When a cowboy, meets the guy from the city, he can't know how much things will change.
On the spur of the moment, with his life collapsing around him, Jay Sullivan answers an ad for a business manager with an expertise in marketing, on a dude ranch in Montana.
With his sister, Ashley, niece, Kirsten and nephew, Josh, in tow, he moves lock stock and barrel from New York to Montana to start a new life on Crooked Tree Ranch.
Foreman and part owner of the ranch, ex rodeo star Nathaniel 'Nate' Todd has been running the dude ranch, for five years ever since his mentor Marcus Allen became ill.
His brothers convince him that he needs to get an expert in to help the business grow. He knows things have to change and but when the new guy turns up, with a troubled family in tow - he just isn't prepared for how much.
- 4 To Be Read lists
- 7 Read lists
Nate pinched the bridge of his nose and attempted to quell the combination of anger and fear churning inside him. When he’d woken to an absolutely perfect Montana morning, he hadn’t expected his day to turn sour so damn quickly. Zach’s voice on the end of the phone kept going, the tone a mixture of apology and demand.
“I’m sorry, Nate, if it were up to just me, then I’d let the feed delivery happen, but Dad is getting pissy with it being five months outstanding an’ all.”
“It’s probably an oversight,” Nate said quickly. Marcus was the one who looked after the accounts, and they’d never had problems before.
Nate had gone to school with Zach, and it was humiliating for someone Nate had spent much of his childhood around to be telling him this. Hell, Nate hated that people outside Crooked Tree might think they were struggling.READ MORE
Zach continued. “We spoke to Marcus last week, Nate. He said he was going to make good on the balance when we explained that the account was in arrears. I wasn’t going to bother you with this, but the account is still outstanding. I kinda felt I owed you an explanation since the order we got yesterday, isn’t going to be filled.”
Tension banded Nate’s head. This was the third supplier in the last week who had implied Crooked Tree was in arrears. Hell, not implied, two of them refused to deal with the ranch at all. Did they all talk to each other? Jeez. When the first supplier stopped their deliveries, Nate considered it was probably an error. He kept meaning to talk to Marcus about it, but never quite got around to it. And this was the second call he’d had to deal with. On the call before this one, when the veterinarian turned around and basically said no to the usual Crooked Tree meds order without citing a reason, Nate was angry but wasn’t sure where to place his anger. Things had been up and down with the suppliers over the last few years. One day Marcus was on the ball, the next he’d be wallowing in grief and unable to keep on top of things. It made for uncomfortable relationships with those to whom the ranch owed money.
“I need the feed,” Nate said. The door into the kitchen opened and Gabe walked in. Nate turned his back on his brother and spoke more quietly. “Take the money from my private account.”
Zach coughed and paused for a few moments. “You’ll need to top it up, Nate.”
“I’ll sort it this morning,” he said firmly. “You have my word.”
He ended the call and turned to face his brother, expecting to have to explain anything Gabe may have overheard. Instead, he didn’t have to worry. Gabe obviously had something on his mind if the concern written on his face was anything to go by.
“You need to come out and see this,” Gabe said. He turned and left without further explanation. Nate followed him and pushed the worry about the unpaid accounts to the back of his mind. He’d talk to Marcus as soon as he could.
“What’s wrong?” Nate asked worriedly. “Is it the horses? A guest?”
“It’s Luke,” Gabe said softly. Gabe pushed open the door of the small barn next to the house. Sunlight flooded the dim interior and dust motes danced in the breeze caused by opening the door. It took a few seconds to focus in on what Gabe was pointing at.
Luke, his youngest brother, lay on the floor naked, staring up at the roof and humming softly.
“Fuck, is he drunk?” Nate asked immediately.
Gabe picked up the small bag discarded by the door and handed it to Nate, who sniffed the contents. Weed. Nate knew immediately what his little brother, spirited and full of the need to explore his world, had done.
“Jeez,” Nate groaned. Then, squaring his shoulders, he crossed to where Luke lay.
