His Montana Sweetheart (Big Sky Centennial)

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9780373817801: His Montana Sweetheart (Big Sky Centennial)

Catching His Heart

Olivia Franklin suspected coming home to Jasper Gulch would mean eventually running into her first love, Jack McGuire. But she's adamant that she not repeat the mistakes that led to her broken heart. Yet from the moment she lays eyes on her former sweetheart, her resistance begins to crumble. The tall, handsome rancher made his choice all those years ago. He'd gone from the baseball diamond to a high-rise office and finally back home to the Double M?all without her. And no amount of centennial nostalgia can change the past. But the future is another story, and the pretty historian is about to get a lesson in romance from the lonesome cowboy she will never forget!

Big Sky Centennial: A small town rich in history?and love.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Author of fifteen 4 and 4.5 star novels, Ruth is thrilled to be paid for something she'd gladly do for free: write sweet stories that touch hearts and souls. Born into poverty, she's unafraid to delve into life's tough issues, but believes redeeming love and God's grace can heal all wounds. Visit her on Facebook where she cheerfully exploits the cuteness of kids and small animals to sell uplifting books of faith, hope and love... while drinking coffee, a mainstay! 

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Of all the town meetings, in all the world...

The altered line from Casablanca knotted Livvie Franklin's heart.

Jack. Here. Now.

She drew a breath that stuck square in her throat.

Tall. Still lanky, but with a shoulder breadth that made folks take notice, and from the appreciative glances of the single women in the room—and a couple of older mothers, too—she wasn't the only one who had noticed.

Green eyes. Brown hair, shaggy, in need of a cut, but she understood the rigors of ranching, and Jack had lost his mother a few years before. Now he and his dad had house chores on top of everything else in their short Big Sky growing season.

She knew she'd run into him sooner or later. In a town the size of Jasper Gulch no one stayed hidden forever.

But she'd dismissed the possibility at a council meeting about the Old-timers' Baseball Game. Jack had shied away from all things baseball since he blew his arm out over eight years before. He decided then to shrug off ball-playing and his girl—her—as anathema.

So be it.

She'd slip out the back, she decided, but Olivia had forgotten the force of the locals. As soon as the small gathered crowd saw Jack—

The same folks who'd been greeting her since she came into town a few days before—

Heads swerved from Jack to her, their looks expectant.

Jack turned, following the track of their collective attention. He stopped. Stared. His gaze, always so open and trusting for the years they dated, was more somber. Surprise widened his eyes, and the saltwater green brightened.

He moved her way, preventing her escape, forcing a confrontation she didn't want. As he drew closer, with pretty much the entire group focused on this unplanned reunion of high school sweethearts gone amok, she forced herself to engage in a moment of self-honesty.

She did want to see him. She'd been hoping to see him. And she'd made sure she looked good before she left the house each day this week, just in case.

"Livvie."

"Jack."

For the life of her, the one word was all she could manage, looking up—way up—into the eyes she'd known and trusted for so long. Her Jack...

Then. Not now. She hauled in a breath and stuck out her hand. "Good to see you, although I'm surprised. I was pretty sure you'd stayed away from anything to do with baseball since college."

His expression confirmed her assumption, but his words surprised her. "Adam's little sister shamed me into it. I'm still wondering how to get even with her, but she's gone and gotten herself a cowboy fiancé and it would be too bad to burst their little bubble of happiness. Although the ride into town gave me time to ponder some creative options. He's in pretty good shape, though, so why tempt fate?"

Half hermit, Livvie's mother had said. Keeps to himself. No one sees too much of him or his father these days.

Change and grief. Livvie knew the reality of that firsthand but quelled her urge to sympathize with a dose of reality.

She'd loved Jack once. He'd broken her heart. Squaring her shoulders, she nodded toward the front. "I think they're getting things under way."

Resignation marked his gaze. For her? For the situation? The meeting?

She had no idea, but Livvie Franklin had vowed one thing on her long drive back to Jasper Gulch to help organize a town history for the ongoing Jasper Gulch centennial festivities. The trip back home had been rife with self-appraisal. And the timing? Imperfectly perfect as she nursed the wounds of an unexpected divorce.

Jack McGuire was off-limits. She'd placed him in the high-risk category eight years before and there he'd stay, no matter how handsome he was, or how his eyes gazed straight into hers as though drinking in the vision.

She'd save her romantic notions for Jane Austen and history, a perfect coupling. Modern romance?

She'd finally figured out it was nothing to write home about.

