Surviving Love (Montana Wilds Book 1)

Surviving Love
Willow Summers

C
opyright
© 2015 by Willow Summers

All rights reserved. The people, places and situations contained in this ebook are figments of the author’s imagination and in no way reflect real or true events.

Synopsis

S
ara thought
she had it all, but when her life turns upside-down, she does the only thing she can think of: pack up and follow a childhood dream. She takes a job on a dude ranch in rural Montana hoping to pick up the pieces.

She never thought she’d see him again.

Mike Frost is all grown up. 6’2” of solid muscle, he's the best friend from her youth, and the man every woman wants. With a list of successes a mile long, Mike has it all…

Except for the one that got away.

Sometimes you have to start over to find your happily ever after.

Other Titles by Willow Summers

M
ontana
Wilds

Surviving Love

Conquering Love

P
lease Series

Yes, Please

Now, Please

More, Please

Forever, Please

J
essica Brodie Diaries

Back in the Saddle, Book 1

Hanging On, Book 2

A Wild Ride, Book 3

G
rowing
Pains Series

Lost and Found, Book 1

Overcoming Fear, Book 2

Butterflies in Honey, Book 3

Love & Chaos; Cassie’s Story

C
heck them out
here
.

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Chapter 1

M
ikey held up his hand
, palm out. She placed her own palm to his and threaded their fingers together. Warmth seeped into her hand. Tears drowned her eyes.

Mikey gave her a small smile. “This isn’t goodbye—it’s see you on the flip side.”

“The flip side of what, Mikey? The moon? Don’t be weird right now; this is serious. I don’t have any friends besides you. Who’s going to come over when I have a crisis? Or when I’m freaking out and need a dose of reality?”

They’d been friends since they could walk. Before that, even. She’d learned everything right by Mikey’s side—faced her nightmares holding his hand. Eleven years of him being only across the street, he’d become her best friend or worst enemy, depending on her mood. He was only a couple years older, and only lately a tiny bit more mature—she’d thought they’d be friends forever. And now he was leaving. Being ripped away by his family.

He leaned closer. His face, thinner now that the baby fat of youth was burning away, came within inches. His breath splashed across her wet eyelashes. Another tear leaked from her eye as a strange hum she didn’t understand started in the base of her stomach.

“Please Mikey, don’t leave me. Please,” she whispered with a quivering voice. “Stay here and live with me. My parents would take you in. I know they would. Please don’t leave me.”

“Only for now.” His lips touched hers, sweet and soft. His eyes sparkled as they delved into her. “Only for now, Sara, okay? Don’t forget me. You’ll be in my heart always. In a couple years, when you reach your teens, we’ll figure it out. We’ll find each other, okay? I’m going to marry you.”

She leaned into him, stealing as much of his warmth as she could. Trying to memorize his smell. Wondering what she’d do when he left.

“Mikey, let’s go!” his dad yelled, waiting beside the open car door.

Mikey’s gaze reached down into Sara’s, flicking away all her barriers and touching a place so deep, so hidden, that she barely knew it existed. Emotion stirred up butterflies in her stomach.

“Just for now, okay?” he whispered. “When I’m old enough I’ll look after you. I’ll have a great job, and a big house, and a car, and all that stuff. I’ll take care of you.”

“My parents can take care of me. I need my best friend.”

“I’ll always be your best friend. And one day you’ll realize that you want someone to look after you. When you do, it’ll be me, okay?”

“Mikey!” his dad yelled, a warning in his voice.

“Don’t forget about me,” Mikey said one last time, the promise in his eyes sucking her in. With one last, tentative kiss, he took his hand from hers and walked away.

The sound of the car door slamming was like a shotgun blast.

The last thing she saw was her best friend, face in the rear window, waving as the car drove away. Her tears overflowed.

She was too young to realize that part of her drove away with him.

Chapter 2

S
ara sat
at the picnic table in the bright sunlight, her head bowed over her hands. Within her fingers twirled a broken promise, the sun glinting merrily off its solitary diamond. The ring stopped in its movement for a moment so she could reach up and wipe away a tear.

