Read an Excerpt
"You've got four weeks but I want this deal wrapped up in two."
Hugh McCutcheon held the cellphone to his ear, listening to his father's orders as he drove his rental car along Interstate 5, just outside Medford, Oregon.
Why should he be surprised at the request? Whatever he'd done for the company, Richard "Mac" McCutcheon wanted more. "I thought Flanagan hadn't decided to sell yet."
"And since when has that mattered to you?" his father asked. "I'm expecting you to come through for me. We need the orchard to control the area. More importantly, we need the vineyard."
Hugh should be used to getting this treatment from his father. If the job's tough, give it to the kid. He'll do anything the old man dangles in front of his face.
"I can't make any promises, Mac." It had been agreed he wouldn't call him Dad during working hours that meant all the time.
"I don't need promises," he growled. "I need results. There's a lot riding on this, Hugh. Including the regional director's job."
Hugh sighed. Yeah, right. He'd been promised the position for the last year. "I'll do what I can. I need to go; my turn-off is coming up. I'll check in later." He shut the phone and tossed it on the passenger seat, next to the proposal for this project: Emerald Vale Orchard and Irish Rogue Vineyard.
On his flight from San Francisco to Medford he'd been able to scan it over, but not much more. His father wanted a lot, but he always had. Problem was the family patriarch, Cullan Flanagan, wasn't eager to sell his family business. The one positive thing was that the owner was giving the McCutcheon Corporation the opportunity to come and talk with him.
Hugh rubbed his hand over his face. He hated not being prepared for a job. In most cases he was always organized. But he'd just finished a six-week stay in Atlanta, where he'd downsized a recently purchased electronic parts plant. By the time he'd left the company was running efficiently, with a twenty percent reduction in personnel. That was sure to raise the next quarterly profit. It was important that he increase his value at the McCutcheon Corporation, too.
Hugh wanted that promotion.and he had that much of his father in him to ensure that he went after it. He'd gotten used to his lavish lifestyle. More than that, he enjoyed the thrill of his job.
So bring on the next challenge. He looked up to see the sign overhead: "Emerald Vale Orchard, est. by the Flanagan family in 1908. Home to the Irish Rogue Vineyard, est. 2002." He drove through the archway to see neat rows of pear trees along the hillside. On the other side were the ribbons of trel-lised vines.
Hugh continued on about a quarter of a mile and spotted a large barn, painted white with burgundy trim. In the front was a general store. He pulled up in the parking area next to picnic tables shaded by colorful shade umbrellas.
After climbing out of the car, he slipped on his suit coat. He glanced further up a grassy knoll to see a huge house with a flagstone fagade that peeked out through the trees. A wraparound porch held baskets of summer flowers along the gingerbread trim. The manicured lawn was edged with more pink and purple plants.
Then suddenly the colors seemed to fade as a young woman stepped out onto the porch. What he noticed first was her rich auburn hair. The thick tresses went well past her shoulders and were clipped back from her face. She had a slender build. His gaze moved over her figure. A cream-colored blouse was knotted at her tiny waist, and her long legs were nearly covered by a gauzy peach-hued skirt. She moved gracefully as she lovingly attended to each plant.
He found his breathing suddenly labored, but his gaze didn't waver from the sight.
"The lass is easy on the eye, that's for sure."
Hugh jerked around to see a smiling older man in his seventies. He had a head full of thick white hair, and his face was weathered from years in the sun. Cullan Flanagan.
"I apologize for staring, sir," Hugh said.
The man's smile widened. "No need to apologize for appreciating a beautiful woman." He nodded in her direction. "I did the same thing the day I first saw her grandmother. And I felt the same way for the next fifty-three years." He sighed and blinked his eyes rapidly. "Sorry, I still miss her. And seeing Ellie every day brings back so many memories." He stuck out his hand. "I'm Cullan Flanagan. Welcome to Emerald Vale."
"Hello, Mr. Flanagan. I'm Hugh McCutcheon from the McCutcheon Corporation."
"Ah, Mr. McCutcheon, I've been expecting you." He looked him over. "So you think you can convince me to sell my land?"
Hugh gave him his best smile. "I plan to give it a try."
"It's going to have to be over my dead body," a woman's voice said.
