Big Sky Cowboys Book #1
(Mel Shaw and Dan Sharpe)
UNDER A BIG SKY
For hotshot NHL star Dan Sharpe, hockey isn’t just his job-it’s his everything. But when claims of cheating get him bounced from the ice, he finds himself feeling lost. Everyone thinks he’s crazy for taking on his grandfather’s ramshackle Montana ranch, but hey, he’s Dan Sharpe: how hard can it be?
As it turns out? Plenty hard.
Mel Shaw has been fighting tooth and nail to keep her family from falling apart. The last thing she needs is a distraction, but taking a job as some city slicker’s consultant may be her only chance to save the land she loves. But she never expected someone like Dan to come roaring into her life, and it doesn’t take long for Mel to realize this hockey-star-turned-cowboy has the power to upend her carefully ordered world-and heart-for good.
Other Books In This Series:
Praise for Rebel Cowboy:
“Rebel Cowboy is a beautifully crafted romance… The end of the story is just perfect. It’s believable, and exactly right for these characters, especially since their journey to this point was rocky at best. I loved this book and look forward to more books in this series as well as other stories by Nicole Helm.” – USA Today Happily Ever After
“Helm delves into the depths of her characters’ emotions, revealing their foibles and making them incredibly human. With plenty of sexual tension and scintillating love scenes, this romance is a true page-turner. ” – Publishers Weekly
“REBEL COWBOY is recommended for anyone who likes slow burn emotional stories with hot sex, anyone who likes tales of folks bringing new life to one another and anyone who gets a kick out of alpacas.” – Fresh Fiction
“Rebel Cowboy is a sweet and sexy introduction to the Big Sky Cowboys series.” – Book Reviews and More
Mel Shaw reined in her horse at the crest of the familiar path that wound its way around the Shaw ranch.
She’d ridden this trail her entire life. On her eighteenth birthday, she’d ridden it with her father. On this very spot he’d told her, someday, what lay below would be hers. It had all been very Lion King, and in that moment, an amazing gift. This awe-inspiring tract of land in the shadow of barely snow-peaked mountains would someday be entrusted to her.
Someday had turned out to mean five years, almost to the day, when a freak accident had put her in charge…of a barely surviving ranch, a delinquent brother determined to burn every Shaw bridge, an injured and withdrawn father, thousands of dollars in medical bills, and livestock that needed to be cared for and tended daily.
These days it felt more like a noose than a gift. But it was a noose she loved.
Mel took a deep breath, squaring her shoulders and squinting into the blue sky. All this was for nothing. She wasn’t giving up leadership here for very long—three months at most. And Caleb…Caleb could handle this.
Maybe if she repeated that to herself enough, she’d actually believe it. Her younger brother had gotten his act together in the past few years. When they thought Dad would die, he’d changed. She could trust him to take the reins now.
Regardless, she didn’t have a choice. The Shaw ranch stretched before her, like her heart laid out on display along the edge of Blue Valley, Montana. Every barn, work building, even the old house, was looking weary in the early summer morning light. Spring had not been kind.
The years had not been kind.
But she would turn them around. Some idiot hockey player wanting to drop twenty grand on a consultant was just the financial stopgap she needed to get things really going again. They could start to rebuild some of those partnerships that debt, and Caleb, had compromised, to rebuild the cattle herd that had diminished to next to nothing. They could be Shaw again.
The clopping sound of another horse on the trail behind her interrupted the quiet. She didn’t bother turning around—it could only be one person.
“It’ll be okay.”
“I know.” She’d gotten a lot better at lying to Caleb since Dad’s accident. Everything will be okay. I’m not even tired. Who needs a foreman?
“I won’t disappoint you.”
“I know that too.” She offered him a smile as he brought his horse to a stop next to hers. He looked impossibly young to her, even though she was only two years older. Before the accident, Dad had always joked she’d been born older, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Apparently destined to be on the hook for a failing business.
Only she didn’t have hero Harry to rescue her. She had a brother who’d alienated everyone in town, finishing the job Mom had started before she abandoned them twenty-some years ago.
Mel swore she could feel the noose tightening, making it harder to breathe. Harder to lie. She tried to shake it off—all the memories, all the doubts, all the responsibilities piling up against her.
She was taking the reins, taking this summer job away from the ranch. She was going to save them. She was, and Caleb was going to help. He’d found a constructive way to deal with whatever demons had plagued him. Demons she’d never understood—demons he’d never let her understand.
