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Home on the Range
A Caribou Crossing Romance
By SUSAN FOX
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Susan Lyons
All rights reserved.
"You're out of your frigging mind! You want me to go to a dude ranch?" Evan Kincaid glared across the table at the man who had, until two minutes earlier, been his favorite client.
"Calm down, you're making a scene." Gianni Vitale, a stocky, middle-aged man, flung out a hand in an extravagant gesture that encompassed the restaurant. Evan's gaze followed the hand. At one o'clock on a Thursday, Gramercy Tavern was filled with well-dressed people: businessmen like themselves, shoppers pausing for a break, and tourists gawking at the Robert Kushner murals and elegant décor.
The atmosphere was laden with garlic and gossip, and not a single person was staring at them. Why would they? Two typical Manhattan businessmen in suits and ties?
Evan turned back to Gianni and glared again. "I am not making a scene. And no way in hell am I going to a dude ranch."
"You're not listening. The Crazy Horse isn't a working ranch, it's a resort ranch. You won't have to play cowboy."
A ranch was a ranch. "I won't have to play anything because I'm not going."
Gianni blew out air. "You're worse than I was when Elena told me where she'd booked our holiday. But trust me, it's great. You ride every day and you learn a lot about horses."
"Ride? No way." As a boy, growing up in Hicksville, he'd sworn no power in the world would get him up on a horse, and he'd stuck to that vow.
"There's also a wonderful spa. The facilities and staff are first rate." Gianni lowered his voice. "The food's even better than here. You'll have the time of your life. It's quite upscale. Upscale rustic." He took a sip of his dry martini.
"Upscale rustic?" Evan echoed disbelievingly. "Gianni, you don't have a hope in hell of persuading me." His client didn't know Evan had grown up in ranch country and hated it.
Gianni leaned forward, both elbows on the table, and did some glaring of his own. "Evan, you've been my investment counselor for five years. When Addison & Carruthers first assigned you to me, I protested—"
Evan's brows rose. "I didn't know that."
"It's true. But Winston Addison told me you were a rising star, and said your style would suit me. It did. Three years ago, when you left A&C to set up your own business, I was your first client."
It was true. When Evan's style had diverged too far from A&C's traditional one, he'd come to an amicable agreement with the partners. An agreement that allowed him to take a few clients with him in exchange for referring appropriate clients to A&C in the future. "I haven't lost my memory."
"You need reminding. I brought you millions of dollars of my own business and added more than a dozen clients to your list."
"And I've done very well for you and your colleagues, despite the recession. You've gotten your money's worth, and then some." Still, a sense of obligation niggled at Evan's conscience. There weren't many billionaires who would have left the security of an established firm like A&C to risk their fortune with an upstart, especially in a shaky economy.
Gianni leaned even closer. "I like to think we have become more than client and counselor. Are we not friends?"
Trust Gianni to play that card. "You're breaking my heart." Evan knew his words lacked conviction. Gianni wasn't exactly a buddy, but their relationship was more than a strictly business one. And that was rare for Evan. Although he'd outgrown his childhood awkwardness, sociability still didn't come easily. Besides, there was little time for developing friendships when you were on a fast track to the peak of the business world. But who needed friends? He'd had one once, and look how that had ended up.
"And you will break my heart, Evan, if you don't give this opportunity a fair appraisal."
"I didn't say I wouldn't appraise it. Just not on-site. Have this wrangler person e-mail me her financial analysis, her business plan, her projections, and I'll give them full consideration. Though I have to say, I'm surprised. This is hardly your normal type of investment. What did you call it again? No-frills riding? What does that mean?"
"There are dude ranches where guests play cowboy, and resort ranches like the Crazy Horse, where Elena and I went. TJ Cousins wants to open a riding camp that focuses completely on horses and Western riding, with no distractions. Riding lessons every day, trail rides, horse care, communication with horses, and—"
"Yeah, yeah," Evan broke in as an image sprang into his mind. A girl with chestnut hair pulled back in a ponytail sitting across from him in the high school cafeteria. Jess Bly. Animated, lunch forgotten, telling him her latest horse-crazy dream.
As always when he thought of Jess, he felt a flood of conflicting emotions. Predominant was a sense of loss. He felt that poignant emotion every time something major happened in his life and his first instinct—bizarrely—was to tell a girl he hadn't seen in ten years.
Annoyance with himself and his client put an edge in his voice. "God, Gianni, this reminds me of a girl I knew when I was growing up. She and your TJ Cousins sound like two peas from the same pod. And let me tell you, the pod might well have come from outer space."
It wasn't fair to tar the unknown TJ with a Jess Bly brush, but this no-frills horse stuff sounded like just the kind of kooky scheme his old pal would have dreamed up. Jess had been the sweetest, kindest girl—any happiness he'd experienced in his childhood was due to her—but she'd definitely not been the most practical person.