She and Phil had been high-school sweethearts, their love maturing through college. After graduation the ring had been slipped on her finger as sweet words of devotion rang through her ears. She couldn’t ever remember being happier; more loved.

Five years later they still lived in the small house they rented in the suburbs. Tiny warnings had started sounding in Sara’s mind, but she still wasn’t overly worried—she had plenty of time for kids. The wedding would come when they saved a bit more, and so would her dream house.

Four words and her name ended it all. “Sara, we need to talk.”

He’d found someone new. Someone younger and prettier, without the few gray hairs and softly etched laugh lines. Sara was only thirty, but the stress of steep credit card debt and her fiancé’s frivolous spending hadn’t been kind. Next to a twenty-two year old, she looked weathered and jaded. Worse, she had nothing left to offer—no tricks to play to entice Phil to stay. Instead, she had watched out the window as he got into his new car and drove away, never once checking his rearview mirror to say goodbye to the life he was leaving behind.

Sara’s head bent a little lower over the picnic table. She just hadn’t seen it coming.

She took a deep breath and straightened up. There was no use crying about it now. What’s done was done. Time to move on.

Wiping her face, she heaved herself off the bench and slipped the reminder of failed promises into her jeans pocket. Tears wouldn’t bring him back. And even if they would, she didn’t want him anymore, anyway. She had someone to find within herself somewhere, and it would start today.

As the large airport shuttle rolled to a stop, she stepped forward, a bus ticket in her hand, a plane ticket in her purse, and her life just beginning.

A
few hours later
, Sara was walking out of baggage claim with her duffel bag in her hand, a smile on her face, and her heart on her sleeve. She’d start her new life in her childhood dream location—Montana. She’d always wanted to set up a cute house with a couple of horses and a ton of land. She had no idea how she’d support herself long term, but the word
practical
was for people whose “happily ever after” hadn’t gone up in flames. Chasing dreams was now the top priority, and she couldn’t wait to get started.

“You Sara?”

A man stood off to the side of the sleepy airport terminal. He held a half-sheet of paper with her name written in a spidery scrawl. His crumpled tweed hat sat lopsided on his graying head. Old blue jeans matched his dirt-stained fingers, complemented by worn work boots.

A thrill accosted her as she stepped over, nervousness mingling with hope as she beamed in greeting. “Yup! Yes I am. Are you from the ranch?”

He jerked his head to the right as he reached for her duffel.

“Oh, it’s okay. I got it.”

He stared at her, his hand hovering in the air.

“Oh… okay.” Gingerly, she gave him the crisp blue duffel bag.

Without a word, he turned and started walking toward the exit.

“Thanks for coming for me,” Sara chirped as she hastened to catch up. “I really appreciate it!”

They stepped through the sliding glass doors and onto the sidewalk. With a slow pace, the man walked to a truck idling nosily by the curb. Beaten to hell, with the dents to show for it, the faded gray vehicle sat empty, waiting for its owner like a beloved Labrador.

“Aren’t you worried your truck will get stolen?” Sara asked, sparing a glance for the people passing by.

The man eased her duffel into the truck bed before heading to the driver’s-side door. “Ain’t no one stole it yet. Reckon it’s too old.”

Made sense.

Sara yanked the passenger door open before climbing onto the flat bench seat. The foam showed through various rips and holes, kept from ripping further with duct tape. She pulled her door closed, only to have it bounce off the metal casing with a loud
clang
.

“Gotta slam it.”

With two hands she tried again, giving it all her strength. This time the whole truck shook as the door lodged in place.

“You in?” The man’s pale blue gaze slid her way.

“Uh, I think so…” She dug her hand into the crack of the seat for the latch to her seatbelt.

“Seatbelt don’t work.”

All righty, then.

Rivaling most jet engines for noise, the truck lurched forward before crawling out into the lane.

“Anyway, thanks again for coming to get me. It was really nice of you—I didn’t catch your name…” Sara let the sentence linger in expectation.

“Jake.”

“Oh hi, Jake. Thanks for picking me up.”

Jake had one hand on the steering wheel, the other on his knee, looking out through the cracked windshield. Silence loitered a little too long.

