Montana Dreams

Read the Excerpt

“MY DINNER RESERVATION is for seven o’clock.” Peyton Harrison clicked her compact shut and, from the back of the Lincoln Town Car, looked out the windshield as the car veered toward the turnoff to the 101. “It would be faster to just stay on—”

“Yes, ma’am.” The comment didn’t come from her driver but from the man sitting in the passenger seat diagonally across from her.

Peyton bit back a sigh and tried not to stare daggers into the back of Matteo Rossi’s head. A head covered in thick, glossy, black hair. It irritated her how often, in the last three weeks, she’d had the urge to run her fingers through that hair even as he lurked. Lurked. Followed. Hovered.

“An escort really wasn’t nec…” She trailed off when Matteo turned and locked obsidian, sharp eyes on her. He didn’t say a word. His expression never flickered. He just looked at her. What was he thinking when he did that? “Right.” She offered a half smile and sank back in the corner of the seat. “You have a job to do.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Needing a distraction, Peyton flipped open her bag and stuffed her compact inside. She was the senior vice president of a Fortune 500 technology company. She closed deals worth millions, sometimes billions of dollars and quicker than most people drank a cup of coffee. She didn’t let irritating, overbearing men doing their job get to her. Besides, Peyton chewed on the inside of her cheek, he seemed to take a bit of pleasure in knowing he irritated her. “Don’t you ever get tired of ordering people around?”

She caught it, a quick twitch of his lips when he said something to her driver, pointing out the window.

“I don’t order, ma’am. I strongly suggest.”

Seemed everyone strongly suggested these days. Her sisters had strongly suggested she throw herself full bore into the tilt-a-whirl family fray that had descended on them a little over two months ago. Her stepfather strongly suggested—albeit in his usual loving, generational-gap way—that it was time for her to look beyond her career and consider getting married and settling down. Most recently her bosses at Electryone Technologies strongly suggested (translation: decided for her) that she be assigned a bodyguard for the foreseeable future.

Frustration prickled at her like needles on her skin. For a woman who had made her mark in the business world, she seemed to have very little control of her life. The stress headache she’d managed to keep at bay now pulsed, and she squeezed her eyes shut in an effort to will it away.

It wasn’t unheard of for the powers that be of million-dollar companies, when the need arose, to provide protection to their higher-ups. Peyton was well aware she could be difficult to work with and for, at times, but she’d always prided herself on being fair. Had she made enemies? Probably. No one achieved significant success without making a few. But Peyton wasn’t convinced a few disturbing letters merited hiring a former Marine turned professional bodyguard.

Especially a bodyguard who had the unnerving tendency to distract her merely by stepping into her line of sight.

Peyton blew out a breath, fanned her face to stop the heat from rising in her cheeks. When she reached for the power-window button, Matteo looked at her again. “We’re almost there, Ms. Harrison. Please keep the window closed.”

Irritation slipped free, and Peyton rolled her eyes. “Unless it’s bulletproof glass—” The very idea of anyone taking a shot at her made her feel like she’d been trapped in one of those TV thrillers she was addicted to.

Matteo didn’t blink. Just gave her that look until she raised the window once more, then he turned back around.

Having grown up with four younger sisters, the urge to stick her tongue out at him was reflex, but she covered quickly by licking her lips when he glanced back. “Carlos, how are those grandchildren of yours?” Peyton asked her longtime driver.

“Light of my life, miss.” Carlos, as bald as the sun was hot, and as calm as the ocean on a moonless night, shot her a smile in the rearview mirror. “Esmie just finished kindergarten, and Louis started walking. At top speed, mind you. You know how those toddlers are, miss. Jet packs in their diapers.”

“In more ways than one.” Peyton managed with a smile before turning her attention out her tinted window. She knew exactly how toddlers were, having helped raise her four younger sisters. Over the years, they hadn’t exactly become less rambunctious, though.

