The Rancher's Summer Secret

ISBN: 978-1335407924

The Rancher's Summer Secret

July 2021
Find out what happens when you’re not allowed to “kiss and tell" in New York Times bestselling author Christine Rimmer's latest.

“You know you’re tempted.”

Science teacher Vanessa Cruise is spending her summer working in Bronco. Rekindling her short-term fling with the hottest rancher in town? Not on her to-do list—especially since commitment is her number one don’t. But Jameson John promises to keep their relationship hidden from the town gossips, then finds himself longing for more than just a summer affair. Convincing Vanessa he’s worth the risk might be the hardest thing he’s ever had to do…

Montana Mavericks: The Real Cowboys of Bronco Heights

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Chapter One

Last New Year’s Eve

Jameson John fully intended to ring in the New Year in style.

He wanted to hear some good music, play a little eight ball and, if the stars aligned, take someone sweet and willing home. To make all that happen, he’d jumped in his quad cab and headed straight for Wild Willa’s Saloon.

Perched on Center Street, with the entrance in Bronco Valley and the dance floor in tony Bronco Heights, Wild Willa’s was the most popular bar in Bronco, Montana. At Wild Willa’s, things got loud and rowdy pretty much every night. On New Year’s Eve, however, the fun reached a whole new level.

As midnight approached, the very air seemed charged with anticipation. The sound of boots stomping on hardwood competed with the wail of the fiddle, the beat of the drums and the driving rhythm from the bass guitar.

Tonight, every man wore his best boots and a snap-front dress shirt. Every woman had on her tightest jeans or her shortest flirty skirt. Many wore light-up, sequined cowboy hats. They blew party horns and shouted encouragements at the band. The place smelled of beer, perfume, saddle soap and sweat.

“Hey, cowboy, let’s dance.”

Jameson turned to the pretty blonde who’d just tapped him on the shoulder. She had lipstick on her straight white teeth and a woozy look in those big blue eyes. Like just about everyone else in Wild Willa’s tonight, she’d had one too many.

As for Jameson, in the two hours since he’d walked through the wide, rustic double doors, he’d had a whiskey, neat, and a single beer. He wanted to be sharp, on his best game, just in case he met someone interesting. So far, that hadn’t happened. It wouldn’t be happening with this cowgirl, either.

But the woozy blonde looked sweet and hopeful. He gave her a smile and led her out on the packed dance floor.

When the song ended, another cowboy stepped up. Jameson thanked the blonde and left the floor. He tried not to feel discouraged, but at this rate, he’d have nobody to kiss when the clock struck twelve. Maybe it just wasn’t his night.

With a shrug, he decided he needed a second whiskey and a seat at Wild Willa’s famous Get-Lucky Bar, which formed four loops of stools in a four leaf clover configuration.

Too bad every stool had an occupant. Jameson considered heading for the pool tables. He could order a drink there.

But then, in the split second before he turned for the tables, a guy at one end of the clover got up. Jameson moved in to claim the seat.

“Good luck, buddy,” muttered the other man as he went by. He looked kind of glum, like maybe he’d just been shut down.

Jameson slid onto the vacant stool, with the wall on one side and a curvy brunette on the other.

He signaled the nearest bartender and ordered, “Knob Creek, straight up.”

The brunette turned a pair of velvet brown eyes his way—and he almost felt sorry for that other guy. But then her wide, plump lips stretched in a devilish smile.

The rich, musical sound of her laughter had him forgetting all about that other guy. “Well, if it isn’t the one and only Jameson John.” She raised her glass as the bartender set his drink down. “Hot and handsome as ever, I see.”

Suddenly, his evening looked a whole lot more promising. Apparently, this gorgeous woman knew him. He studied her more closely.

She did look a little familiar. He raised his whiskey and tapped the glass to hers.

“Wait—don’t tell me,” he said. “I know that I know you….”

She laughed again, tossing her head, her thick, wavy hair tumbling down her back, gleaming like polished mahogany. He found himself staring at the smooth olive skin of her throat. “I’m Vanessa,” she said. “Vanessa Cruise.”