“You’re not even seventeen yet,” Nate snapped at his youngest brother.
“July twenty-eighth today …” Luke slurred. “Hundred and fifty days ’til Christmas an’ my birthday. I wan’ a bike an’ a Barbie an’…” Luke giggled and held a hand in front of his face. He proceeded to examine his hand as if he hadn’t seen it before.
Nate despaired at the fact that whatever he said, Luke did what he wanted anyway. Luke looked up at him with a goofy grin and a spaced-out expression on his face. Nate bit back his temper.
“It won’t hurt him, Nate,” Gabe placated. “We were younger than him when we tried it.”
“We were rebelling, Gabe. What’s he got to rebel against? He does what he wants anyway. It’s not like we stop him.” That much was true. Luke was an independent teenager and a good kid—responsible, organized, everything Nate hadn’t been at sixteen.
Gabe shrugged, then chuckled. Great. Now he had Gabe laughing. Admittedly, finding Luke naked in the middle of their barn, staring up at the roof and talking about his Christmas Day birthday, was kinda funny on the surface. Still, drugs anywhere near his little brother were a dangerous matter and one Nate had to take seriously. Crossing his arms over his chest, Nate widened his stance. Add Luke high on pot to finding out Crooked Tree owed thousands in unpaid feed bills, and Nate was quietly losing his cool.
Gabe copied his stance, but he was still half-smiling. “Seems I remember you were sixteen when Mom found you stretched out in the backyard talking to the sky, and you told her you hadn’t been drinking.”
Nate heard what Gabe said and instantly recalled the day with the familiar grief of remembering his mom.
“That’s beside the point,” he said angrily. “You were younger than me when you did it, but we never got found out.” As he spoke, he knew what he was saying was complete crap and ever so slightly irrational. He also knew Gabe was going to call him on it.
“Mom always knew,” Gabe said.
“Luke should have realized.”
“What exactly are you angry at?” Gabe asked. “That Luke has pot, or that he was caught with it?”
Nate ignored Gabe pointedly. “You’re both my responsibility.”
He wasn’t lying. He wanted his brothers to have a different life from him, a better life, more choice. Why did they seem to follow what he did and then not listen to him? He wanted them to see that they could take a better path than the one he’d had to follow out of necessity.
Gabe thumped him on the arm. “Jesus, Nate, I stopped being your responsibility the day I turned eighteen.”
“I’m still the head of the family,” Nate snapped. That was always his final defense, and one he knew wouldn’t stand up with his brothers. Ever since their parents had died in 2004, when he was only eighteen, Gabe fourteen, and Luke barely six, he had assumed the mantle of sometimes-parent, even though he was fully aware it was a losing battle. Hell, Gabe had been an easy one, and Luke had been a good kid until he fell in with the Hemsley twins.
“Head of the family,” Gabe snorted, then bent at his waist in laughter.
Nate felt affronted, then realized what he had probably sounded like. “Fuck you,” he said without heat.
“Head! Family!” Gabe said again. He was evidently unable to stop laughing, and it was contagious.
Finally Nate couldn’t help but join in, and soon he was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes.
“Guys?” Luke interrupted their laughter. A frown marked his youthful features. He clambered to stand, and there was straw sticking out of his hair. Nate considered where else there was probably straw, and that started him off laughing again, his temper long forgotten.
“What do we do now?” Gabe asked with a grin.
Nate looked at Luke with deliberation and, in a smooth movement, had his youngest brother up and over his shoulder. He stalked out of the barn with Luke kicking and yelling. Gabe fell in the side of him and stopped Luke from kicking Nate’s stomach and his unprotected balls. In one fluid motion Nate upended his brother into the deep area of the runoff outside the house before standing back, with his hands on his hips, watching Luke flounder in the water. Finally Luke stopped panicking and surfaced with a snarl on his face.
“You fucker!” he snapped at Nate.
“Next time think on smoking that shit,” Nate said evenly.
