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As the pickup truck rocked to a halt in front of her family's Colorado cattle-ranch house, Katrina Jacobs started a mental countdown for her return to New York City. In the driver's seat, her brother Travis set the park brake and killed the engine. Katrina pulled up on the silver door handle, releasing the latch and watching the heavy passenger door yawn wide-open. Then she slid gingerly down onto the gravel driveway, catching most of her weight on her right foot to protect her injured left ankle.
A week, she calculated. Two weeks, max. By then she would have done her duty as a daughter and a sibling. Her ankle would be in shape. And she could get back to her ballet company in Manhattan.
Katrina hated Colorado.
Travis retrieved her small suitcase from the truck box. From experience, she knew it would be covered in stubborn grit, just like everything else in Lyndon Valley. She could vacuum it as much as she liked, but the dust would remain.
She wrenched the stiff door shut and started to pick her way across the uneven ground. She'd worn a pair of navy suede Gallean ankle boots, with narrow toes, low heels and kicky little copper chains at the ankles. They topped a pair of skinny black slacks and a shiny silver blouse.
She probably should have gone with sneakers, blue jeans and a cotton shirt, but she couldn't bring herself to traverse both JFK and Denver International looking like a hick. She wasn't often recognized in public, but when she was, people inevitably snapped a picture. Between cell phones and digital cameras, everyone in the world was potential paparazzi.
In his faded blue jeans, soft flannel shirt and scuffed cowboy boots, Travis fell into step beside her. "You want to take Mom and Dad's room?"
"No," she responded a little too quickly. "I'll bunk with Mandy."
Katrina hadn't lived at home full-time since she was ten years old. That summer, with the support of her rather eccentric aunt, she'd enrolled in New York's Upper Cavendar Dramatic Arts Academy, a performing-arts boarding school for girls. Maybe it was because she'd left home so young, but to this day, she was intimidated by her stern, forceful father. His booming voice made her stomach jump, and she was constantly on edge whenever he was around, worried that he'd ask an embarrassing question, mock her career or make note of the fact that she was an all-around inadequate ranch hand.
Her father was away from the ranch right now, having just moved to a rehab center in Houston with a leading-edge stroke recovery program. There he was impressing the staff with his rapid improvement from his recent stroke. Still, the last thing Katrina needed was to be surrounded by his possessions.
"He loves you," said Travis, his voice gentle but his confusion evident. "We all love you."
"And I love you back," she returned breezily, as she took the stairs to the front porch, passing through the door into the cool, dim interior of her childhood home. It was large by ranch house standards, with a big, rather utilitarian entryway. It opened up into a large living room, with banks of bright windows overlooking the river, a redbrick fireplace and enough comfy furniture to hold the family of five children and often guests. The kitchen was spacious and modern, with a giant pantry and a big deck that led down to a rolling lawn. And upstairs, there were six bedrooms, though one had been converted into an office after Katrina had left for good.
She knew love was compulsory. But the truth was, she had nothing in common with the rest of her family. They saw her as some spoiled, fragile princess who couldn't even ride a horse, never mind toss a hay bale or swing an ax straight.
For all that she was a principal dancer in a ballet company that regularly sold out New York City's Emperor's Theater, and that she'd made the cover of Dance America and the Paris Arts Review, in Colorado she'd never be anything but the girl who couldn't make it as a ranch hand.
"Hey there, Kitty-Kat."
Before she could respond to his greeting, her oldest brother, Seth, swooped her up in his strong arms.
"Hi, Seth." Her hug was slightly less enthusiastic. She was embarrassed by the childhood nickname her two brothers had bestowed upon her.
He let her go, and she stepped aside with a determined smile on her face. The smile faltered when she caught sight of a third man behind him. A taller, broader man, with penetrating gray eyes, a grim mouth and what she knew would be callused hands that could probably lift a taxi cab right off the asphalt. Though it had been a few years since she'd seen him, there was no mistaking their neighbor Reed Terrell.
