d broken all the rules with it, just like that book he’d bought—Be a Reality Star—had instructed. He’d used red ink, added lots of silly Western doodles and filled it chock-full of colorful stories of his life on the family ranch.
He’d knocked them clean out of their boots, if he did say so himself. And now here he was in Hollywood auditioning for The Great Roundup.
“Tell us about growing up on a ranch,” said the casting director, whose name was Giselle. Giselle dressed like a fashion model. She had a way of making a guy feel like she could see inside his head. Sharp. That was the word for Giselle. Sharp—and interested. Her calculating eyes watched him so closely.
Which was fine. Good. He wanted her looking at him with interest. He wanted to make the cut, get on The Great Roundup and win himself a million bucks.
Travis gave a slow grin in the general direction of one of the cameras that recorded every move he made. “I grew up on my family’s ranch in northwestern Montana.” He was careful to include Giselle’s question in his answer, in case they ended up using this interview in the show. Then they could cut Giselle’s voice out and what he said would still make perfect sense. “My dad put me on a horse for the first time at the age of five. Sometimes it feels like I was born in the saddle.”
Giselle and her assistant nodded their approval as he went on—about the horses he’d trained and the ones that had thrown him. About the local rodeos where he’d been bucked off more than one bad-tempered bull—and made it all the way to eight full seconds on a few. He thought it was going pretty well, that he was charming them, winning them over, showing them he wasn’t shy, that an audience would love him.
“Can you take off your shirt for us, Travis?”
He’d assumed that would be coming. Rising, Travis unbuttoned and shrugged out of his shirt. At first, he kept it all business, no funny stuff. They needed to get a good look at the body that ranching had built and he kept in shape. He figured they wouldn’t be disappointed.
But they wanted to see a little personality, too, so when Giselle instructed, “Turn around slowly,” he held out his arms, bending his elbows and bringing them down, giving them the cowboy version of a bodybuilder’s flex. As he turned, he grabbed his hat off the back of his chair and plunked it on his head, aiming his chin to the side, giving them a profile shot, and then going all the way with a slow grin and a wink over his shoulder.
The casting assistant, Roxanne, stifled a giggle as she grinned right back.
“Go ahead and sit back down,” Giselle said. She wasn’t flirty like Roxanne, but in her sharp-edged way she seemed happy with how the interview was shaking out.
Travis took off his hat again. He bent to get his shirt.
“Leave it,” said Giselle.
He gave her a slight nod and no smile as he settled back into the chair. Because this was serious business. To him—and to her.
“Now we want to know about that hometown of yours.” Giselle almost smiled then, though really it was more of a smirk. “We’ve been hearing some pretty crazy things about Rust Creek Falls.”
Was he ready for that one? You bet he was. His town had been making news the past few years. First came the flood. He explained about the Fourth of July rains that wouldn’t stop and all the ways the people of Rust Creek Falls had pulled together to come back from the worst disaster in a century. He spoke of rebuilding after the waters receded, of the national attention and the sudden influx of young women who had come to town to find themselves a cowboy.
When Giselle asked if any of those women had found him, he answered in a lazy drawl, “To tell you the truth, I met a lot of pretty women after the great flood.” He put his right hand on his chest. “Each one of them holds a special place in my heart.”
Roxanne had to stifle another giggle.
Giselle sent her a cool look. Roxanne’s smile vanished as if it had never been. “Tell us more,” said Giselle.
And he told them about a certain Fourth of July wedding almost two years ago now, a wedding in Rust Creek Falls Park. A local eccentric by the name of Homer Gilmore had spiked the wedding punch with his special recipe moonshine—purported to make people do things they would never do ordinarily.
“A few got in fights,” he confessed, “present company included, I’m sorry to say.” He made an effort to look appropriately embarrassed at his own behavior before adding, “And a whole bunch of folks got romantic—and that meant that last year, Rust Creek Falls had a serious baby boom. You might have heard of that. We called it the baby bonanza. So now we have what amounts to a population explosion in our little town. Nobody’s complaining, though. In Rust Creek Falls, love and family is what it’s all about.”