“Next time I’ll think on not getting caught,” Luke shouted back.
“He has a point,” Gabe smirked.
Nate shook his head. His brothers were idiots. With a shove, he pushed Gabe into the same water, then with a whoop, splashed in after them.
“You’re freaking crazy!” Luke snapped.
Nate pushed his brother under the water and held him there, then released him. Luke popped up like a cork, spluttering and cursing.
“Mind your mouth,” Nate said with a grin.
Gabe lay on his back and floated in the water. He and Nate were dressed in jeans and sleeveless T-shirts and, thank God neither had taken time to pull on boots, both in sneakers. Nate joined his brother in the lazy floating and looked up at the canopy of trees that gave them shade. The water was icy cold after the hot August sun had burned into his skin all day. The latest group of vacationing wannabe cowboys had been hard work and Nate was feeling the ache in his head after another long day. A good ache in his muscles, but he could have done without the enthusiastic yee-hawing from the guests. Frightening the damn horses.
“It’s been pretty quiet the past month. Do we have bookings for next week?” Gabe asked as he floated close. Crooked Tree was at the height of the summer season, but even then, it wasn’t fully booked. They’d all dropped the baton on the place.
“Four families is all.” Nate would have shrugged if he’d been sitting, but it was near impossible to do when you were floating in the river.
“That’s pretty low. I think we should be worried.”
Their dad had owned a third of Crooked Tree, which had passed equally to his sons on his death. The three of them floating here had a stake in making the ranch pay, as well as an emotional connection with it.
“Marcus says we’re hitting targets and we’re covered ’til the end of the season,” Nate explained. He didn’t mention the fact the ranch had outstanding accounts with two feed places and the veterinarian. He wasn’t going to share with Gabe until he got to the root of it all. “He said we need to think of next year now.”
“He said the same thing to me,” Gabe admitted.
“You talked to him?”
Gabe huffed. “It’s what he always says, that next year will be better. But yeah, he came up this morning with the post, and we got to talking about the future of Crooked Tree. He was kinda deep about it all saying all this stuff about improvement and expansion. He’s all worried about the cabins we have empty—says he’s thinking of shutting down the Creek Cabins.”
Nate had the same idea. They only ever rented out maybe one or two a season and the others stood empty. Meanwhile some of the River Cabins were empty. If they could move the few bookings at the creek to the river, then they could cut down on overheads, like housekeeping, by having them all in one place, and also deliveries.
The ranch covered over twenty-nine thousand acres, bigger than the average Montana ranch. But Crooked Tree was one of those places where the owners were land rich, and cash poor. The actual tourist cabins on the dude ranch were laid out with three miles between them. Some of them fronted the six miles of private access the ranch had to the Blackfoot River, others were in the pine area behind and along the creek. Spread-out places gave people privacy but stretched the ranch some. Upfront costs were spiraling, feed wasn’t cheap, and Nate had been lying to himself when he hadn’t thought the recession would hit them as much as the next guy. They’d struggled to pay off loans taken out during the boom years when expansion seemed the way forward.
“Yeah,” Nate admitted. “Shutting ’em down is probably something we should think on.”
“Can I be honest with you about something?” Gabe turned from floating to treading water.
Nate copied, and Luke swam the short distance so that he was in on it as well. Nate didn’t want Luke to worry about the ranch at his age—wanted him to have more childhood yet, but he couldn’t deny that Luke, even at his young age, owned 11.1 percent of Crooked Tree and had an investment in it surviving.
Laughter was over, and Gabe was deadly serious. “We had two cancelations this week. Two of the larger cabins lost, and I think Marcus is looking for you to get a manager in, someone who can build the business side. I said I’d ask you for him.”
“Since when can’t Marcus talk to me direct?”
Since everything went to shit nine years ago, that’s when. Since Marcus had loosened his control of the ranch and lost himself first in depression, then in denial.
“Maybe he doesn’t want you thinking that what you’re doing isn’t enough. Hell, we all know that without your winnings, we’d be screwed.”