“I’m Sara,” she tried. Then laughed to herself. “But then, you already knew that, I guess. I mean, you wrote it on the sign, so…”

Her words drifted through the cab. Jake continued to stare out the windshield without comment.

She cleared her throat, a nervous habit she couldn’t seem to get rid of, and clasped her hands in her lap. Intending to remain quiet, since that seemed to be his default setting, she noticed the giant blue sky looming over them.

“So far Montana looks as beautiful as everyone says it is.” She’d never been very good at the Silence Game. “Have you been here long?”

“All my life.”

She nodded, clasping her hands a little tighter to combat the awkwardness of silence. It wasn’t working. “I’m from Nevada. About an hour outside Reno. You ever been to Reno?”

“Nope.”

Nodding again, eyes scanning the increasingly sparse landscape, she continued with, “Yeah, Reno used to be a big tourist spot, but not so much anymore. Vegas is the big attraction now. Oh, there’s a few shows now and again, but nothing like it used to be. You ever been to Vegas?”

“Nope.”

Jake leaned forward to look out his side window, trying to glimpse behind the truck, since his driver’s-side mirror was cracked and half gone. He flicked on the turn signal, the rhythmic clicking drowning out the cab. Once the lane change was completed, they were dunked in silence again.

Sara grimaced comically to herself, wiggling her eyebrows, trying to will movement to fill the empty space. It didn’t work.

She stared at the looming clouds, puffy white with hints of gray dotting the large blue canvas. She switched her gaze to the yellow-flowered weeds at the side of the road, watching them flash by. Even the weeds were green and lovely in Montana. Not like Nevada. Everywhere was brown, sand, and dirt.

Sara’s thoughts turned to the ring resting heavy against her thigh. It dragged down her pocket and sucked at her thoughts.

She wondered if he had bought the new fiancée a bigger diamond, one with more sparkle. But how would he get the credit? Without Sara, Phil’s credit rating was terrible!

She bet it had something to do with Phil’s deadbeat friend, Aaron. Aaron had probably given him a stolen credit card. Or, hell, a stolen diamond. Sara wouldn’t put it past him. That guy had been nothing but bad news for Phil, getting him involved in pyramid schemes and bad deals, not to mention getting him started on drugs. Sara had bailed Phil out of the financial issues and bled tears trying to get him off crack. She’d done her best to get his life back on track.

And for what? All that, for what?

She dragged her thoughts back into the present. It didn’t matter. That had happened, and yes, it had been a speed bump in her life, but only a quitter would let it drag her down. She wasn’t going to let him beat her.

“Do you work at the ranch?” Sara asked absently.

“I take care of the horses and livestock. Organize the help.”

“Oh wow! Cool. I’ve never ridden a horse, so that should be fun. I think my real job is waitressing and helping in the kitchen a little, but we get to volunteer on the dude ranch, so I will definitely do that. I want to learn all I can this summer.”

Sara took a deep breath, marveling at the landscape. Green rolling hills and bright blue sky seemingly stretched to infinity. The motor droned on.

Would Phil actually go through with the marriage this time? Or would he trade this new girl for a younger one when she started to show her age, too?

Sara’s fists tightened. It didn’t matter!

“So… is there a large staff at this place?” Sara asked. “Probably depends on the tourists. Are there many tourists that come through?”

Jake took a deep breath, the hand on his knee jerking absently. “We got us a nice little ranch with room for about fifteen families. Not too many house staff—you ’n another gal, plus two cooks. That don’t include the cleaning people. Then the ranch hands. I look after them. They’ll tell you all you need to hear at the meetin’ tomorra.”

He said “tomorrow” like her grandparents did, stripping down the ending and filling it back in with a pleasant “ah” sound.

A weight settled on Sara’s chest as homesickness overwhelmed her. Followed by a burst of pain when she realized she no longer had a home. Not one of her own. She’d sold everything in the house, got the deposit back, and paid off, then canceled, all their credit cards. She sold the car out from under Phil a week later, paying off a gambling debt that he’d kindly fastened to her name as a cosigner, and closed that account, too.

But then, he had a new car now. Somehow.

Still, she was debt free for the first time in a very long time. She had nothing to do now but look forward. She would triumph in the end. She would!