Travis explained that he wanted to join the cast of The Great Roundup for the thrill of it—and he also wanted to be the last cowboy standing. He had a fine life working the Dalton family ranch, but the million-dollar prize would build him his own house on the land he loved and put a little money in the bank, too.
“I’m not getting any younger,” he admitted with a smile he hoped came across as both sexy and modest. “One of these days, I might even want to find the right girl and settle down.”
Giselle, who had excellent posture in the first place, seemed to sit up even straighter, like a prize hunting dog catching a scent. “The right girl? Interesting.” She glanced at Roxanne, who bobbed her head in an eager nod. “Is there anyone special you’ve got your eye on?”
There was no one, and there probably wouldn’t be any time soon. But he got Giselle’s message loud and clear. For some reason, the casting director would prefer that he had a sweetheart.
And what Giselle preferred, Travis Dalton was bound and determined to deliver. “Is there a special woman in my life? Well, she’s a…very private person.”
“That would be yes, then. You’re exclusive with someone?”
Damn. Message received, loud and clear. He wasn’t getting out of this without confessing—or lying through his teeth. And since he intended to get on the show, he knew what his choice had to be.
“I don’t want to speak out of hand, but yeah. There is a special someone in my life now. We…haven’t been together long, but…” He let out a low whistle and pasted on an expression that he hoped would pass for completely smitten. “Oh, yeah. Special would be the word for her.”
“Is this special someone a hometown girl?” Giselle’s eyes twinkled in a way that was simultaneously aggressive, gleeful and calculating.
“She’s from Rust Creek Falls, yes. And she’s amazing.” Whoever the hell she is. “It’s the greatest thing in the world, to know someone your whole life and then suddenly to realize there’s a lot more going on between the two of you than you’ve ever admitted before.” Whoa. He probably ought to be ashamed of himself. His mama had brought him up right, taught him not to tell lies. But who did this little white lie hurt, anyway? Not a soul. And to get on The Great Roundup, Travis Dalton would tell Giselle whatever she needed to hear.
“What’s her name?” asked Giselle. It was the next logical question, damn it. He should have known it was coming.
He put on his best killer smile—and lied some more. “Sorry, I can’t tell you her name. You know small towns.” Giselle frowned. She might be sharp as a barb-wire fence, but he would bet his Collin Traub dress saddle that she’d never been within a hundred miles of a town like Rust Creek Falls. “We’re keeping what we have together just between the two of us, my girl and me. It’s a special time in our relationship, and we don’t want the whole town butting into our private business.” A special time. Damned if he didn’t sound downright sensitive—for a bald-faced liar. But would the casting director buy it?
Giselle didn’t seem all that thrilled with his unwillingness to out his nonexistent girlfriend, but at least she let it go. A few minutes later, she gave the cameraman a break. Then she chatted with Travis off the record for a couple of minutes more. She said she’d heard he was staying at the Malibu house of LA power player Carson Drake, whose wife, Tessa Strickland Drake, had deep Montana roots. Travis explained that he’d known Tessa all his life. She’d grown up in Bozeman, but she spent most of her childhood summers staying at her grandmother’s boardinghouse in Rust Creek Falls.
After the chitchat, Giselle asked him to have a seat outside. He put on his shirt and grabbed a chair in the waiting area next to a water cooler and vending machine. For the next few hours, he watched potential contestants come and go.
It was past six when they called him back in to tell him that he wouldn’t be returning to Malibu that night—or any time soon, as it turned out. Real Deal Entertainment would put him up in a hotel room instead.
Travis lived in that hotel room for two weeks at Real Deal’s beck and call. He took full advantage of room service, and he worked out in the hotel fitness center to pass the time while he got his background checked and his blood drawn. He even got interviewed by a shrink, who asked a lot of way-too-personal questions. There were also a series of follow-up meetings with casting people and producers. At the two-week mark, in a Century City office tower, he got a little quality time with a bunch of network suits.