He gave her the slightest of nods. "Katrina."
"Reed," she nodded in return, a fuzzy hitch coursing through her chest. It was trepidation, she told herself, a visceral reaction based mostly on his size and strength and overall rugged appearance.
Just then her sister Mandy burst down the stairs. "Katrina!" she cried, elbowing Seth out of the way and pulling Katrina into her arms.
Katrina hugged her sister tight in return. The next youngest after Katrina, Mandy was the one who had always tried to understand Katrina's passion for dance.
Mandy released her, scanning Katrina from head to toe. "You look gorgeous!"
Katrina knew it was a compliment. But when her family called her pretty, she couldn't seem to help hearing useless. Pretty didn't get you anywhere in Lyndon Valley.
"Thank you," she told her sister, self-consciously smoothing back the wisps of blond hair that had escaped from the twisted knot at the back of her head. Maybe she should have gone with sneakers and blue jeans after all, or perhaps skipped her makeup this morning. She could feel her family sizing her up and finding her frivolous.
"You remember Reed?" Mandy gestured to the big man standing silently in the background.
"Certainly," said Katrina.
Her gaze involuntarily met his again, and a shiver ran through her body, momentarily making her knees go weak. For a woman with a dancer's balance, it was a ridiculous reaction. What was the matter with her?
She tried to drag her gaze from his, but for some reason, it stuck like glue.
"I can't wait for you to meet Caleb again," Mandy rattled on in an excited voice. "You probably don't remember much about him, since he left Lyndon ten years ago."
"I know he's Reed's twin brother," said Katrina.
Reed's nostrils seemed to flare when she uttered his name. The men were fraternal twins, not identical. She remembered Caleb as a smaller, less intimidating version of his brother.
For Mandy's sake.
Katrina caught her sister's expression, and saw that her eyes were sparkling with unadulterated joy.
"Congratulations," she put in belatedly, giving Mandy another tight hug.
"We're thinking of a late-fall wedding. You know, after Dad is up and around again. You'll be a bridesmaid, of course."
"Of course," Katrina forced out a laugh. She wasn't wild about family togetherness. But Mandy loved it, and Katrina wouldn't do anything to mar her sister's big day.
"You'll look so beautiful in a bridesmaid dress."
"It's what I do best," Katrina joked, keeping the smile pasted on her face. For some reason, she darted a look at Reed and saw his eye-roll.
He obviously thought she was being conceited. Fine. Easy for him to judge. She was willing to bet not a single person in his entire life had ever called him useless. Around here, he'd be revered for his strength and his hard work. He didn't have to live with being pretty.
Not that he wasn't attractive. In fact, there was an appealing dignity to his craggy features. His chin might be overly square, and his nose slightly crooked, but his eyes were an intriguing, silver-flecked gray, and his full lips were
Wait a minute. She gave herself an abrupt mental shake. What on earth was the matter with her? Reed was a tough, hulking, strong-willed cowboy. He could out-macho anyone in Lyndon Valley, and there was nothing even remotely appealing about that.
Since Reed Terrell was alive, conscious and male all at the same time, he had the hots for Mandy's sister Katrina. It didn't mean he had to act on it, and it sure didn't mean he'd succeed even if he tried. Everything about the woman said she was out of his league, from the wispy updo of her wheat-blond hair to her sexy boots, the clingy slacks and shimmering blouse in between.
When he'd met her earlier at the Jacobs ranch, her earrings had been dangling strands of gold, silver and diamonds, while a matching necklace glimmered against her dainty cleavage. She should have looked comically out of place on the ranch, but she didn't. She looked like a princess inspecting the commoners, someone to be revered and admired, then left untouched. Which was exactly what Reed intended to do.