“Wow.” He never would have guessed. Tipping his hat to her, he said with frank admiration, “Evan Cruise’s little sister grew up.”

Vanessa had always been cute and smart, but somewhere along the line she’d turned into a beauty—the natural kind, in a silky white shirt and a pair of snug jeans that hugged every gorgeous, generous curve. She had that thick dark hair, those fine eyes to match and freckles, too. Everything about her appealed to him.

She shook a finger at him. “You are staring, Jameson John.”

“Sorry, can’t help it. I like your freckles.”

“Now, there’s an interesting compliment.”

“Freckles seem surprising, somehow, with your skin color.”

“It’s a fallacy that only redheads have them. You know that, right?”

He liked her voice—kind of low, husky. “Tell me more.”

She laughed. “It’s just a reaction to UV exposure. A result of the overproduction of melanin.”

“Well, I like them on you. If I remember correctly, everyone used to call you Van, right?”

“Van or Vanessa, either way.”

“Just checking. I really like Vanessa. It suits you better, somehow. Didn’t you move away?”

She gave a slow nod. “I live in Billings now.”

“A teacher, right?”

“You remembered.”

“English?”

“Science—chemistry and biology.”

“That’s right. Always a brainy one.”

“You’d better believe it.” Her thick, dark eyelashes swept down and up again.

“Home for the holidays, huh?”

She leaned closer. “It’s my last night in town. Tomorrow I head back to Billings.” Her shoulder brushed his arm, and his breath caught. She smelled sweet and fresh, like the roses his mother grew beside the steps of the main house out at the family ranch, the Double J.

“Vanessa.” He touched the brim of his hat, a salute meant to signal he held her in the highest regard. “You mind if I ask you a personal question?”

“Go for it.”

“Got a guy in Billings—someone who can’t wait for you to come home?”

She sipped her drink. “Not now, I don’t.”

Something in her tone alerted him. “Did I just hit a nerve? I didn’t mean to—”

“Not your fault.” She waved his apology away with a shapely hand, the nails cut short, businesslike. No-nonsense. Her full, tempting breasts rose and fell as she sighed. “I confess. There was someone, yes. I was trying, you know?”

“I don’t quite follow. Trying to…?”

“What can I tell you? This someone I just mentioned wasn’t my type, but my type kept messing me over. I go for the players and that never goes well. Trevor—that’s his name—was no player. I met him at a science fair. He was so nice. Nerdy and shy, you know? I felt zero chemistry with him. But chemistry isn’t everything, am I right?”

He stifled a chuckle. “Vanessa, I’m not touching that with a ten-foot cattle prod.”

She let out another soft sigh. “I thought I could draw him out, get him to relax and have fun. I thought that he would be true to me and I would slowly come to care for him deeply, to be grateful for his steady ways.”

“I have to say it. Trevor sounds dead boring—and let me guess. You finally had to face the fact that Trevor wasn’t the guy for you?”

She seemed faintly amused. “Not exactly.”

“Then what?”

“Just before I came home for Christmas, Trevor dumped me.”

He couldn’t believe it. “No way.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Trevor is a damn fool.”

She leaned close again. The scent of roses beckoned him as she whispered, “He said he couldn’t be with me anymore because he didn’t find me sexually attractive.”

Jameson knew he must have heard wrong. “What man with a pulse wouldn’t be attracted to you?”

She grinned. “Yeah, well. You win some, you lose some, I guess.”

From over by the pool tables, some guy let out a whoop and someone else whistled. Applause followed. The band struck up another song, this one loud and fast.

When the noise died down a little, she asked, “You here with a date?”

“Nope. Just having a drink with a fascinating woman.”

She studied his face for a long count of five before declaring, “You’re playing me, aren’t you?”

He sat up a little straighter. “No, I am not. Trevor blew it, and I’m grateful to that clown. Because if he hadn’t, you wouldn’t be sitting here next to me on New Year’s Eve.”

Slowly, she turned her glass on its Wild Willa’s coaster, the one that showed a sexy cowgirl in a short skirt riding a bucking bronc and waving her red hat above her head.

“What?” he asked low. “Say it.”

“You are bad,” she observed. “So. Very. Bad—and I like that about you far too much.”

