A Hard Man to Loveby Kathleen Lawless, Kathleen Shandley
Montana Blackstone has big plans for the deluxe spa resort she's building at Black Creek Ranch. They don't include letting her know-it-all new foreman take the reins, even if tall, broad-shouldered Steele Hardt looks mighty capable of showing her how blissful it can be to surrender control in and out of the bedroom. As the sizzling chemistry between them… See more details below
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Montana Blackstone has big plans for the deluxe spa resort she's building at Black Creek Ranch. They don't include letting her know-it-all new foreman take the reins, even if tall, broad-shouldered Steele Hardt looks mighty capable of showing her how blissful it can be to surrender control in and out of the bedroom. As the sizzling chemistry between them erupts in one mind-blowing encounter after another, Montana finds that Steele has a knack for knocking down her defenses and seeing through to the vulnerable core she's tried so hard to hide.
Once a pro poker player, now a renowned business troubleshooter, Steele came to Black Creek to give investors a covert report on the spa's potential not to give its gorgeous owner such very personal attention. And once she learns the truth about why he's there, Steele stands to lose Montana forever. Convincing her that the heat between them is more than a diversion means taking the biggest gamble of his life. But Steele has never been known to take the easy way out and he's not about to start now. . . .
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Helen, this time you've really gone too far." Montana Blackstone eyed her mother-in-law, perched daintily across the desk. What in the world was she going to do with her?
"Montana, darling, give the man a chance, won't you?"
"You cannot sleep with every man on this ranch who takes your fancy, then fire them when they no longer suit your needs!"
Helen's surgically rejuvenated face flushed pink. "You're exaggerating."
"Not by much." Montana would have liked to add that if Charlie was still alive he'd be appalled by his mother's behavior, but the truth of it was they were cut from the same cloth, these two. Charlie had also slept with the help, then fired them when he was done.
"I know Steele will be a tremendous asset to Black Creek. He's a lucky find. You've been so immersed in the resort and spa, you have no idea how the rest of the ranch is faring."
"I know it hasn't been our best season," Montana admitted.
"It needs an infusion of fresh ideas and energy," Helen said. "You can't continue your expansion without the revenue."
"It's nearly done," Montana said.
"And over budget," Helen said, a fact Montana couldn't dispute. The state-of-the-art spa had spiraled out of control with delays and cost overruns, and what had started out as an exciting new project was rapidly turning into a mess of red ink.
Helen's decision to hire a new foreman wasn't really Montana's to override, for although Helen didn't control the purse strings, she did have the ear of Black Creek Resort's guarantor.
"All right, then. Let's go meet your latest boy toy and get it over with."
"For the record, he's not my type."
When Montana saw him, she had to agree. Just the way the man stood in the tiled entrance hall of the ranch house, his back toward them, his Stetson loosely clasped between his fingers, screamed power and control and capability. He was studying a painting by Lamotia, one of Montana's favorite artists, and she had a brief moment to take in his thick dark hair and broad shoulders before the newcomer turned to face them. She caught her breath, speared by the most intensely blue eyes she had ever seen. Somewhere between genuine turquoise and desert night sky, they were breathtaking, mesmerizing, rendering her temporarily speechless.
"Steele, Montana, I'll leave you two to chat." With a smug smile, Helen retreated.
"Sorry," the stranger said. "I didn't mean to stare, but I expected Montana to be a man."
His remark restored her equilibrium as effectively as a dash of cold water. "Do you have a problem working for a woman, Mr. Steele?"
"I beg your pardon."
Surely he was making that up. "Is that what it says on your birth certificate?"
His smile was almost as breath-robbing as his eyes. Every survival instinct she possessed screamed "danger."
"My mother has a warped sense of humor, but I always figure it could have been worse: my brother's name is Sloan. And no, I have never had problems taking direction from a woman."
Despite the silent overhead fan stirring the air, Montana felt herself grow suddenly warm. Beads of perspiration dewed her hairline while nerve sensors went on full alert. She felt a surge of blood through her system, like an adrenaline rush. His words sounded innocent enough; so why did she read sexual overtones into them? It must've been his voice, the way it feathered her nerve endings with promise. Or was it his eyes, and the way they suggested he welcomed a woman's guidance in pleasuring her to the utmost?
