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"You're obsessed." Travis King looked at his older brother and smiled. "And not in a good way."
"I agree," Jackson King said, with a shake of his head. "Why is this so important to you anyway?"
Adam King looked from one of his brothers to the other and paused for a few seconds before answering them. When he did, he used the tone he usually reserved for his employeesthe tone that precluded arguments. "We agreed when we took over the reins of the family businesses from Dad that we'd each be in charge of our own areas."
Then he waited, because Adam knew his brothers weren't finished. Every month, the King brothers held a meeting. They'd get together either here at the family ranch, at the vineyard Travis operated or on one of the executive jets Jackson owned and leased to the mega-wealthy of the world.
The King family had holdings in so many different areas, the monthly meetings helped the brothers keep up with what the tangled lines of the King dynasty were up to at any given moment. But it also gave the brothers a chance to catch up on each other's lives. Even if sometimes, Adam thought, that meant putting up with inter-ferenceno matter how well meant.
Picking up his Waterford crystal tumbler of brandy, he swirled the amber liquid in the bottom of the glass and watched the firelight from the hearth wink in its depths. He knew it wouldn't take long to get a comment from his brothers and he silently bet himself that it would be Travis who spoke first. A moment later, he was proven right.
"Yeah, Adam, we each run our own areas," Travis said, taking a deep sip of a King Vineyard Merlot. Travis preferred drinking the wines his vineyard produced to the brandy Adam enjoyed. He shot a look at Jackson, who nodded at him. "That doesn't mean we won't have a question or two."
"Have all the questions you like," Adam told him. He stood up, walked to the massive stone hearth and stared down into the crackling fire. "Just don't expect me to answer them."
Jackson spoke up as if to head off a budding confrontation. Holding his glass of Irish whiskey, he said, "We're not saying that the ranch isn't yours to do with as you want, Adam. We're only trying to figure out why it means so damn much to you to get back every inch of land we used to hold."
Adam turned his back on the fireplace, looked at his brothers and felt that tight bond they'd always shared. Only a year separated each of them and the friendship they'd formed when they were kids was every bit as strong now. But that didn't mean he was going to explain his every move to them. He was still the oldest, and Adam King didn't do explanations.
"The ranch is mine," he said simply. "If I want to make it whole again, why should you care?"
"We don't," Travis said, speaking up before Jackson could. Leaning back in the maroon leather chair, he kicked his feet out in front of him, balanced the fragile wineglass on his flat stomach and looked at Adam through slitted eyes. "I just want to know why you care. Hell, Adam, Great-Grandpa King sold off that twenty-acre parcel to the Torinos nearly sixty years ago.We already own nearly half the county. Why's that twenty acre plot so important?"
Because he'd set out to do this and Adam had never given up on anything. Once he'd made up his mind to do something, it got done, come hell or high water. He glanced from his brothers to the wide front windows overlooking a stretch of neatly tended lawn and garden that stretched for almost a quarter of a mile before feeding into the road.
This ranch had always been important to him. But in the last five years, it had become everything to him and damned if he'd stop before it was complete again.
Outside, the night was thick and black, broken only by tiny puddles of decorative lights positioned along the wide, curved driveway. This was his home. Their home. And he was going to see to it that it was once again completely in King hands.
"Because it's the last missing piece," Adam said, thinking of the last five years.Years that he'd spent buying back every piece of land that had been in the original King land grant more than a hundred and fifty years ago.
The King family had been in central California since before the gold rush. They'd been miners and ranchers and farmers and ship builders. Over the years, the family had changed with the times, moving into different fields, expanding their dynasty. Generations of them had worked to broaden the family's holdings. To grow and build on the previous generationswith one exception.
Their great-grandfather, Simon King, had been more of a gambler than a family scion. And to support his gambling habits, he'd sold off pieces of his heritage. Thankfully the Kings who'd come after Simon had held on to their family history with both hands.
Adam didn't know if he could make his brothers understanddidn't know that he cared to try. All he knew was that he'd devoted the last five years to putting the jigsaw pieces of this ranch back together and he wasn't going to stop until he'd completed the task.
"Fine," Jackson said, shooting Travis a quick shut-up look. "If it's that important to you, go ahead."
Adam snorted. "Your permission isn't necessary. But thanks."
Jackson smiled. As always, the youngest of the King boys was almost impossible to rile. "Good luck getting that land away from the Torinos, though," he added, taking a sip of his whiskey and giving a dramatic sigh. "That old man holds on to everything that's his with both hands." His mouth twisted into a smile. "Like you, big brother. Sal's not going to just up and sell it to you."
Adam smiled now, and lifted his brandy snifter in a salute. "What was Dad's favorite saying?"
"Every man's got his price," Travis said, and lifted his glass, too, as he finished their father's quote, "the trick is to find it the quickest way you can."
Jackson shook his head, but lifted his glass to his brothers. "Salvatore Torino may be the exception to that rule."
"Not a chance," Adam said and he could already taste the victory he'd worked five years for. He wasn't about to let one stubborn neighbor stand in the way of success. "Sal's got a price. Somewhere."
Gina Torino hooked the heel of her scuffed boot on the bottom rung of the weathered wooden fence. She crossed her arms on the top rail and looked out at the field in front of her. The sun was shining out of a clear blue sky, the grass was thick and green and a brand-new baby was trotting alongside his mother.
"See, Shadow?" she whispered to the contented mare, "I told you he'd be fine."
Of course, last night Gina hadn't been so sure. Playing midwife to a Gypsy horse she'd raised from infancy had absolutely terrified her. But today, she could smile and enjoy the moment.