She had to believe in him. Trust him. Unclench a little.
“Will you get me his autograph?”
“Sure.” She paused for effect, then gave Caleb her best big-sister glare. “On my paycheck.”
Caleb laughed. “Had to ask.” He cleared his throat, staring hard at the ranch below. “I know I’ve said it before—”
“Then don’t say it again. The situation is what it is. I’m done with apologies. All that matters is we’re doing what’s best for Shaw.” That’s all that would ever matter.
“What about what’s best for you?”
She clicked her tongue, turning the horse around so she could head back to the main house. “Shaw is me, Caleb.” The thing she could count on no matter what. Each peak in the distance, each slightly leaning building, every blade of grass that came back year after year. It was her center, her core. It was her; she was it. Always.
Everyone around her might let her down, but this place couldn’t.
Dan Sharpe rolled off the most uncomfortable mattress he could remember ever spending a night on. The twinge in his back as he stood reminded him of the indisputable fact that he was getting old.
Thirty-five meant he was no longer the young phenom on his team.
The sad fact of the matter was, his teammates looked at him like he was as old as his famous father.
That’s not the only way they look at you.
What did it matter? Technically they were no longer his teammates. His contract was up, and after screwing the pooch in two Stanley Cups, rumors were starting to swirl that his complete cave under playoff pressure wasn’t so much psychological as it was criminal. His agent thought there’d even be an investigation.
Dan scrubbed his hands over his face and walked over bowed floorboards to a tiny en suite bathroom that had seen better days. Probably twenty years ago, before Grandma and Grandpa had moved south and rented the old Paulle place out.
Apparently rented it out to people who didn’t care much for comfort or things of this century.
Which was fine. Part of this self-exile was about pushing himself out of his comfort zone and doing some hard work that had nothing to do with hockey. Far away from any rumors that he was some game-throwing asshole. Let the NHL investigate. In fact, he hoped they did, because he’d be proven innocent. Sure, he was still an asshole, but he was not a cheater.
The pounding coming from the front of the house was muffled enough that Dan thought about ignoring it, but then he remembered his consultant was supposed to be showing up today.
He had no idea what time it was. Crap. He grabbed a T-shirt out of his suitcase and pulled it on as he walked through the old hallway he just barely remembered from his childhood, through the kitchen decorated in blue ducks, of all things, and to the front door.
Buck, the guy who’d been doing maintenance for his grandparents the past few years, stood on the porch next to a young woman. They were both smiling…until they looked at him.
Then those smiles died. While he was pretty sure it had nothing to do with hockey, he’d been on the end of that change enough times to fall back into old habits. Because if people weren’t going to be happy to see you, why not make them really unhappy?
“Howdy, partners,” he said.
The woman’s cool expression went to pure ice, jaw setting, dark eyes not even bothering to meet his. “Mr. Sharpe, I assume.”
“And you are?”
She stuck out her hand, grudgingly it seemed. Like she didn’t want to touch him. Or even be here. Not the normal reaction from women who sought him out. “Mel Shaw.”
He tried to keep the shock from showing on his face, but he couldn’t manage it. When Buck had suggested Mel for the job, he’d never mentioned she was a woman. A young woman. A young, attractive woman, even under all the cowgirl garb she had going on.
She was tall, her hair a rich brunette. She had a pert nose dusted with freckles, and a lush mouth that didn’t match the sharp angles of the rest of her. Her hand wasn’t soft as it shook his, but she had long, delicate fingers.
Not at all the picture of Mel Shaw he’d had in his head when Buck said he’d arrange for a summer consultant.
Mel glared at Buck as she dropped his hand. “You didn’t tell him?”
“Sorry, too fun.”
“You’re a jerk, Buck.”
“Anyway, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.” The man tipped his hat, and if Dan wasn’t mistaken, laughed himself all the way back to his truck.
Dan’s Harley looked out of place sandwiched between two old, huge pickup trucks. He looked back to the woman on his porch to find that nothing about her irritated expression had changed.
“I don’t care that you’re a woman.” He didn’t. Really. She was wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, jeans streaked with dirt and dust, and a plaid button-up shirt. In every respect, she appeared to be the real deal. It didn’t matter that she also had breasts.
Which she then crossed her arms over, because apparently he’d been staring. Crap.
“And I don’t care that you’re some hotshot hockey player, so I guess we’re even.”
“Well, calling me a hot anything kind of says otherwise.”