Broadsided by the petite, blue-eyed blonde that had won his heart over a decade before. He stood before the board, offering what he hoped was a coherent report on the old-timers' game, but he couldn't wrap his head around baseball right now. Not with Livvie twenty feet to his left.

Why was she here? Were her parents okay? Was she?

Questions bombarded him from within and without, and he wasn't sorry when his elderly friend Rusty Zidek chimed in a time or two to clear matters up.

Were they gathering players?

Yes.

Were player shirts ordered for both teams?

They would be this week.

Had they invited Hutch Garrison, the current Jasper Gulch baseball success story, a newly signed outfielder for the Colorado Rockies?

Yes, but he hadn't been able to confirm his presence yet.

By the end of the back-and-forth, the board seemed satisfied with how things stood. Jack needed to hear from more players, but they had weeks to straighten things out, and a pledge from some guys in Bozeman to fill in if necessary. That bit of news made the council give a collective sigh of relief.

The mayor tipped the central microphone toward himself. "Jack, I'm speaking for the entire board when I say we're grateful you took this on when Wes got sick."

Wes Middleton, the previous chair of the Old-timers' Committee, had unexpectedly needed bypass surgery. Jack met the mayor's gaze frankly and replied, "I believe 'railroaded' by your youngest daughter would be a more apt term, sir. Seems the apple didn't fall too far from the tree in this case."

Mayor Shaw's gaze glinted with humor and something else. Regret? Maybe. But the look disappeared before Jack was sure he read it correctly. "Her mother's powers of persuasion, actually. You know how it is, Jack."

He didn't, not really, because he'd run cold and hard from anything to do with long-term relationships for years. Maybe he wasn't meant to settle down, settle in. Maybe—

A glimpse of wavy, layered blond hair to his left put his heart in pause mode. He'd blown it once, the only relationship that mattered. He'd tossed her overboard in a groundswell of self-pity and anger. Like Scrooge in the famous Dickens story, he might have ruined his one and only chance at love eight years before, but he had his ranch. And his father. And—

The appreciation list cut short right there because he'd already summed things up and felt the lack to his core. He drew a breath and nodded to the mayor, raised the few sheets of loose-leaf paper he'd brought and swept the board a glance that included Rusty. "We'll have it running smooth by game day."

He ignored the bemused look Rusty aimed his way, because Rusty was the only person who knew how little he had really done. The board nodded and moved on to the next item as Jack turned to say goodbye to Olivia.

Gone.

He scanned the room quickly. No Olivia.

He headed toward the backdoor quicker than necessary, and when he stepped through and saw her perched on the brick wall alongside the steps, his heart did a rapid thump of gratitude, a reaction he didn't deserve and couldn't pursue. But for that one instant, a decades-old feeling power-rushed him, the way it used to every time he saw her. When she shifted her attention his way at the sound of the door, however, her gaze bordered on polite and distant, and that realization settled his pulse in quick order. "I thought you left."

"I am leaving, but I wanted to jot down a few names, and if I waited to do it at home I'd forget half."

"With your brains?" He scoffed and moved closer. "Not gonna happen. Are you here to visit? And why are you writing down random names? Did you drive in?"

She closed the electronic tablet and stood as she addressed his questions in order. "I'm in town to help put together a biographical history as part of the centennial. If my research goes well, my information will be ready by the time they open the new Jasper Gulch historical museum in December. I came into town tonight because I thought some of the old-timers coming in for the game could help fill in some time-line gaps I'm seeing." She didn't add that she assumed Wes Middleton was in charge of the game, and that if she'd known Jack was involved, she'd have shied away, but her expression made that clear.

"The car question?" She turned her gaze toward a red compact angled into a parking slot up the road. "I figured it would be dark by the time the meeting was done, or at least by the time I made it home, and walking the two-lane at dusk is stupid."

It was. Sun glare blurred the horizon and the road at dawn and dusk. She'd made a smart choice, but that was no big surprise. Her brilliance had earned her a prestigious scholarship to Stanford, while he'd been playing ball five hours south at UCLA. A long-distance relationship that worked until...

He cut that thought short by hooking a thumb south. "You got time to walk, Liv? Catch up? Somewhere that every citizen of Jasper Gulch isn't watching?"

Oh, she had time, all right. Nothing but time. And he was right about the citizenry because she'd been fielding questions about her marital status and Jack's single-guy life for the past seven days, as if one plus one should naturally equal two.

They didn't, of course. Not all equations worked out in mathematical precision, especially with human quotients.

But did she have the moxie to maintain polite distance from Jack McGuire, her first love? She hesitated, knowing she was vulnerable, lost in the kicked-up dust of a three-year marriage gone bad the year before.