When she was eight, she'd wanted to breed racehorses, ride them herself, and win the Triple Crown. She'd just read National Velvet. When she was ten, it was a riding school that would make its students learn both English and Western style. When she was twelve—
Oh, what did it matter? Jess Bly was a part of his past. A part he tried not to think about. He had messed up badly, in so many ways. And paid the price, all these years. He'd lost his best friend. True, he hadn't deserved forgiveness after acting like such a shit, but all the same he'd have thought those years of childhood friendship would count for more than a cool e-mail dismissal from seventeen-year-old Jess. She'd said they should make a clean break, forget the past.
Forget? He wondered if Jess had managed to do that. For him, though he rarely thought of Caribou Crossing or his parents, it had proved impossible to forget Jess.
Gianni reached across the table and snapped his fingers, demanding Evan's attention. "I didn't write out a check; I came to you. The ideas are exciting, the woman is impressive, and I need you to tell me if it's a realistic investment. I don't need a huge return, but I want a reasonable prospect of success."
Putting aside his guilt trip down memory lane, Evan focused on his client. "How much money are you talking?"
"Investing between three and four million, I'd guess. She already has the property. We'd want to get things started with a few cabins, a lodge, a training ring, and of course great horses. It would expand from there. Also, TJ's idea is to have a sliding scale on the pricing, basically so guests pay what they can afford."
Evan snorted. Oh yeah, that was as businesslike as one of Jess's old schemes. Had Gianni left his brain back at the Crazy Horse? "As I said, have Ms. Cousins forward me the information."
Gianni shook his head emphatically. "You have to go there."
"That's absurd." Evan shoved away his unfinished black bass entrée. Delicious though it was, he'd lost his appetite.
Gianni pointed an accusing finger. "You don't get it. And you won't get it, not here in Manhattan. I wouldn't have gotten it myself if Elena hadn't dragged me to the Crazy Horse. You must talk to TJ in person and see her work with the horses. Her method draws strongly on Monty Roberts's techniques and—"
"Spare me the details." It was too much like talking to Jess, back when they were kids with big dreams. He remembered the hundreds of hours they'd spent together while she enthused over her horsy dreams and he expounded on how he was going to become king of the hill in the Big Apple. They had loved and supported each other. She'd been the only good thing about Hicksville. She'd been his first—Damn! Evan put the brakes on that train of thought.
"Let me get this straight," he said. "Ms. Cousins works for the Crazy Horse and she's soliciting guests to invest in a competing business?"
"No, no." Gianni shook his head vigorously. "Not competing. The two operations will be complementary, like your firm and A&C. Her concept would appeal to the more serious riders. And no, she's not soliciting guests, we just happened to get talking one day."
Yeah, sure. After this Cousins person had Googled Gianni and figured out how rich he was.
"I've never asked you for a personal favor," his client said.
Damn again. Gianni was pulling out all the stops.
"You're overworked, Evan. You need a holiday. I'll give you a paid one."
Now that was complete bull. "Cynthia and I were in Paris last month and Tokyo the month before."
"Those were work trips. Your estimable girlfriend doesn't take real holidays. Nor do you."
Evan shrugged. He hadn't thought of it that way, but what Gianni said was true. Every trip was business for at least one of them and often both. Her work as a corporate finance lawyer and his as an investment counselor often took them in the same direction. In fact, they'd met at a conference in Geneva.
Yes, they usually did plan their trips with an extra day or two to shop and visit museums and galleries, but they'd never taken a true holiday.
A holiday. For a moment, the idea was tempting. Oh, not to go to some idiotic dude ranch that reminded him of his crappy childhood, but perhaps to lie on a beach in the south of France. No, what was he thinking? He'd be bored out of his mind. He thrived on work. Sure, maybe he did get the occasional stress headache, but a good workout at the fitness club dealt with that. His personal trainer had even given him a set of stretches to do at the office, to ease out the kinks.
Hell, Gianni ought to be the first person to understand that holidays had no place on the fast track to success.
"When's the last time you had a vacation in the country?" his client asked.
"Never." When he'd lived in Caribou Crossing, it had been anything but a vacation. "It sounds like sheer hell. Where is this Crazy Horse? Texas?"
"Canada. The interior of British Columbia. They call it the Cariboo. You fly into Williams Lake, then it's an hour or two drive."
Evan's heart jerked to a stop. Caribou Crossing—Hicksville, as he'd called it—was an hour or so from Williams Lake.
Dimly he was aware of Gianni waving at their waiter, and in a moment two martinis arrived. The waiter removed Gianni's empty glass. Evan didn't drink alcohol in the middle of the day, but his hand reached out automatically. Caribou Crossing, damn it. Miles and miles of open countryside, horses, Jess Bly. His mother.
His hand jerked back from the martini glass. His mother—and his abusive, runaway dad—were the reason he was so careful with alcohol.
Hell! He didn't need these memories.