Hugh swung around to see the redhead standing there, with her hands on her hips, glaring at him with large green eyes. She was even more beautiful close up. And he couldn't seem to find his voice.* * *
Ellie wasn't going to let some big-city corporate guy come in here and take away her home. Not as long as she had any fight left in her.
"At a loss for words, Mr. McCutcheon?"
He shook his head, then smiled. "I assure you, Ms. Flanagan, I do not want any dead bodies."
"Oh, really?" She managed to look away from his dark chocolate eyes. "That's not what your reputation states. Don't they call you the Hatchet Man?"
He grimaced. "This business can be tough, especially when the companies we acquire are in financial trouble."
"Well, I guess you aren't needed here, since there isn't anything wrong with our orchard or our vineyard."
Hugh McCutcheon seemed to relax a little as he folded his arms across his massive chest, looking comfortable in his suit coat even when the temperature was in the high eighties.
Ellie didn't like that.
She didn't like men who walked in and acted as if they owned the place already. Well, no matter how handsome or well-built the man was, he wasn't going to take Flanagan land.
"Studies show there's always room for improvement."
"We're not a study, Mr. McCutcheon. We're a family and this is our livelihood. So go buy up someone else's place. We're not for sale."
"Eleanor Anne " Her grandfather's voice broke in. "That's no way to talk to a guest."
Ellie turned to her sole grandparent. "It's true, Papa. Word has spread throughout the valley." She nodded to the stranger. "His company is buying up all the family orchards in the area."
"They were all willing to sell," Hugh added. "We didn't coerce anyone. We gave fair market value for all the properties."
Ellie made a huffing sound. "I doubt that," she said. "No one gets paid for all the years they've worked the land." She pointed toward the orchard. "Their blood, sweat and tears are out there. You can't put a price on that."
"I agree. But the owners who sold to us were ready to get out."
Silently, Ellie glared at him. She wasn't getting anywhere with the man, but she was more worried about her grandfather. Since the death of his wife Eleanor, two years ago, he'd been so unhappy. Nothing gave him joy anymore. Not even the wine-making. Something they'd planned and worked on together. The Irish Rogue label had been their collaborative dream. Now he was thinking about selling out.
Hugh knew Ellie Flanagan was going to do everything in her power to stop this sale. And his job was to do whatever it took to stop her. From what he'd read about the orchard, Cullan Flanagan was the sole owner of the land and Ellie was his only heir. But she didn't have any control until after her grandfather's death.
"Maybe your grandfather is ready, too."
This time she couldn't hide her disdain. "He is not." She turned to the older man. "Papa, you can't be serious?"
"Can't hurt to hear what the man has to say."
Before Ellie could speak, Cullan raised his hand. "We'll discuss this later, lass. Please show Mr. McCutcheon to the Sunset Cottage."
She blinked those big emerald eyes, but quickly masked her anger once again. "Fine."
Cullan kissed his granddaughter, then looked at Hugh. "Please, make yourself comfortable, and I'll see you at dinner."
"Thank you, sir."
With a nod, the older man, his back bent slightly, his steps slow, walked across the gravel road toward the orchard.
"Just because he's invited you to stay doesn't mean he's going to sell you all this," Ellie said, and she spread her arms, taking in the acres of lush green vines that led all the way up the hillside. On the other side were the rows of pear trees, dotted with the dozen workers who cared for them.
Hugh sighed. "I have to say, it's pretty impressive."
She drew a breath, too. "And it belongs to the Flanagan family. And I will make sure it always belongs to us."
"You have a big job ahead of you. Especially since there aren't many Flanagans left."
She straightened. "You don't need to worry about us, Mr. McCutcheon. Besides, who's to say I don't have a would-be husband around?" she tossed out. "Now, take your car down the road to the turn-off with the sign that says 'Cottages'. I'll meet you there." She took off toward the house.
Hugh enjoyed watching her walk away too much. He wondered if there was a man in her life. She was beautiful enough to have several.
He quickly shook away the thought, and knew he'd better be able to handle a spitfire. "Damn. Keep your head on business. This trip is all about the business," he chanted, but the nudge of attraction didn't go away.
Ellie waited at the oak door to the studio cottage. The bungalow was usually rented by newlyweds, or couples who wanted the seclusion the peaceful orchard offered them. Not businessmen who wanted to rip her life apart.