"Despite what Helen might have led you to believe, I run Black Creek. I'm the one you'll be answering to."
He tilted his head in acknowledgment. "I can't wait."
"And sleeping with Helen is not part of your job description."
His smile widened. "That's a relief."
"Because once she sleeps with someone, one of us ends up firing him. So be warned."
"Sounds like danger pay could be in order," he said lightly.
Montana smiled in spite of herself. It was impossible not to, when his smile was contagious. "I hadn't planned to hire a new foreman, but Helen's right. Zeb's not getting any younger and my energies have been concentrated in other areas lately."
"Tell me, which one of you do they call the black widow?"
She slanted him a speculative glance. It was hard to know if he was being playful or provocative. Either way, Steele's presence at Black Creek would clearly be anything but dull.
"I have no idea. I imagine it depends whom you're speaking with. How did you convince Helen to hire you?"
"I come highly recommended."
"That's what I was afraid of," Montana said dryly. She extended her right hand. "Welcome to Black Creek, Mr. Hardt. I'll have Zeb show you to the bunkhouse and give you the lay of the land. Meet me back here after lunch."
Was it her imagination or did he clasp her hand a little longer than necessary? She swore she felt his thumb graze the sensitive area between thumb and forefinger, with the definite intent of turning it into an erogenous zone all its own.
"Meet you in this exact spot?"
She reclaimed her hand, which retained the warmth of his. "In my office. Second door on your left down that hall. We can fill out the necessary paperwork at that time."
"Before you hear my input?"
"Why would you offer your input before you're signed and sealed on the dotted line?"
"We shook hands," he said.
"Yes." And she still felt the warmth of his touch on her skin.
"Which is as binding to me as anything on paper. Any chance you can give me the guided tour in person?"
Montana took her time to answer, aware he was testing her, charting his boundaries; it was important she set the right tone. Steele seemed more the independent type than the order taker, exactly the kind of leadership the ranch needed, a change of pace from "good-time Charlie."
Her late husband had never been one to take control or deal with anything remotely unpleasant, yet she had a feeling that rather than back down from a challenge, Steele would welcome it with a challenge of his own. Perhaps she could learn to like having a capable man around the property for a change.
"I must say I'm not in the habit of rearranging my day at the whim of the newly hired help."
"If the old way of doing things was working, you'd hardly be in a position where you need me."
He was doing it again. Coloring seemingly innocent words with overtones of a sexual nature. Intimating she had need of individual services he was more than capable of providing.
"I don't need anyone," she said quickly, words that sounded forced, even to her.
"I used to think that, too. Then one day I learned differently."
She was dying to ask him what he meant by that cryptic statement but he changed subjects abruptly.
"What's going on with the spa?"
"I suggest you focus your energies in the direction of the ranch. The spa is none of your concern."
"I only asked a simple question," Steele said. "You needn't be so quick on the defensive."
"I would prefer for you to concentrate on matters that pertain directly to your ranching duties." As they spoke, they reached the massive, carved-on-both-sides front door of the ranch house.
Steele ushered her through ahead of him. "Whatever you say, Montana. Is it all right if I call you Montana? Both you and Helen are Mrs. Blackstone; it could get somewhat confusing."
"I hardly think people are likely to mix us up."
Outside, he wrenched open the passenger side of a dusty black pickup truck. "Hop in. You can direct me."
She climbed in, aware that although she'd never actually agreed to accompany him, he seemed to accept it as fact, a skill that could make him a highly effective foreman.
The interior of the late model truck's cab was very clean, with nothing to give away hints regarding the personality of the vehicle's owner.
"Other than my office, I try to keep my home separate from the day-to-day operation of the ranch. Over there are the stables, bunkhouses, and guest cabins."
"Housing staff, or guests?"
"Both," she said. "Charlie, my late husband, believed the guests liked to be as close to the real action as possible."
The bunkhouses were looking a little run-down, she realized, viewing them with a critical eye as Steele pulled up around back. When had that happened? Was that why they had slowly been losing their regulars? Guests who returned at the same time year after year had become less common over the past few years, even before Charlie's death.
Steele parked around back of the first bunkhouse. "Where to from here, Boss Lady?"