She'd wanted a family.

Her husband had wanted a divorce. Since the two were at distinct odds, he had hightailed it out of their marriage and into the arms of a woman he'd met eighteen months before, a woman he'd married and had a baby with not long after the ink dried on the divorce decree. Which meant for well over a year Billy Margulies had been living a lie. She wasn't sure which hurt more—his lie or the fact that she fell for his act the entire time.

Jack tipped his gaze down, and that sweet expression, hinting question and tinged with humor, made her decision hard and easy. "Yes. I've got time for a walk. A quick one."

He rocked back on his heels and dipped his chin, total cowboy. He didn't reach for her hand as she slipped her iPad into the tooled-leather Western bag at her side, but he looked as if he wanted to hold her hand, and that evoked a wave of sweet memories best kept at bay.

Here in Jasper Gulch, where every storefront and street held a memory?

Keeping those thoughts in their place would be tough to do.

Tongue-tied.

Jack headed toward the old bridge, trudging the worn path with Olivia as he'd done so often in the past. But things were different now. Knowing that, understanding the ensuing years had gone downstream swift as minnows from the Big Timber fish hatchery, he knew nothing would negate the past, but he'd hurt this girl—woman, he corrected himself—and fate or God had put her in his path tonight. Maybe he could make amends.

"I hated you for a long time."

Jack quickly downscaled amends to initial-apology status. Amends would take longer. Like maybe forever. Or never. He winced inside because talking wasn't his strong point, and waded into the waters of repentance with "guilty as charged" stamped on his forehead. "You had reason to."

She acknowledged that with a questioning look. "Yes and no."

"My vote is yes because I threw a hissy fit about my injury, dumped you, chased off after a career I ended up not liking, then came back home with my tail tucked between my legs like a naughty pup."

"Your mother's illness brought you back," she corrected him. "And you did the right thing. But was it the job you hated, or the city?" She asked the question without looking at him, skimming right over the whole part where he admitted to dumping her. Breaking her heart.

Unless he hadn't broken her heart.

That thought rankled enough to have him clap a hand to the nape of his neck.

And then a surge of instant guilt sprouted because the idea she might not have been all that heartbroken irked him. What kind of man was he?

Shallow, self-absorbed, inwardly focused, take your pick, advised his conscience.

He preferred God-fearing, upright and responsible, but the past year had nudged his conscience into a more accurate appraisal. Ignoring the internal stab, he pondered her question as they approached the creek bank above the rapids. "Eventually I grew to hate both," he admitted. "I actually didn't mind the city at first. It was vibrant. Different. Full of life."

"Chicago's crazy fun," Olivia offered, and the way she said it, as if she'd been there, stopped him in his tracks.

"How do you know that?"

"I completed my studies on East Fifty-ninth Street in the university's Social Sciences Division."

Irked spiraled to flat-out irritated in a heartbeat. "You did your grad work at the University of Chicago? And never contacted me?"

This time she faced him, and the look she gave him, a mix of resignation and old hurt, put him flat in his place, just where he belonged. "You didn't want me, Jack. You made that clear. I wouldn't have even known you were there except that my parents mentioned it. But that didn't mean I shouldn't pursue my master's degree at one of the best schools in the country. So I did."

The thought of Livvie in Chicago all that time, while he was slogging away in investment banking, made his head spin. She'd known where he was, had proximity to him and didn't make contact.

You told her not to, scolded the internal voice again. Didn't your mother tell you not to say things you didn't mean?

She had, Jack knew. Back in kindergarten. He should have listened better.

"Because while the city was okay for a while, a means to an end," Livvie continued in an easy voice, "I was glad to get out of there. Come back to Big Sky country." She spread her hands out, leaned back and watched the encroaching night. "We used to count the stars at night, Jack. When they came out. Remember that?"

Oh, he remembered, all right. They'd look skyward and watch each star appear, summer, winter, spring and fall, each season offering its own array, a blend of favorites. Until they'd become distracted by other things. Sweet things.

A sigh welled from somewhere deep within him, a quiet blooming of what could have been. "I remember."

They stared upward, side by side, watching the sunset fade to streaks of lilac and gray. Town lights began to appear north of the bridge, winking on earlier now that it was August. "How long are you here?"

She faltered. "I'm not sure."

He turned to face her, puzzled.

"I'm between lives right now."

He raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to continue. She did, after drawn-out seconds, but didn't look at him. She kept her gaze up and out, watching the tree shadows darken and dim.

"I was married."

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