The luxury rental car pulled up under the tree in front, and McCutcheon climbed out. He'd removed his suit jacket, revealing a crisp white shirt that showed off his broad shoulders and well-developed chest. Her gaze lowered to his trim waist, then, when he turned to walk to the car's trunk, she got a glimpse at his tight rear end. She quickly glanced away, angry that she could find anything to appreciate about the man.
With a dark leather suitcase in hand, Hugh McCutcheon walked toward her. Without comment, she opened the door and went inside. The combined scents of roses and peaches teased her nose as she stepped into the large room. As expected, there were fresh-cut flowers on the table. On the kitchen counter was a large bowl of fruit, along with several bottles of Irish Rogue wine. Soft music filtered into the space from strategically placed speakers.
There was a cozy seating area in front of the fireplace, and across the large room was a king-size bed covered in ivory satin, with miles of sheer fabric draped overhead, creating a canopy.
Definitely a place for lovers.
She looked at Hugh McCutcheon and noted his amused look. "I guess you don't have many singles, huh?" He loosened his tie as if he were too warm. She watched as he undid the top two buttons of his shirt, revealing dark chest hair.
She swallowed and turned to the phone on the table. "Sorry, we don't have the rooms equipped for Internet use."
This time he turned a wicked grin toward her. "I doubt that anyone staying here is thinking about business."
"No, not usually. Most of our guests have other things on their minds."
His gaze never left hers. "There are a lot of nice things to distract you here."
Silence hung between them as the music changed to an enchanting love song. The singer's sultry voice created an even more intimate feeling in the room.
Ellie froze under the man's gaze. She felt a sudden stirring low in her stomach. She swallowed, finding her mouth bone-dry. She blinked and finally broke the hold.
"If you need anything, Mr. McCutcheon, just call the office." She backed up, but came in contact with the coffee table and began to stumble.
Hugh reached out and grabbed her, pulling her upright. His hands gripped her arms, holding her firmly.
"You should be more careful," he said, his voice low and husky. "You could hurt yourself."
She nodded, not trusting her voice as her gaze locked with his once again. His brown eyes were incredible. Close up, they were the color of aged whiskey.
She glanced away, silently berating herself for her crazy behavior. This man was the enemy. He was here to take away her hopes and dreams. Straightening, she pulled away from his hold.
"I'm always careful, Mr. McCutcheon. I know what I want, and I'll do everything I can to keep what's mine."
He smiled. "Is that a threat, Ms Flanagan?"
"No. Just the truth. This land has been in our family for a hundred years, and I'm not about to let someone come in and take it away."
Hugh stood back and looked her over. Man, she was a powerhouse. Under other circumstances he would love to get to know her better. He pushed aside any thoughts of what might have been a passionate relationship. This was businessand business always came first.
"Times change, Ms Flanagan. It takes money to run an operation like this."
"We've been running it just fine for years."
"But at a profit?"
Hugh saw a flash of sadness in those mesmerizing eyes, but she quickly masked it. "Not everything is measured in dollars. And just because my grandfather and I are the only ones with the Flanagan name, it doesn't mean we don't have plenty of family around."
She gave him a once-over look that made him feel as if she could see inside his dark soul.
"I doubt you could say the same thing, Mr. McCutcheon." She swung around and walked to the door.
Hugh was just a bit quicker as he went after her. She reached for the knob, but he stopped her from making a grand exit.
"You know nothing about me, Ellie Flanagan or my family." He spoke softly into her ear. "So don't go making assumptions. I'm not doing anything illegal, but I will do what it takes to get end results."
She turned around and flashed those big eyes at him. His gaze moved to her hair, already teasing his nose with a fresh lemony scent. He itched to run his fingers through the silky auburn strands.
"Then be warned, Mr. McCutcheon. I can fight dirty, too."
He couldn't help but smile as he stepped back. "I'll look forward to it."
She nodded, then pulled open the door and stalked out.
Hugh stood in the doorway and watched as she walked down the hill toward the house. With her head held high, her natural grace drew his interest more than it should. He wanted to blame it on a lack of female attention due to his heavy work schedule, but he knew the sassy redhead intrigued him all on her own.