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The subtle sound of hooves pounding earth and good-natured snorts usually put a smile on Taggart Worth's face. But not today.
Today, his gut was in a twist as he leaned on the corral fence drinking coffee, watching his three prize mares trot around the circular arena, the slight Arizona wind sweeping their manes. Once again, Worth Ranch had lost out on a lucrative cattle deal to Big Hawk Ranch. Hawkins Sullivan had outbid them and won.
He was their neighbor and a big thorn in Tagg's side. Though Worth Ranch held its own with their biggest competitor, Tagg hated losing this last deal. He'd been led to believe it was a sure thing.
Tagg took a sip from his coffee mug. The thick brew had grown as cold and bitter as his emotions. He splashed the remaining coffee onto the ground and set the empty cup on the top of the rail post. His thoughts strayed to the one-night stand he'd had with Sullivan's daughter Callie last month in Reno. For weeks now, she'd been on his mind and that wouldn't do for the chief financial officer of Worth Enterprises.
While he should have been outsmarting and outbidding The Hawk, as he was known in the cattle business, Tagg had been thinking about Sullivan's daughter instead. The devil in him wondered if Hawkins had sent her to that Reno rodeo deliberately to distract him and throw him off balance. Sullivan was known to be ruthless in business but even he wouldn't go that farsacrificing his daughter for a cattle deal. Callie didn't strike him as the type of woman who could be easily manipulated, either, but then Tagg had been wrong before when it came to women.
He'd known Callie as a child. Their ranches bordered each other, but he hadn't seen her in years until she'd pulled him off that bar stool in the Cheatin' Heart honky-tonk and dragged him onto the dance floor.
That night had been wild.
"Dance with me, cowboy. Show me your moves," she said as she slid her arms around his neck and cozied up real close. Long dark waves fell in a tangle onto her back. She shimmied her body and sent him a smile that beckoned.
"Can you handle my moves?" He spread his hands on her hips and drew her tight against him. She felt like heaven, warm and willing. He was one whiskey away from pure miseryrodeos did that to him. Made him remember what he'd lost. All-grown-up Callie had caught the brunt of his dangerous mood.
"Oh, yeah, Tagg. I can handle any move you want to make on me." Breathless, her lips angled up to his, so close, so tempting. She stared into his eyes with unmistakable invitation. Take me, she had said with that look, tearing his waning willpower to shreds.
Rational thought had escaped him then. He'd been without a woman for months and Callie seemed to want the same thing as he had, a night of crazy-wild sex. She'd seemed eager for it and Tagg hadn't an ounce of self-control left. He'd grabbed her hand and taken her to his hotel room, no questions asked. They'd barely made it through the door before they'd tossed each other's clothes off.
"She's a fine-looking filly."
Tagg turned to find his older brother standing at the corral fence three feet away from him. Tagg and his two brothers owned seventy-five thousand acres of prime ranch land in Red Ridge Countyland that had been in the Worth family for generations. Clay lived at the main house, and Jackson spent most of his time in the penthouse, while Tagg lived up in the hills on the site of the original Worth cabin in a newly built ranch home.
"Trick?" Tagg nodded, glancing at the youngest of the three mares, a dappled gray. "She's from good healthy stock. The other females have taken to her just fine."
"You named her Trick?"
"Long story, but she wasn't easy to acquire. In fact, it was damn tricky. I had to do some fast talking."
They watched the horses settle down on the far side of the corral, the two older mares sandwiching Trick between them, mothering her.
"It's been a while since you've come down to the main house." Clay tipped his hat back to look at him directly. "When I drove up you looked deep in thought. Everything okay?"
Tagg wasn't the kiss-and-tell kind of guy. He felt guilty about skipping out on Callie that morning, leaving a note on the hotel bed in his wake. He'd never done that to a woman before. But he wasn't going to discuss that or the loss of the cattle deal to Sullivan with Clay this morning.
It was his problem and he'd deal with it.
Tagg liked his privacy and thanks to modern-day inventions like computers, the internet and iPhones, he didn't have to venture too far to conduct ranch business these days. Clay dealt with the ranch employees and Jackson took care of the other Worth holdings in Phoenix. All three of them didn't mind getting their hands dirty and working the land.