Now he entered the foyer of his own family's ranch house, shutting the door against the gathering dusk, another long day of work behind him. For years, Reed had lived in the spacious, two-story house with his exacting father. Though his father was dead, out of habit, Reed placed his hat on the third hook from the left and straightened the mat beneath his feet. There was a place for everything, and everything was always in its place in the Terrell household. His father had prized practicality, but also quality, so the hardwood floors were clear maple, the furniture was custom-made and the kitchen appliances were top-of-the-line, replaced every ten years.
The outbuildings that housed the cowboys and staff necessary to run the big ranch were also kept in tip-top shape, from the cookhouse to the bunkhouses to the barns and sheds. The line shacks were all getting older, but they were still kept clean and in good repair.
"Danielle wants to talk to you," his brother Caleb announced as he walked down the hallway from the kitchen at the back of the house, phone in hand.
"I don't have anything more to add."
Caleb frowned. "You can't let fifteen million dollars just sit in a bank account."
"You can always take it back," Reed responded, squaring his shoulders. He still thought it was ridiculous that his brother had paid him for half the family's ranch.
"Would you let me hand you half of Active Equipment for free?" Caleb referred to the company he'd spent the past ten years building in the Chicago area.
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Same difference." Caleb held out the phone. "Talk to her. She has some ideas."
Danielle Marin was Caleb's lawyer. Following the debacle of their late father's will, she'd drafted the papers that switched ownership of the Terrell ranch from Caleb to Reed. Then she'd worked out the financial transaction where Caleb bought half of it back.
Reed wasn't exactly grateful to her for helping to put him in his current financial position, but he had to admit, the woman seemed to know what she was doing. He took the phone. "Hello?"
As usual, Danielle's tone was crisp, no-nonsense. "Hi, Reed. I was wondering if you'd had a chance to look over the package I emailed to you yesterday?" Then her voice became muffled as she obviously spoke to someone at her end of the line in Chicago.
"Not yet," he answered. He only opened his email about once a week. He didn't have a lot of technically inclined friends. Most of the people he knew still called on a landline or simply stopped by the ranch when they had something to say.
She sighed into the receiver. "You're losing both income and investment potential every day you wait."
"You've pointed that out."
"Can you give me some general parameters? Do you want to keep your investments in the country? Go international? Blue chips? Emerging markets?"
"I was thinking about buying a sports car," he drawled, impatient with having to worry about the damn money. There were real problems requiring real solutions right here on the ranch.
Her voice instantly perked up. "So, you're saying I should keep some ready cash for luxury purchases?"
"I was joking, Danielle. We don't have paved roads in Lyndon Valley."
"You could always drive it on the highway. What appeals to you? Lamborghini? Ferrari?"
"It was a joke." "Stop joking."
It was Reed's turn to sigh. "Fine. Keep the money in the country." He at least knew he wanted that much.
"Right. So, maybe some blue chips? Or do you want to look at a percentage of a start-up? I can make some recommendations on sectors and states."
Reed didn't want to think about this right now. Quite frankly, all he wanted to do was to strip off his dusty clothes, take a hot shower, grill up a steak, and then picture Katrina's deep blue eyes for a while before he drifted off to sleep.
"I'll let you know," he told Danielle.
"Yeah. Sure. Soon. See you." He handed the phone back to his brother.
"You're a pain in the ass, you know that?" Caleb pointed out as he put the phone back to his ear. Then his expression faltered. "No, not you, Danielle."
Reed chuckled at his brother's embarrassment, feeling better already.
He crossed through the living room, took the staircase to the second floor, took off his clothes and tossed them into the hamper before stepping into a steaming shower. As he rubbed in the spice-scented shampoo, he realized his hair was getting too long. He supposed he could find a few more reasons to make the drive into Lyndon and get it cut while he was there, or he could buzz it short with his razor again. Though the last time he'd done that, Mandy had laughed at him for days.
Thoughts of Mandy took him to thoughts of Katrina. He switched the water to cold, finishing off with a brisk rinse before stepping out of the deep tub.