And he sure as hell didn't need a holiday. He worked hard, yes, but he wasn't overworked or stressed out. He'd achieved his childhood dream and he relished it, building his business bigger and better—and not just making his clients more money but helping many support worthwhile charities. He and Cynthia led a jet-setting life. They had acquaintances to dine with in Paris and Rome, Hong Kong and Tokyo, London and Sydney. He lived in New York, the best city in the world, the boldest and bravest, the one place that had always drawn him, that still enthralled and impressed him on a daily basis. He was living his dream. No way was he going back to the hellhole where sheer misery had spawned that dream.
"Afraid you'll fall off a horse?" Gianni asked with pseudo-innocence.
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Elena's strongly in favor of the investment. She says I'm a new man since our holiday. Part of the deal with TJ is that we'd have a free cabin for a month a year, a place to unwind and to ride. To smell the roses, as they say at the Crazy Horse."
Evan recognized a threat when he heard one. "You're saying that if I don't go and meet this wrangler woman and analyze her proposal, you'll let Elena convince you to throw away several million dollars?"
Gianni grinned hugely and stretched his diamond-ringed hand across the table. "Good, you will go. Thank you, Evan, I knew you would protect my money."
"Wait a minute."
Gianni withdrew the hand and scowled.
"Where exactly is this place?" There'd been no Crazy Horse resort ranch anywhere near Caribou Crossing when he'd lived there.
A shrug. "I never looked at a map. What's the difference?"
Having transformed himself into the consummate New Yorker, Evan wasn't about to claim the Cariboo as his boyhood home. He shrugged. "Just curious." He drew in a breath and let it out. TJ Cousins ... There'd been a bunch of Cousinses in the Caribou Crossing area—he'd gone to school with three of them, including Dave, the basketball star and class president—but there hadn't been a TJ. Chances were, this Crazy Horse was nowhere near Caribou Crossing. Even if it was, he'd never have to track down Jess. Or visit his mother.
Gianni really was his best client, and the closest thing he had—other than Cynthia—to a friend. He couldn't let the man throw away millions on some crazy scheme just because his wife, a normally sane woman, had developed a temporary passion for riding horses and smelling roses. "Okay," he said grudgingly, "you're on." This time he stretched his hand across the table. Gianni grasped it and pumped enthusiastically as Evan wondered what he'd gotten himself into.
"Free up your calendar for two weeks," Gianni ordered.
Evan snorted. "Two days."
"No, you'll need the full time to learn all you need to know. I don't want you going in as my investment counselor and grilling TJ. You'll go undercover, yes? As a regular guest. Take it slowly, get a feel for her and her methods. You can't understand the no-frills riding camp idea without understanding the context, the ambiance, the person behind it."
Evan frowned. Much as he hated to admit it, Gianni had a valid point. The success or failure of a new venture hinged not only on the business plan, but on the person behind it. His own company was a prime example. But a few days, a week max, should be sufficient.
"Have Angelica call me for the details," Gianni said. "Go as soon as possible, because Elena and I are anxious to get started on this, provided you approve it. The riding package starts on a Sunday, runs two weeks, and you return on a Saturday. The day after, you'll come to our apartment for Sunday brunch, thank me for the holiday, and tell us what you think of TJ and her plans."
Evan clenched his jaw. He wasn't used to surrendering control.
"Oh, by the way." His client's dark eyes sparkled.
He studied Gianni suspiciously.
"Take Cynthia if you want."
Chic Cynthia, at the Crazy Horse ranch. Evan's jaw unclenched and his laughter joined Gianni's rich chuckle.
The two of them left the restaurant together, then parted. After a short, brisk walk, Evan arrived at his sleek, modern office. He asked his assistant, Angelica, to phone Gianni and then call the Crazy Horse to see if it was possible to make reservations for a week. With any luck, the damned place would be booked up for the rest of the summer.
Toward the end of the afternoon, Angelica clicked across his marble-tiled floor. "You're in luck. There was a cancellation for next week at the ... Crazy Horse."
Evan's lips twitched as the efficient Angelica's own lips—colored a bizarre purple that he assumed must be the height of fashion—hesitated over the name. It was clear his assistant thought "crazy" was a fitting term to apply to him. He couldn't wait to see Cynthia's reaction when he told her at dinner tonight. Maybe he'd even pass along Gianni's suggestion that she join him, just to see her horrified expression.
"I booked you for two weeks."
"I said one."
Angelica held up a hand. "The Crazy Horse only books in two-week blocks. You can always find an excuse for leaving early. Like fall off a horse and break a leg?" She said it straight-faced, but he thought he saw a twinkle in her eye.
"You're a big help," he grumbled.
"Mr. Vitale told me to bill everything to your card and he'll reimburse you. He didn't want anything put in his name, since you're going undercover, as he termed it."
She handed over a file folder. "Here's your e-ticket and your confirmation number at the Crazy Horse. The price there is all-inclusive. At six thousand US dollars for a week, one would certainly hope so. I gather it's a world-famous, exclusive spot. I got you a few hundred dollars in Canadian money in case you want to do some shopping, though I can't imagine there's much to spend money on there." Her eyes were wide, and it wasn't with envy.
Excerpted from Home on the Range by SUSAN FOX. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Lyons. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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