“Being bad is good, then?” he asked hopefully.

“Oh yes, it is. In the context of this moment, of you and me side by side on New Year’s Eve at the Get-Lucky Bar, being bad is very, very good.”

As the band struck up another fast one, they gazed at each other, eye to eye. Time passed, but neither of them looked away. He saw no reason to speak. He could just sit here beside her, staring into those sultry eyes of hers until next year came around.

Except he really did like the sound of her voice, especially when she kept those eyes on him and spoke to him alone.

He asked about her family.

And she brought him up to speed on the Cruises. Her brother, Evan, owner and operator of Bronco Ghost Tours, had just gotten engaged earlier that night to Daphne Taylor, estranged daughter of the richest rancher in the county. Vanessa’s mother had a boyfriend now, and Vanessa’s grandmother Dorothea, whom the Cruise family called Grandma Daisy, had recently found out that her mother was not her birth mother.

“That is some big news,” he observed.

“And there’s more.”

He couldn’t wait another second to touch her. Prepared to apologize profusely if she slapped his hand away, he guided a thick curl of hair behind the perfect shell of her ear. She didn’t object. Instead, a tiny smile pulled at one corner of that mouth he hoped he might get to kiss when midnight rolled around.

“Tell me everything,” he commanded.

“Well, I’ll tell you this. Grandma Daisy’s birth mother—my great-grandmother—is the Winona Cobbs.”

“Wait. You mean Winona Cobbs who wrote the famous ‘Wisdom by Winona’ syndicated column?” He used to read that column every week. Winona Cobbs gave good advice.

“The one and only.”

“Lots going on with you Cruises.” Things never got that exciting on the Double J.

Lowering her voice and leaning closer to him once more, Vanessa confessed, “I feel a little bit guilty. I ran out on tonight’s family New Year’s Eve party at Daphne’s Happy Hearts Animal Sanctuary.” Daphne Taylor was somewhat famous locally—not only for being the only daughter of cattle baron Cornelius Taylor, but also for not eating meat in the middle of cow country and for her rescue farm, where she took in every broke-down horse and runaway goat that wandered by.

“Please don’t get me wrong,” said Vanessa. “I’m glad Daphne and Evan found each other. And my mother, who’s in love with her boss, is happier than she’s ever been before.”

“But?”

“It’s just that seeing the people I love all cozily coupled up only makes me more depressed about my own romantic future—plus, well, the family doesn’t exactly know that it all blew up with Trevor.”

He pretended to look stern. “Holding out on the family. That’s just not right.”

“Maybe not.” She drew her shoulders back. “But I don’t feel up to dealing with their loving concern at the moment, if you know what I mean.” She looked sad.

And he felt bad for teasing her. “I was just yanking your chain. Honestly, I hear you. Sometimes the people you love are the last ones you want in your business.”

She braced her elbow on the bar and propped her pretty chin on the heel of her hand. “Thank you.” She seemed to mean it.

He nodded in acknowledgment. “And I want you to know that your secret is safe with me.”

“Good.” Her expression changed, and he had no idea what she might be thinking as she warned, “And you’d better watch out.”

“Why is that?”

A slow grin curved that mouth, which was so damn inviting it probably ought to come with a warning. “I’m in a mood to forget all my troubles, and I have a weakness for players like you.”

Wait, he thought. Players?

He was no player—yeah, okay, maybe he’d come here tonight in hopes of meeting someone like her. And maybe, back in the day, he’d dated a lot of different women.

But since then, he’d grown up. He’d been married and divorced. He was older and wiser now, a man who’d learned enough about what mattered in life to want more from a woman than a one-night stand.

However…

Apparently, Vanessa Cruise liked players. He didn’t want to mess with the program if she might be considering making his night.

“Vanessa, Vanessa,” he chanted under his breath.

“Hmm?”

“You’re so direct.”

She frowned. “Is it too much?”

“I like it.”

Her frown smoothed out. She signaled the bartender.

How many had she had? It mattered. No self-respecting man took advantage of a woman under the influence.

The bartender stepped close. Vanessa said, “Another club soda with lemon.” Jameson felt relief—and Vanessa must have seen something in his face. “What?”