"Everything's fine. Just been buried under a pile of paperwork. How about you?"
"Busy with Penny's Song. The construction is almost complete. Our first young visitors are due to arrive in a few weeks."
"That's good. I'm planning on lending a hand. Anytime you need it."
Penny's Song was Clay and his estranged wife's brainchild, named after a local child who'd died from a debilitating disease at ten years old. With the Worth money and name behind it, the facility built one mile into the property would honor her memory and provide a safe haven for children recovering from life-threatening illness. From the get-go, it was designed to help mainstream those recovering kids into society in a dude ranch-type setting.
"We're counting on your help."
"I'll stop by later today and check out the progress."
Clay nodded and took a step toward his truck, but then turned and stared at Tagg for a moment.
He lifted his brows, curious at Clay's expression. "What?"
"It's been four years, Tagg."
Tagg took a quick pull of oxygen. Noting the concern on his brother's face, he tempered his impulse to lash out with careful words. "I know how long it's been. No one has to remind me."
"Maybe it's time you gave yourself a break."
He watched Clay turn around and get into the cab of his truck. The engine roared and red dust kicked up a fuss as he drove off, leaving Tagg alone with his thoughts. The way he wanted. The way it had to be. He'd lost his wife, Heather, four years ago and nothing would make it right. Giving himself a break wasn't on his agenda.
Callie Sullivan stood in the shadows of the Red Ridge Mountains, just steps from Tagg's front door. A tremble pulsed through her body. She recognized it as anticipation and not fear. She couldn't wait to lay eyes on him again even knowing he wouldn't be glad to see her. Even knowing that he'd never called, never tried to get in touch with her again after the night they'd spent together.
She strode up the porch steps and pulled the note he'd written to her on hotel-room stationary out of her jeans. She'd taken it out and read it so many times the paper had worn ragged and thin. She remembered how she'd felt when she'd woken up to find it and not Tagg in the bed beside her that morning. She knew the words by heart now; she didn't have to see them.
It was great. Heading home early. Didn't want to wake you.
As far as notes went, it wasn't much. Tagg wasn't a verbal man, but he'd sure made up for his lack of social skills in the bedroom. Callie had no regrets about that night. She'd been restless, frustrated and unhappy during that trip to Reno until she had spotted Tagg sitting on a bar stool all alone. Something short of crazy clicked in her head and told her to go for what she wanted. She'd always wanted Tagg. Callie, this is your chance.
She'd taken that chance and that night her "Tagg fantasy" had come to life.
She stood on his doorstep and knocked, the note tucked safely into the back pocket of her jeans.
Callie knocked again. Still nothing.
She stepped off his porch and with a hand above her brows she scoured the property, squinting against the afternoon sun, looking for some sign of Tagg.
His sprawling one-story home sat atop a hill and afforded a panoramic view of the Red Ridge Mountains. The picturesque scene reminded Callie why she loved this part of Arizona so much. More than an hour away from the bustling city of Phoenix with its legendary historic districts, sports centers and trendy shopping, Tagg's ranch home seemed far removed from that life.
It's the way he wanted it, she thought. Everyone knew his past history. The bronco champion married to the rodeo queen. It had all been so perfect. A real fairy-tale ending.
And they lived happily ever after.
But they hadn't. Because Heather Benton Worth had died in a small-plane crash on an airstrip on Worth land and Tagg's life had been engulfed with grief. The details of how it had all come about were sketchy and if anyone knew, not a soul in the county spoke about it. It had been a tragic end to a beautiful life. And it had been as if Tagg had died that day, too. He'd quit the rodeo, leaving his friends and his career behind to build a modest home in the hills. Callie's father had said that Clayton Worth made Tagg the CFO of the company to pull him out of his grief, and his solitary life on the ranch had begun.
Off in the distance, Callie spotted a lone rider coming in from the range. She took a few steps forward to be sure. Her heart sped. Emotions washed over her. She hadn't seen Tagg in five weeks. Five weeks too long. She held a secret close to her heart. One she wouldn't yet share with him.