Lily’s recent runaway-bride impression had landed her, and subsequently Amanda, on a ranch in—wait for it—Montana, of all places. Rambunctious was definitely at the top of Peyton’s list of descriptors for the triplets.

Even as her lips quirked, that ache in her chest throbbed. She missed her sisters so much. Granted, the last few years had been mostly phone and video calls, but Lily’s almost-wedding had brought the girls together for the first time in forever. But now… Tears burned the back of her throat. She blinked them away and continued to stare out the window. At least they’d stopped freezing her out and were returning her calls. Hopefully, the emails she’d sent them had partially explained her side of things.

Not that there was any excuse for having lied to them about their real father all these years. How could there be when, years before, she’d told her mother what would happen if the truth was ever revealed. She’d let herself believe Susan Harrison was right—that it would never come out.

But it had. In the worst possible way, from a stranger. And Peyton had been dropped right in the middle of her sisters’ anger.

It had only been after Amanda revealed to them her struggle with endometriosis that the barriers keeping Peyton away from her sisters began to crumble. They weren’t completely back on track; there was still anger and resentment and definite feelings of betrayal for what Peyton had done, but they’d come together in support of Amanda as she considered her treatment options. She’d make that decision with a good man at her side. A man who wanted a future with Amanda regardless of her inability to have children.

How much easier things might have been on all of them if Peyton hadn’t been keeping the truth about their real father from them. But a promise was a promise. No matter how much she’d disagreed with her mother, she’d kept her word. In the end, that decision had nearly cost Peyton the most important people in her life: her sisters.

What if… She swallowed hard, forcing herself to finish the thought.

What if they never really forgave her?

Enough of that, she ordered herself. It was just a bumpy patch. The sisters had had problems before; they’d have them again. They were talking, and for now, that would have to be enough.

Peyton glanced down at her designer pumps and A-line skirt in the same deep red as her silk blouse. The very idea of her sisters slogging around on a Montana ranch almost lightened her mood. She couldn’t imagine them reconnecting with their long-lost father’s roots through horses, mud and cattle calls. It made about as much sense as Peyton’s life did these days—right down to Peyton hiring a professional matchmaker to find her the ideal husband.

Trying to push thoughts of her siblings aside, Peyton smoothed a forcibly steady hand down her stomach and wished for the evening to already be over. Her first few arranged dates with potential suitors had gone well enough. None of the successful self-made, practical men had been bad per se. They were looking for the same thing she was: a friendly relationship that would benefit their professional status, and in one case, get his mother off his back. Peyton smirked, recalling her date’s frustrated alcohol-fueled tirade over a controlling, albeit well-meaning, parent. Thankfully she’d avoided that complication.

She supposed her own paternal experiences were going to cause some issues, as well. As difficult as the issues she’d had with abandonment thanks to her real father, Rudy Harrison had more than made up for Thomas Blackwell’s shortcomings. That said…the fallout from the family secret finally coming to light was still happening.

Hopefully distance—and time—would help heal that wound. Her sisters were spread out across the country now. Georgie was up to her nose in whatever medical research she was conducting, while Fiona…well, Fiona was a people person and mostly stayed in her comfort zone of waitressing. Amanda wasn’t too far away in San Diego, running her pet-supply business. The very idea Lily had upended her life and was going to marry rancher Conner Hannah and stay in Montana struck Peyton as another of Lily’s leap first, look second dives into the unknown. A horse trainer. Lily was going to be a horse trainer and live on a ranch with a cowboy and his mother.

Stop the world, I want to get off.

Peyton was happy to stay right where she was, in the heart of Silicon Valley, California, far enough away where she could pretend everything with her sisters was just fine.

Always unflappable, Rudy hadn’t missed a beat once the truth came out. If anything, his determination to see his girls happily settled had only intensified. Peyton had no doubt his focus had a lot more to do with losing their mother, but they’d each had to find a way through their grief. This was their father’s.