“You’re not drinking.”

She gave him a half shrug. “I’m my own designated driver—and if I do get lucky here at the Get-Lucky Bar, I don’t want my senses dulled by alcohol. I want to be wide-awake and fully functional when things get thrilling, you hear what I’m saying?”

Did he ever.

She nodded her thanks at the bartender as he set her club soda in front of her. After that, she stared down into the drink for a second too long.

“Hey,” he said gently, and brushed a hand down her arm. “Where’d you go?”

Her soft shoulders slumped as she blew out a breath. “Just tell me the truth. Am I ridiculous?”

“Hell, no.” He said it with feeling. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

She looked at him sideways, kind of pooching out her lower lip, looking a little bit pouty and so damn cute. “It’s hard on the ego, being dumped for a complete lack of sex appeal.”

Jameson felt nothing but outrage on her behalf. “Don’t talk like that. Your ex was the one with the problem.”

“As in, it’s not me, it’s him?”

He stuck to his guns. “That’s right. You’re way too much woman for Trevor.”

She sipped her drink. “Just hypothetically…”

“Hypothetically, what?”

“Well, say we went home together…”

“I’m liking the sound of this.”

She bit the corner of her ripe lower lip before asking sheepishly, “Would you tell me if I was bad in bed?”

Where the hell did that Trevor guy get off, making her doubt her desirability? Mr. Nice Guy was nothing but a jerk. “It’s not an issue. You aren’t bad in bed.”

“Jameson. Get real. You have no way of knowing that.”

They were leaning into each other again, close enough that his sleeve touched hers. It was a simple matter to lean in the necessary fraction closer.

Their lips met.

Her mouth was even softer than it looked, and the scent of her was driving him a little bit crazy. He kissed her slowly, his body heating with sexual need, though he exercised care not to take it too deep. “That proves it,” he whispered, his lips still brushing hers. “You are amazing in bed.”

Her slow-blooming smile foreshadowed really good things. “Tell me you live alone.”

“I’ll go you one better. I’ll show you.” He signaled the bartender for the check.

*

Van’s butterflies had butterflies as Jameson settled the bill, helped her into her fleece-lined coat and led her outside, where a light snow was falling.

Wrapping a strong arm across her shoulders, he pulled her in close to him. “Ride with me.”

No way. Tonight would be her first—and most likely only—one-night stand. She intended to do it right. And that meant sober, with her own vehicle to get her there and, when the night was over, back to her brother’s house, where she was staying alone while Evan stayed at Daphne’s.

“I’ve got snow tires on my SUV,” she said. “I’ll follow you.”

Jameson didn’t argue. He walked her to her Subaru, opened her door for her and closed it with care. She watched as he jogged through the thin layer of snow to a black quad cab. Starting her engine, she waited for him to take the lead.

He led her out of the parking lot and down Center Street to the intersection with the state highway, where dirty snow had piled up on the shoulder, but the road itself was clear. The snow came down sparsely, not really sticking.

After maybe ten miles, he took a side road. A few minutes later, they turned onto a wide, well-tended gravel driveway and passed under a rough-hewn sign for the John family ranch, the Double J. In the distance, she could make out the shadows of barns and outbuildings and a big log house. Jameson led her past the turnoff to that house.

The long driveway curved up the gentle slope of a hill and then down to another house, one not quite as large as the log home they’d passed earlier. Of gorgeous, weathered wood and stone, the house had lots of windows and a more modern style than the usual sprawling log homes that most of the wealthy local ranchers favored.

Two of the four garage doors rumbled up and Jameson drove in the first stall, jumping out and signaling her to take the next stall over.

She rolled down her window. “I’ll just park out here.” When it came time to leave, she wanted a clean getaway, one that did not include asking him to please shut the garage door behind her.

He went in through the garage, and she parked in the driveway, meeting him at the front door.

Inside, he took her coat and hung it in the entry closet. “Drink?” he asked, leading her down a wide hallway with a skylight overhead. The hallway opened onto a sprawling, gorgeous combination kitchen and great room. The kitchen end had a stone floor, counters of black granite and warm wood, the appliances the kind any top chef might envy. A wall of windows looked out on the dark, shadowed peaks of the mountains in the distance.