Long and tall in the saddle, Tagg was just as much a cowboy as he was CFO of Worth Ranch. He wore tan leather chaps over Wranglers and a blue work shirt. Dark Ray-Bans blocked the penetrating sun. As he rode his mare up the dirt path to the barn her breath constricted in her chest. Every nerve ending pulsed.
If Tagg seemed surprised to see her, he didn't show it. He kept his expression blank as he swung his leg up and dismounted the gorgeous bay mare; her coat was glistening with sweat. Callie put a hand on the horse. "You're such a pretty girl," she said, taking hold of the bridle and stroking the mare's forelock. She had a soft spot for all animals, but she loved horses and considered herself an expert horsewoman.
Tagg stood several inches taller and she had to look up to see his face. He folded his arms across his body and leaned back. "I could say the same to you."
She couldn't see his eyes, but was fairly sure he'd just complimented her. "Hi, Tagg."
"Callie." He looked her up and down through his sunglasses, making her wish she'd worn something frilly and feminine instead of blue jeans. "You looking for me?"
He rubbed the back of his neck and let go a deep sigh. "Listen, I'm glad you showed up here"
"You are?" Callie couldn't help herself. She'd been afraid Tagg wouldn't want to see her again. So this was good news and she couldn't hide it in her voice.
He removed his sunglasses and dark silver-blue eyes narrowed in on her. Excitement raced in her veins. Those eyes had seen every ounce of her, had traveled over her body with admiration and desire. Callie would never forget the hot gleam and what it had done to her.
Growing up, Callie had been forbidden to have anything to do with the Worth boys. Her father's rules. The Worths hadn't been worthy of the Sullivans. In her father's mind, no one was good enough for Callie. But she'd known Tagg at school, had seen him around town and later had watched him bust broncos in the rodeo.
Simply put, Taggart Worth had owned her teenage dreams. She'd thought the sun rose and set on his broad shouldersthe chisel-jawed, dark-haired, handsome neighbor boy she wasn't allowed to get to know. Six months ago, when she'd returned home from Boston to care for her father after a slight heart attack, nothing had changed except that Callie was her own woman now. And her father's staunch restrictions no longer applied.
"Yeah. I've been thinking about you."
Callie held her breath and on to the hope that surrounded her.
He wrestled with his words. "Fm sorry. About Reno. Shouldn't have happened."
She deflated faster than a birthday-party balloon. Her stomach clenched tight and a slow burn began inside her belly. She'd been bold with Tagg that night. She'd never be sorry for taking what she wanted. For giving Tagg all she had to give. She'd relinquished more than her body in Reno. And now he was apologizing? Telling her it shouldn't have happened?
Pride and anger replaced her disappointment.
"I don't walk out on women like that, usually."
How many women? How many one-night stands? She wished they'd woken up in each other's arms that morning and declared undying love for each other. But she wasn't foolish enough to believe that would happen between them.
"You left a note," she reminded him in a tone that made him wince.
His look of deep, honest regret overpowered her. He regretted everything while she held close to her heart those wonderful memories.
"I should have stayed and explained."
"Nothing to explain, Tagg. We both got what we wanted."
Tagg shook his head. He didn't believe it.
Unable to stomach his remorse another second, Callie looked away, glancing at the mare. "Are you going to comb her down? She's breathing hard."
Before he could answer, Callie took the reins and walked the horse inside the barn. "Come on, girl," she cooed. "Let's get you out of the hot sun." The familiar musky scent of straw, feed and dank earth wafted in the air. She'd grown up around those barn smells.
Tagg stood there a moment watching her, his expression tight, giving nothing away. Then he strode into the barn behind her. Callie had never felt so raw inside. So unnerved. But she came here to tell Tagg something and she wouldn't leave until she did.
She took off the mare's bridle while Tagg began removing the saddle.
"You don't have to do that," he snapped.
She'd annoyed him. Good. "It's second nature with me. I grew up on a ranch, too." She shot him a smile.
"Kind of hard to forget our biggest competitor."
She set the bridle on a hook and grabbed a grooming brush. "Is that the problem? I'm The Hawk's daughter?"
Tagg's mouth twisted. "No."