His words made Montana realize just how long it had been since she'd shown her face anyplace other than the ranch house and the resort. She was saved from having to answer by the appearance of a grizzled ranch hand who eyed the new vehicle suspiciously.
"Knew that was a motor I didn't recognize." He turned to Montana. "Aren't you supposed to be on your way to the airport to pick up Fancy-Pants from California?"
"Oh, my word, I totally forgot. Zeb, this is Steele Hardt, who's going to be giving us a hand around here. Show him the lay of the land, would you? Steele, Zeb has been here longer than any of us can remember. He knows everything there is to know about Black Creek."
Zeb pulled her aside, out of earshot of Steele. "Didn't know you were fixing to take on anyone new."
"Neither did I. Helen hired him."
His expression darkened. "Mrs. Helen tends to forget her place."
"Yes, Helen and I have had that conversation. Would you do me a favor and show Steele around, please."
She raised her voice to address Steele. "I'll leave you in Zeb's capable hands, Mr. Hardt."
Montana drove as fast as she dared to the Medford Airport. It wouldn't make much of an impression on her new spa director if she left him stranded at the terminal. He was a fussy little man, a trait she'd discovered when she'd flown to L.A. to meet with him and lure him away from his position. At the time, fussy had struck her as just what she needed at the helm of the Oasis, for she tended to be a little too seat-of-her-pants in style.
She could try to blame Steele for distracting her this morning, but the truth was she'd been doing a damn fine job of distracting herself before he showed up, daydreaming into the future, when Black Creek Resort and Spa would be a world-class destination and household name.
She pulled up outside the arrivals area, relieved when Terence was not pacing outside the airport terminal, impatiently waiting for her. Perhaps his flight had been delayed. She pulled out her cell phone, which she had forgotten to turn on, and checked her messages. Next she called Terence's cell.
"Terence, Montana here. I'm out in front of the terminal. Where are you?...Still in L.A.?...But I don't understand...No, I haven't read my e-mail, I've been busy...I see...Well, I have to say I'm extremely disappointed...I understood we had reached an agreement.
"Unprofessional jerk," she muttered as she flipped the phone shut and pulled into the lane of traffic leaving the airport. Having the spa director quit before he'd even started was one more problem she really didn't need right now.
To find Steele lounging in her office upon her return was another. Never mind the fact that he was sitting behind her desk, with his booted feet propped on a corner of the desktop, the spa contractor's report in hand.
"You made good time to the airport and back."
"Just what do you think you're doing?" She stared with hard disapproval to where his feet rested on the desk she'd inherited from Charlie, along with the ranch and its responsibilities. She was determined to build on the legacy he had left, unsure if it was something she needed to prove more to herself or her dead husband's memory. Incensed, she gave Steele's feet a push designed to unbalance him, but he caught his footing and rose gracefully.
"You told me to meet you here. I know how long the airport drive takes, so I hurried through my tour to meet you when you got back." He glanced behind her. "Where's Fancy-Pants? Stand you up?"
"As a matter of fact, yes."
"Can't trust those city slickers." Steele clicked his tongue.
Any more than she could trust herself, Montana thought. She'd let Terence slip through her fingers and now found herself stuck with the arrogantly overconfident Steele Hardt. Despite everything, she couldn't deny the simmering-below-the-surface attraction between them. An attraction that could easily compromise any employer-employee relationship.
"Take that yahoo who built the spa, for example. Man, did he give you one hell of a ride." Steele waved the latest missive from the general contractor through the air, then let it fall back onto her desk.
"What exactly makes you some sort of expert? More to the point, how dare you help yourself to private papers in my private office?"
"They were in plain sight. To my mind, the only way a foreman can be any good is if he's privy to what's going on. Everything that's going on."
Montana's temper snapped.
Those wild blue eyes searched her face, as if seeking a sign she was bluffing, before he gave a laconic shrug. "Whatever you say. But first, you owe it to yourself to hear me out."
Copyright © 2006 by Kathleen Shandley
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Meet the Author
Kathleen Lawless is a pseudonym. The author of A Hard Man to Love and three other erotic romances from Pocket Books, she finds her inspiration on the beaches of British Columbia. She believes chocolate and red wine are basic food groups and knows firsthand that oysters are a natural aphrodisiac.
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