That evening, absolutely certain he’d made the show, he raided the minibar in his room and raised a toast to his success.
Hot damn, he’d done it! He was going to be a contestant on The Great Roundup. He would have his shot at a cool million bucks.
And he would win, too. Damned if he wouldn’t. He would build his own house on the family ranch and get more say in the day-to-day running of the place. His older brother, Anderson, made most of the decisions now. But if Travis had some hard cash to invest, his big brother would take him more seriously. Travis would step up as a real partner in running the ranch.
Being the good-time cowboy of the family had been fun. But there comes a point when every man has to figure out what to do with his life. Travis had reached that point. And The Great Roundup was going to take him where he needed to go.
The next morning, a car arrived to deliver him to the studio, where he sat in another waiting area outside a different soundstage with pretty much the same group of potential contestants he’d sat with two weeks before. One by one, they were called through the door. They all emerged smiling to be swiftly led away by their drivers.
When Travis’s turn came, he walked onto the soundstage to find Giselle and Roxanne and a couple producers waiting at a long table. The camera was rolling. Except for that meeting in the office tower with the suits and a that session involving lawyers with papers to sign, a camera had been pointed at him every time they talked to him.
Giselle said, “Have a seat, Travis.” He took the lone chair facing the others at the table. “We have some great news for you.”
He knew it, he was in! He did a mental fist pump.
But then Giselle said, “You’ve made the cut for the final audition.”
What the hell? Another audition?
“You’ll love this, Travis.” Giselle watched him expectantly as she announced, “The final audition will be in Rust Creek Falls.”
She went on, “As it happens, your hometown is not far from the super-secret location where The Great Roundup will be filmed. And since your first audition, we have been busy…”
Dirk Henley, one of the producers, chimed in. “We’ve been in touch with the mayor and the town council.”
“Of Rust Creek Falls?” Travis asked, feeling dazed. He was still trying to deal with the fact that there was more auditioning to get through. He couldn’t believe she’d just said the audition would be happening in his hometown.
“Of course, of Rust Creek Falls.” Giselle actually smiled, a smile that tried to be indulgent but was much too full of sharp white teeth to be anything but scary.
Dirk took over again. “Mayor Traub and the other council members are excited to welcome Real Deal Entertainment to their charming little Montana town.”
Travis valiantly remained positive. Okay, he hadn’t made the final cut, but he was still in the running and that was what mattered.
As for the final audition happening at home, well, now that he’d had a second or two to deal with that information, he supposed he wasn’t all that surprised.
For a show like The Great Roundup, his hometown was a location scout’s dream come true. And the mayor and the council would say yes to the idea in a New York minute. The movers and shakers of Rust Creek Falls had gotten pretty ambitious in the last few years. They were always open to anything that might bring attention, money and/or jobs to town. Real Deal Entertainment should be good for at least the first two.
Dirk said, “We’ll be sending Giselle, Roxanne, a camera crew and a few production people along with you for a last on-camera group audition.”
Giselle showed more teeth. “We’re going to put you and your fellow finalists in your own milieu, you might say.”
Dirk nodded his approval. “And that milieu is a very atmospheric cowboy bar with which I’m sure you are familiar.”
There was only one bar inside the Rust Creek Falls town limits. Travis named it. “The Ace.”
“That’s right!” Dirk beamed. “The Ace in the Hole, which we love.”
What did that even mean? They loved the name? Must be it. No Hollywood type would actually love the Ace. It was a down-home, no-frills kind of place.
Dirk was still talking. “We’ll be taking over ‘the Ace’—” he actually air quoted it “—for a night of rollicking country fun. You know, burgers and brews and a country-western band. We want to see you get loose, kick over the traces, party in a purely cowboy sort of way. It will be fabulous. You’re going to have a great time.” He nodded at the other producer, who nodded right back. “I’m sure we’ll get footage we can use on the show.”
And then Giselle piped up with, “And Travis…” Her voice was much too casual, much too smooth. “We want you to bring your fiancée along to the audition. We love what you’ve told us about her, and we can’t wait to meet her.”