Nate bit his lip. He hated that, just because he plowed his bull-riding winnings into the ranch, everyone trod on eggshells around him, looking for him to make decisions and drive things forward. Marcus had carried the ranch for the last nine years, ever since his youngest son, Justin, had vanished, taking Marcus’s drive to make Crooked Tree survive with him. And his other son, Ethan? He was never here, lost in the need to find his brother, even after all this time.
“Yeah, and last time he talked to you about a manager, you kinda lost it,” Luke interrupted.
“That’s what Marcus should be doing,” Nate said evenly. He recalled the day Marcus suggested getting in a third party to market the ranch. Looking at the rows of figures that Marcus was showing him was embarrassing. He couldn’t make head or tail of overheads, profit and loss, or balance sheets. Numbers eluded him, but then, writing pretty much did as well. You didn’t need either to ride the eight-second dream. You lived and rode, or you fell and lost—that was an easy equation.
Nate couldn’t admit that to Gabe and Luke… hell, they looked up to him. They assumed his lack of education was due to the fact he left school early to trail the rodeo. He wasn’t going to correct them in any way. He’d worked hard at his profession, earned good money, and he was lucky that Gabe and Luke had a place to be when he wasn’t around. He owed Marcus for that. The old man had been a surrogate father to Nate’s brothers in more ways than one.
“I’ll talk to him.”
“Tonight?” Gabe asked gently.
“Tonight. In fact, I’m going there next—”
“I don’t feel so good,” Luke interrupted suddenly. He scrambled to shore before losing whatever was in his stomach to the undergrowth. Gabe made a move to go help, but Nate stopped him.
“He’ll be fine,” he said. “He’ll learn better if we don’t fuss. He won’t want his brothers around him when he’s ill.”
Gabe nodded. “When did you get so wise?”
“Since I made the mistake of clearing up your vomit when you were his age. Didn’t teach you a thing.”
He swam to the edge and heaved himself out, and Gabe followed.
“Bacon sandwich, Luke?” Gabe shouted. When retching sounds echoed from Luke’s space, Nate took that as a no.COLLAPSE
The Way She Reads on The Way She Reads wrote:
The Jeep Diva - 5/5 - "....Ms. Scott provided a fantastic story with passionate personalities. The secondary characters added life to the tale and I look forward to reading each of the brother’s story and the others at Crooked Tree Ranch.
R.J. Scott never disappoints in her writing, creating a world the bounces off the pages and captures one’s attention.
A terrific start to a new series, and one that I will definitely be reading...."
Love Romances & More on Love Romances & More wrote:
The Way She Reads - "....I love books in which two characters that couldn’t be more different and unlikely to end up together, find their way to each other. And Jay and Nate are as close to complete opposites as it is possible to get…or are they? One may be a city-slicker while the other is cowboy through and through; the one common denominator between the two of them is unmistakable: family. And both men will do whatever it takes to keep their loved ones safe....
....Ultimately the tag line for Crooked Tree Range the book could be the same as the tag line for Crooked Tree Range the resort: Both are all about putting family first— a sentiment that’s bound to leave you feeling happy, just as it did me...."
Joyfully Jay on Joyfully Jay wrote:
Love Romances & More - 4/5 "...It’s the characters that just make this author’s books come alive. From the Todd brothers to Jay’s troubled family to the mysterious Marcus and his son who are also owners of the ranch with the Todd family to Sam the chef who wants his very own cowboy of his own. The variety of characters kept my attention and stole what was left of my heart-after the Todd brothers of course. This is an author who knows how to let her characters shine and show their vulnerabilities as well as their open heart to the readers."
Joyfully Jay - 4.75/5 - "....Crooked Tree Ranch is the first in R.J. Scott’s new series Montana, and I am already dying for the next book. This story is full of drama, mystery, and super-hot moments. I am a huge fan of Scott and her ability to draw me into a story. Crooked Tree Ranch is just another example of why I love her books so much...."