“Nothing for me, thanks,” she said, setting her leather shoulder bag on one of the stools at the granite island.

He pulled her over to the rough-hewn trestle table and moved in close. Really, he was such a gorgeous man. She’d always admired his thick, dark gold hair and celestial blue eyes. He smelled so good, like saddle soap and clean leather—a healthy male in his prime, the kind that lured a woman to mate.

And that reminded her. “I’m on the pill,” she announced, “and really hoping that you have condoms.”

Had that come out sounding painfully abrupt? Maybe. But it had to be said. A woman needed to take responsibility for her safety and reproductive health. No surprise pregnancies—and no STDs, either.

“Yes, I do.” He took her hand. His was warm and thrillingly rough from ranch work. Her heart skipped a beat with anticipation. “This way,” he said in a low rumble.

He led her out of the kitchen area to the open great room, which had a high, peaked ceiling and more gorgeous skylights. Large, comfortable-looking sofas and chairs formed two conversation groups on either side of the plain, modern fireplace.

Across from the fireplace, a staircase with metal railings led down to other rooms below.

“This way.” He led her along the short hallway next to the staircase, where a door opened on the master suite, with its own large bathroom and private deck. The room had a peaked ceiling, too. It was all warm, rough-textured woods, the linens in soothing, soft grays.

She hesitated at the door. He stopped and turned to her.

Before he could wrap her in those big arms, she stepped back. “I have something I need to say.”

He lifted a hand and touched the side of her face. The simple caress thrilled her, sent a tingle rushing through her just from that small, brushing contact. “Tell me, then.”

She suddenly felt awkward and silly and…too young. But she said her piece anyway. “I just need to lay out the ground rules, so we both know where we stand.”

One side of his sinfully sexy mouth quirked up in amusement. “There are ground rules?”

She gave him a firm nod. “Yes, there are. This, tonight, is a special circumstance.”

“Very special,” he agreed, those beautiful eyes gleaming at her, promising all manner of heavenly delights.

“Well, that may be. But I meant special as in a onetime deal. Tomorrow, I head home to Billings.”

“You mentioned that already.”

“And it bears repeating. I live in Billings, and your life is here. And in future, when I come back again to visit my family and you and I happen to see each other somehow in passing, we will not stop. We will not give each other more than a nod and a simple hello. We will never discuss what happened here tonight. No digits will be exchanged. Neither of us will try to contact the other. This is ‘The Night That Never Happened’—” Yes, she actually air-quoted it for emphasis. “—and we need to agree that it is.”

His burnished eyebrows drew together in a doubtful sort of frown.

She barreled on. “Which, er, won’t be a problem for you because you don’t do relationships.”

“Vanessa, I never said—”

“Wait.” She put up a hand. “I won’t get in touch again because that would make you think I want a relationship, which I don’t. As for you, well, you won’t contact me because, um, you’re Jameson John and you don’t do commitment.”

His frown had deepened. “Hey, now. Hold on a minute. I do plan to have a relationship that lasts. I want a family, children.”

“Sure you do,” she teased. “Someday, right?”

“That’s not fair.” He really seemed troubled, somehow, by this subject.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and meant it. “Sometimes I get a little carried away trying to make a point. I didn’t mean to insult you, Jameson.”

“You didn’t. It’s just, well, yeah. Maybe I was that guy you’re describing. But I’m not anymore. You like players and, back at Wild Willa’s, I wanted to be whatever you needed tonight. But I’m not that guy Vanessa, not the thoughtless boy you remember from high school. I’ve been married and divorced. I’m settled down now, a grown-ass man. I’m ready for something more than just one night.”

Her heart kind of melted—but come on. She’d just been dumped. A new relationship wasn’t even on the table right now and she needed to make that crystal clear. She gazed up at him defiantly. “Well, I’m not ready for anything but tonight.”

He stared down at her long and hard. Was this it, then? Would he walk her back out to her car and say goodnight? She braced herself for that.

But then he shook his head. “I do want you, Vanessa. A lot. And if tonight is all I’m getting, so be it.”