Her gaze followed the black-and-white mare as she moved lazily around the enclosure, new baby at her feathered heels. The Gypsies were the most beautiful horses Gina had ever seen. Their broad shoulders, proud neck and the "feathers," or long, delicate hairs flying around their feet, looked exquisite. Most people, of course, took one look at the breed and thought miniature Clydes-dales. But the Gypsy horses were something else entirely.
Relatively small, but sturdy, the Gypsies had at first been bred by the roaming people who gave them their name. They were bred to be strong enough to pull loaded carts and wagons and gentle enough to be considered part of the family. They were exceptionally gentle with children and incredibly loyal to those they loved.
The horses, to Gina, were more than animals to be bred and sold they were family.
"You baby them."
Gina didn't even turn when her mother spoke up from behind her. This was a long-standing argument with her mother claiming that Gina spent too much time with the horses and too little time looking for a husband.
"There's no harm in that."
"You need your own babies."
Gina rolled her eyes, grateful her mother couldn't see the action. Teresa Torino didn't care how old her children were. If they sassed, they were just as likely to get a swat on the back of the head as they had been when they were children. If she'd had any sense at all, Gina told herself, she'd have moved away like two of her three older brothers had.
"I know you're rolling your eyes ."
Grinning, Gina glanced back over her shoulder. Teresa Torino was short, curvy and opinionated. Her black hair was going gray and she didn't bother dyeing it, instead reminding everyone in the family that she'd earned those gray hairs. Her chin was stubborn and her brown eyes were sharp and didn't miss much.
"Would I roll my eyes at you, Mom?"
One dark eyebrow lifted. "If you thought you could get away with it, yes."
Gina lifted her face into a soft wind blowing in off the nearby ocean and changed the subject. Safer that way. "I heard you talking on the phone to Nick this morning. Everything all right?"
"Yes," Teresa said, walking up to join her daughter at the split rail fence. "Your brother Nickie's wife is pregnant again."
Ah. So this explained the let's get Gina married and pregnant theme of the morning. "That's great news."
"Yes. That will be three for Nick, two children for Tony and four for Peter."
Her brothers were really doing all they could to re-populate the world with Torinos, Gina thought with a smile. She loved being an aunt, of course. But she wished they all lived closer, so they could take more of the heat off of her. Yet of the three Torino sons, only Tony lived here on the ranch, working it with their father. Nick was in Colorado, coaching high school football and Peter was in Southern California, installing computer software for security companies.
"You're a lucky nana to have so many grandbabies to spoil," Gina said, sliding a glance at her mother.
"Could be luckier," Teresa countered with a sniff.
"Mom " Gina couldn't stop the sigh that slipped from her. "You've got eight and a half grandchildren. You don't need me to produce one."
Her mother had always dreamed of Gina's wedding day. Of seeing her only daughter walk down the aisle on her father's arm. The fact that Gina hadn't complied didn't sit well with Teresa.
"It's not good for you to be alone, Gina," her mother said, slapping one hand against a board hard enough to make the fence rattle.
"I'm not alone," Gina argued. "I've got you and Papa, my brothers, their wives, their kids. Who could ever be alone in this family?"
Teresa, though, was on a roll. The music of her still-thick Italian accent colored her words when she spoke again. "A woman should have a man in her life, Gina. A man to love and be loved by "
Gina felt her back go up, even though a part of her agreed with her mother. It wasn't as if she'd gone out of her way to decide to never get married. To never have children. It's just the way things had worked out. And she wasn't going to spend the rest of her life being miserable because of it.
"Just because I'm not married, Mom," Gina interrupted, "that doesn't mean I don't have men in my life."
Teresa sucked air in through her nose in a disapproving sniff that was so loud, one of the horses in the meadow turned its head to investigate. "I don't want to know about that."
Good, because Gina didn't really want to talk about her love lifeor lack thereofwith her mother. She loved her parents dearly, she really did. Teresa had been born into a huge Sicilian family and had come to America more than forty years ago to marry Sal Torino. And despite the fact that Sal had been born and raised in America, he tended to side with his wife when she clung to Old World valuesnamely, that daughters who hadn't found husbands by their thirtieth birthday were destined to be old maids.
Sadly, Gina's thirtieth birthday had come and gone two months ago.
"Mom " Gina took a breath, blew it out and prayed for patience. She'd hoped that having her own small house built on the family ranch would give her more privacy. Would make her parents think of her as a capable adult. She should have known better. Once a Torino child, always a Torino child.
Maybe she should have just moved away from the ranch entirely. But even if she had, she'd have been spending every day here anyway, since the Gypsy horses she raised and trained were her life. So she'd simply have to find a way to deal with being her mother's great disappointment.
"I know, I know," Teresa said, holding up one hand as if to stave off a familiar argument. "You are a grown woman. You don't need a man to complete you." She gave an impatient huff. "I should never have let you watch those talk shows when you were growing up. They fill your head with"
"sense?" Gina offered, smiling. She did love her mom, it was just so aggravating having to apologize for not being married and/or pregnant all the damn time.
"Sense. Is it sense to live alone? To not have love in your life? No," Teresa snapped, not waiting for an answer. "It is not."
It would be easier to argue with her mom if a part of Gina didn't agree. Okay, a small part. But a tiny voice in the back of her mind whispered that she wasn't getting any younger. That she should give up on old fantasies that should have died years ago.
Yet somehow she couldn't quite manage it. "I'm fine, Mom," she said, willing herself to believe it. Teresa laid one hand on her daughter's forearm and gave her a pat. "Of course you are."
Okay, Gina was willing to accept that, even if her mom was placating her. At least it had stopped the conversation. "Where's Papa?" she asked. "He was going to come look over the new baby this morning."
Teresa waved one hand. "He has a 'meeting' he said. Very important."
"Yeah? With who?"
"You think he tells me?" Teresa huffed out a frustrated breath and Gina smiled.
Nothing her mother hated more than not knowing what was going on at all times.