A
n hour later
, the rusty old truck climbed a mountain road into landscape that literally took Sara’s breath away. The green of nature shone through the truck’s windows before dropping away and landing on a valley floor far below. She could just make out a shimmering river as it ran through the valley. Snowcapped mountains rose in the distance.

“It’s beautiful!” she said.

The truck stopped a hundred yards from a wooden archway, the vaulted sign reading “Triple T Ranch.” Jake rolled down his window and leaned back, looking out over the steep mountain drop. He didn’t say a word, but Sara realized this was his way of sharing the moment. Allowing her to take a second and marvel at the beauty.

After she’d had a long look, the truck wheezed to a start again, coughing up the remainder of the hill to a collection of low, squatting log buildings nestled between the trees. Sara hopped out as the truck rocked to a stop, ready to retrieve her duffel bag from the stoic ranch hand. Instead, she followed like a puppy as he shouldered it and walked to the larger main house, spying someone coming out of the entrance and gesturing him over.

“What’s up, Jake?” a guy in his twenties said with a bobbing head. He had spiky hair and a cute, boyish face. His gaze swept past Jake and landed on Sara. His smile flicked brighter. “Hi. I’m Sam.”

“Hi. Sara.”

“She’s house staff,” Jake said, transferring the pack to the new guy. He turned to Sara and tipped his head. “Welcome home.”

Warmth spread through Sara’s middle, followed by a pleased smile. A moment later, Jake was in his truck, the engine roaring as it lumbered away around the house.

“Hi, again. Welcome,” Sam said with a big smile. “C’mon, I’ll show you the way. Where you from?”

“A small town outside Reno—I can carry my pack if you want…”

Sam led her along a wide porch wrapping around the large house. “Nah, I got it. I’ve been to Reno—neat. So, this is the main house. This is where the guests congregate. You’ll stay in the back with the house staff. Staff doesn’t use the front entrance. That’s reserved for guests only. They gawk. We use this one—” Sam held a door open.

As Sara ducked through, she was greeted with pretty basic décor. Cream walls housing a few pictures of landscape—probably Montana’s. There were two couches, a coffee table, and a TV. No people.

“This is the rec room for staff. You’re here, what, four or five months?” Sam paused just inside the doorway.

“Yes,” Sara answered as she had a look around. “The summer for guests and then a month or so to help shut it down.”

“Cool. I’m only here the summer. Anyway, this is the room everyone hangs out in when they have some time off and want to be inside. Usually we’re outside, though. I’ll show you the fire pit later. You’re through here…”

They entered a hallway off the main room and turned right, passing an empty industrial kitchen with a long wooden table.

“We eat in the kitchen, or, again, outside. Most things we do are outside, for obvious reasons. I mean, Montana is much too pretty to be inside all the time, right?”

“Where do you sleep?” Sara asked, noticing them approaching two rooms.

“Already planning to seduce me?”

Sara ducked her head in embarrassment, only realizing how it sounded after the fact.

“Relax.” Sam laughed. “I’m just kidding. Look at your face—you’d think I caught you naked!” He laughed again as he stopped in front of an open door. “I stay in the west bunker. The outside seasonal staff stay together there. That way we’re closer to our duties.”

“Got it. What do you do?”

“I assist the survival expert, mostly.”

“I’ve heard of the TV shows where someone films themselves stranded, but what’s a survival expert?”

Sam’s eyes widened. “Oh, man! It’s cool. He teaches you how to survive in the wild. Like, if you get lost, or something bad happens and you’re stranded, he teaches you how to stay alive until you’re rescued. He has a couple of books out and everything. People come here specifically to take his classes.”

“Oh, wow. Sounds neat.”

He smiled like a little boy at Christmas. “It is. This is my second year as his assistant. He only picks one, so…” Sam shrugged. “It’s kind of a big deal.”

Sara laughed. “Congratulations.”

His eyes were twinkling as they beheld her, smiling down in good humor. “I really hope you like it here. I’ll see you soon, okay? I’ve been here a few seasons in a row. I pretty much know how things run. Just let me know if you need anything…”

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