She drilled her point home. “After this, there will be no contact. You and me, we won’t be happening again.”

He caught her hand and pulled her close. “Fair enough.”

“Jameson,” she whispered, pressing her palms to his hard chest as his mouth touched hers.

Oh, he was perfect. Exactly what she needed. This beautiful man to ring in a whole new year, to make her feel gorgeous and wanted for one perfect night. She slid her hungry hands up to encircle his neck.

When he lifted his head, she opened her eyes. They gazed at each other. “Agreed?” she asked again.

His eyes spoke of reluctance to go along with her terms. She shouldn’t allow herself to feel thrilled at the idea that he might hope for more. Yet she did feel thrilled. Just a little.

Finally, he acquiesced. “I agree. Tonight and that’s all.”

Gathering her close again, he shut the door to the hallway with the heel of his boot.

*

Much later, when Vanessa woke beside Jameson in his big, comfy bed, it was still dark out. The bedside clock showed ten past three.

A whole new year had begun—and boy, did Jameson John know how to give a girl a really good time. For several dreamy seconds, Van stared at him through the shadows. He lay on his back, sound asleep. Looking at his chiseled profile, she could almost wish that she didn’t have to go.

But they had an agreement. And she intended to keep it.

Carefully, so as not to wake him, she slid out from under the thick down comforter and tiptoed around the room gathering up her clothes. In the bathroom, she dressed and finger-combed her tangled hair.

Then, carrying her boots in order not to make a sound, she crept along the short hallway and across the great room to get her purse from where she’d left it on the kitchen stool.

Her contacts were extended wear, but still her eyes felt gritty and tired. She switched to her glasses—the ones with the large, black frames.

At the bottom of her bag, she found the small notebook and a blue Flair pen she always carried with her. Tearing out a page, she wrote a brief note.

Leaving the note on the island, she headed for the entry, where she paused long enough to put on her warm coat. The front door opened silently on well-oiled hinges when she carefully pulled it wide.

Outside, the sky had cleared, and a light rime of snow made the ground glitter as though scattered with tiny diamonds. She paused on the step to breathe in the fresh, icy air.

And then, with a secret smile on her face and a lightness in her step, she turned for her Subaru.

*

Jameson woke alone to pale sunlight—a clear winter morning.

When he reached out a hand, the other side of the bed felt cold to the touch. He stared up through the skylight at the pale, cloudless sky and hated that Vanessa had already left him.

Rising, he pulled on last night’s jeans and went out to the kitchen area to brew some coffee. He found her note waiting on the counter.

Jameson,

I just want to say that you are incredible. Thank you for a perfect New Year’s.

Yours,

Vanessa

Two sentences bracketed with his name and hers.

That’s all he got.

As he crumpled the scrap of paper in his fist, he weighed the pros and cons of breaking her damn rules—right now, today. She wouldn’t have left town yet. He could probably track her down at Evan’s house or her mother’s place on the Bronco Valley side of town.

But he’d given his word not to go after her. He’d promised to walk on by any time he happened to see her again. Plus, she lived in Billings, while he loved Bronco and the Double J. He never planned to live anywhere else.

Beyond all that, maybe she was right. She’d insisted she wasn’t in the market for a relationship. And the last thing he needed was to fall for another woman who couldn’t honestly, openly give him her heart—even a woman as surprising and sexy and smart and charming as Vanessa Cruise.

Jameson drank his coffee, fried bacon and scrambled some eggs. After breakfast, he went out to meet his brothers, Maddox and Dawson. Together, they rounded up some frisky heifers who’d busted through a fence and wandered out onto the state highway. That evening, he had dinner with the family at the main house.

And New Year’s night, in bed alone, he stared up into the darkness and tried to picture Vanessa at home in Billings, lying in her own bed, maybe smiling a little, remembering the night before. Faintly, he smelled roses. He grabbed her pillow and pressed it to his face. Breathing in the scent of her like some sappy lovesick fool, he reconsidered the idea of going after her.

But he did no such thing. She didn’t want to see him again and he’d given her his word he wouldn’t track her down. Jameson John always kept his word.

Eventually, he promised himself, the desire to go after her would fade.