She looked to the sky and took a deep breath. “Mr. Sharpe, I think we’re getting off on the wrong foot.”
“You’re right. Come on in.”
She furrowed her brow at him. “You’re not even dressed.”
Dan looked down at his T-shirt and ratty gym shorts. “Well, I’m not naked.”
Her cheeks went a little pink, and he couldn’t stop himself from grinning. Of course, the grin that usually caused women to bat their lashes or slip him their number just caused Cowgirl to roll her eyes.
“I bet you expect women to drop their clothes when you smirk like that.”
He wasn’t sure why her disdain struck him as funny, but it did. Maybe because it had nothing to do with the rumors, nothing to do with him booting the puck more times than a reasonable person could think was an accident.
“Well, Mel, can’t say I’d mind that.”
The pink in her cheeks went darker, but she fixed him with a glare. “Watch it, buddy. I may need the money, but you try to sexually harass me and your balls will be in some serious danger.”
He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Let me point out that you were the one who brought up taking off your clothes, not me. Still, I apologize. I’m not really known for saying the right thing at the right time.” No, Dan Sharpe had a habit of always doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Funny, none of his teammates had cared until last year. Probably because until then, hockey was the only thing he’d never screwed up.
Guess there was a first time for everything.
Which was why he was here. Hiding out. Couldn’t say the wrong thing to the press if they weren’t around. Couldn’t mess it up more, make everyone’s life harder if he was far, far away.
That was the hope anyway. His hope, his agent’s hope, and though Dad hadn’t been anything but encouraging, Dan had a feeling he was really hoping his son didn’t screw up his chances at a front office promotion.
Besides, Grandpa had once said this place had meaning. Dan might be needing some of that meaning in his life if hockey evaporated.
Damn, but he needed to get his shit together. He turned back into the kitchen, leaving the door open for Mel. “Coffee?”
“Please tell me you didn’t just roll out of bed.” She stepped inside, eyes immediately assessing the kitchen as she took off her hat and placed it on the counter. She looked even younger without the hat, with freckles, a fresh face, and her dark hair pulled back into a serviceable braid.
But his eyes kept falling to her mouth. It made him think of a different kind of servicing.
Which was super douchey, even for him.
“I’m still working on the time change,” he offered by way of sad excuse. Bottom line, he had no idea what time it was. The clocks in this place were all wrong. His phone had died last night, and he hadn’t felt much like charging it—not when all the calls seemed to be more bad news.
“Yeah, that one-hour difference must be a real bitch.”
He snorted in surprise. Mel Shaw was an interesting development. He’d been expecting some crusty old stodger to yell orders at him while he slaved over menial tasks. Truthfully, there had been some appeal in that.
There was some appeal in Mel doing the same, though. Anything to keep his mind occupied was A-OK in his book. Since he couldn’t skate to clear his thoughts like he usually did, this was the only other thing he could think to do.
“All right. First, you need to get dressed. Into clothes you can actually do some serious work in. You’re also going to need a different vehicle. I’m assuming money’s no object for you, and you’ll need something with hauling capabilities. Besides, that bike will get eaten up driving around out here.”
She said it with such obvious disdain, like he hadn’t worked hard for his money. Sure, he wasn’t saving the world one blown Stanley Cup game at a time, but he was sacrificing his body and possibly a healthy old age for the fans’ enjoyment. He wasn’t exactly sitting on his ass having gold coins thrown at him.
“You’re giving a lot of orders to a guy who’s your boss.”
She kept her arms crossed over her chest. “You’re not my boss. Consultant means my job is telling you what to do.”
“I’m paying you.”
“You’re paying me to teach you how to run this place. That means I’m in charge and you listen to what I say. Basically, you’re paying me to be your boss. Keep that in mind. Now, go get dressed so we can actually get some work done around here.” She gestured to the back of the house. “I’ll make the coffee.”
He didn’t move or say anything at first—just watched her. She certainly looked like Ms. Tough Guy, but she also didn’t meet his gaze, and she looked uncomfortable, maybe even restless. Like this job was the last thing she wanted to be doing with her time.
So, he gave a little nod. “Can’t say no to that. I like mine with cream.”
She snorted, turning to the coffeepot. “Of course you do,” she muttered.
He had to chuckle. Three months of going toe-to-toe with some cowgirl with an attitude problem sounded a hell of a lot better than flashbulbs, veiled and not-so-veiled accusations.
And who knew? It could even be fun.