It was a result of Rudy’s determined insistence regarding her single status that Peyton had hired a professional matchmaker known for success. Because that’s what one did when one needed—no, when one wanted—a husband without all the trappings and hassles of courtship and romance. Romance had never been on Peyton’s list of priorities. It didn’t make sense to move it to the top now.

As Carlos took a left, Matteo shifted around again. “I called ahead to make certain you were seated close to the bar so I can stay within earshot. I didn’t think you’d appreciate another earwig interrupting your dinner.”

Peyton’s lips twitched. “I think we learned that lesson the last time.” When the device had popped out of her ear while she was having dessert, her poor date ran from the restaurant, accusing her of corporate espionage.

“Mr. Rossi.” Carlos glanced into his side mirror. “Have you noticed the gray sedan behind us to the left?”

“Yes.” Matteo didn’t blink as Peyton shifted in her seat to look behind them. “And I’ve made note of the license plate. I already have someone looking into it.”

“Someone’s following us?” Peyton’s heart thudded so hard she could barely hear the traffic. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“What would I have said?” Matteo asked. “It would have robbed you of a relaxing drive into town.”

Peyton gaped, earning an actual smile from Matteo. When his phone chimed, relief surged through her. She really didn’t need him smiling at her. Not now. Not at any time. When she saw a frown mar his brow, however, she gave him a break. “Problem?”

“My ex. She’s having some…issues with our son.” He flinched, slipped his phone back into his jacket pocket. “It’s fine.”

“Take the call if you want to.”

“I don’t want to, but I will. Later. I’ll call Gino as soon as I’ve got you back home and in for the night. If he’s still awake.”

Guilt pressed in on Peyton. She knew how tenuous a child’s relationship could be with a parent. She didn’t like the idea of being an obstacle in someone else’s. “How old is he again?”

“He just turned six.”

“Fun age.” Carlos pulled into the designated drop-off.

“Something I’d like to know firsthand,” Matteo said. “He’s lived in Tokyo for the past two years with his mother and her new husband. Closest I get to fun is when we play video games together online. Are you ready?”

“Yes.” Recognizing the change of subject for what it was—avoidance— she didn’t press further.

“Out this door, please.” Matteo motioned to the passenger door. “And wait for me to open it.” He climbed out, closed the door, then shrugged, readjusted and buttoned his jacket. She knew, from previous ventures out, that he was carrying a gun. She hadn’t had cause to see it in use. She hoped she never would.

When Matteo opened her door, he moved around, held out his hand and aided her onto the sidewalk. “Stay close, Carlos. Parking lot across the street. First floor. I’ll call when we’re ready.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I bet you enjoy that,” Peyton said as they walked toward Toscanini’s, an elegant Italian restaurant known for its goat-cheese risotto and private reserve wine room. “Having people call you sir.”

“Not particularly.” He inclined his head. “I meant since you were in the military and would have called others sir. Kind of a reversal of positions. Right?”

“Not really.” He flashed a quick smile, then, with his hand lightly on her back, his eyes darting constantly, he guided her through the open double doors of thick oak.

The smell of roasted garlic and long-simmering tomato sauce hit her the second she stepped inside. Beautiful Italian marble floors, ivy-covered archways and the very subtle sounds of opera submersed her immediately in one of her favorite cultures.

“Ms. Harrison, how lovely to see you again.” The short, rotund woman with a silver-and-black braid reached out her arms to embrace her. “We are pleased to have you back.”

“Thank you, Rosa.” She returned the embrace. “I’m meeting someone for dinner. Gabriel Shurley. Has he arrived yet?”

“Yes, yes. But…” Rosa glanced at Matteo “…you have two gentlemen with you tonight?”

“I’m just observing,” Matteo offered. “I called earlier today about a special table for Ms. Harrison.”

“Of course, of course.” Rosa nodded. “We have it all arranged. Ms. Harrison, if you’d like to follow me?”

“See you on the other side,” Peyton teased, surprising both herself and Matteo, given his expression.

“Yes, ma’am. Why don’t you introduce me to your date first?”

“How about you judge him from a distance?” She planted a hand on his chest and tried to ignore the tingle that danced across her palm. “Honestly, Matteo. It’ll be fine. Don’t scare off another one.”

“It wasn’t my fault date number three had a guilty conscience.”

“It might have helped if you didn’t look like you wanted to pitch him through a window. Wait in the bar. I’ll let you know when I’m done. Please.” She pushed back when he made a move forward. “When all is said and done, you do work for me, and I’d prefer not to have Gabriel ask questions about why I have a bodyguard.”

“All right.” Something odd flickered in his eyes, something that sent a surge of warmth sliding through her body. Something that had her turning away and heading toward her date before she gave it any more thought. Rosa gestured to her table and, as Peyton approached, her date rose from his chair.

“Gabriel, how nice to meet you.” She offered her hand.

“Peyton. You’re stunning.” Peyton offered a smile, noting that his expression didn’t shift as he walked around to pull out her chair. Once she was settled, she glanced to her right and found Matteo on the other side of an opening half-obscured by lush greenery. He gave her a quick nod to let her know he was fine with the arrangement.

“It’s nice to finally meet you in person.” Gabriel took his seat again and, after adjusting his diamond-studded cuff links, reached out and covered her hand with his. The tarnished watch on his wrist struck her as odd. Oldfashioned. Especially compared to the ostentatious cuff links. “Mr. Josiah assured me this evening would be well worth my time.”

Peyton shifted her hand free and opened her menu. “Mr. Josiah is very enthusiastic about his matches.” And about his success rate. He was already grumbling that his ratios were dropping because of her—what had he called them?—eccentricities. A polite way of calling her a challenging client. “Have you eaten here before?”

“No.” He straightened his tie, the blue and red stripes clean and polished against the stark blue of his suit. He was handsome, she supposed. Blond, blue-eyed, with a physique that spoke more of sitting behind a desk than working out in a gym. It was understandable. From what she’d read about him, he worked nearly fourteen hours a day as a VP at an investment company.

“Well, I can recommend just about everything. The pasta carbonara is exceptional, as is the pumpkin gnocchi, which they only have from mid- October to Thanksgiving. What kind of wine do you prefer?”

“I was going to suggest a red.”

Test number one presented itself right on schedule. “Would you mind if I chose?”

He shifted in his chair, glanced around, then seemed to force a smile. “Of course not.”

He minded. Peyton smiled again, shifting him into her No column. As much as she didn’t need a spark, she wanted a partner who wasn’t afraid of an argument or standing up for what he wanted. Nor did she care for the undercurrent of irritation and resentment she could already feel pulsing across the table.

She ordered the wine, but she anticipated drinking most of it herself once it was poured out and Gabriel appeared less than impressed. She nearly asked the waiter to send a glass over to Matteo, who, she knew after only a few weeks, would approve heartily of her choice.

Not that they’d had much occasion to drink together. But they had discussed various restaurant locations as options for her dates.

“Now that we’re alone.” Gabriel leaned his arms on the table as their waiter disappeared with their orders. “I wanted to ask you about the new design of solar panels your company has devised.”

“New solar panels?” Peyton blinked, a knot of tension tightening in her stomach.

“The ones Crossroads Industries presented to you? Olwen, I think it’s called?” Gabriel’s eyes lit up at the name, which started warning bells chiming in Peyton’s head. “Named after the Celtic goddess of the sun. Clever.”

Whatever crumb of promise remained for a positive end to the date turned to dust. “We have a number of projects going on at the moment.” She sat back in her chair, glancing to where Matteo sat tapping a finger against the side of his club soda glass. She knew he never drank alcohol while on duty. “But I’m not at liberty to discuss any of them.”

“Yes, of course.” Gabriel ducked his head, seemingly contrite, and Peyton relaxed. “I thought perhaps the technology was something we might have in common. Something we could have a discussion about. So, small talk it is.” His lips twitched into a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Do you follow sports at all?”