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"Ooh. Ride 'em, cowboy."
Gabriella Thompson paused in the act of writing a catalog item number to see what her assistant manager, Alicia, was talking aboutor rather who.
She had to squint since she'd left her glasses in her office, but she was able to make out the very tall, very broad-shouldered man who had paused outside the doors of Premiere Vue.
He glanced at something in his large hand as though double-checking the address, then frowned into the interior of Gabriella's shop, even though she knew he couldn't see beyond the window displays.
"He's not Clint Eastwood but I'd tap that."
A former stuntwoman and current body builder, Alicia's muscles were only slightly less bulky than those straining the sleeves of the man's gray T-shirt.
Not bad, but he definitely wasn't Gabriella's type. "Down, girl. He's probably looking for something for his boyfriend," Gabriella said, tossing the catalog aside and standing to go to her office.
She had calls to make, work to do. Two months of paperwork and orders to catch up on, contacts she needed to touch base with because the past two months had been spent taking care of her best friend Molly in the last weeks of her illness.
"Oh, he's coming in. How do the girls look?"
Gabriella shook her head at Alicia's behavior, knowing her assistant was trying to lighten the mood. Molly's death after a short but deadly bout with cancer had left Gabriella struggling to find her footing. "The girls are envy-worthy as always," she said, referring to Alicia's bountiful double-Ds. "Just remember store policy."
"I know, I know. Hands off the customer. So can I put other things on him?"
Alicia's quick return brought out the smile in Gabriella she'd worked so hard to achieve. "You are incorrigible." And Gabriella loved it. The guy walking in the door didn't stand a chance.
He wasn't the first pseudo-cowboy to cross the threshold of her business. There had been plenty of cowboys, aliens and vampires over the years.
Located a couple blocks from the many soundstages and sets in Burbank, California, Premiere Vueor First Blushsaw more than its share of famous faces as well as extras, studio executives and Hollywood elite.
Gabriella didn't want to jinx herself, but Premiere Vue was fast becoming the rising star in high-end romantic gifts. No cheesy cards, porn or boxers with hearts on them here, only the best the world had to offer. Lingerie and perfume from Paris, lotions and soaps from London, chocolates from Belgium and Switzerland, flowers from all over the world.
Alicia looked tough but she designed some of the most feminine, sexy and unique-looking gift baskets to be had. In addition to their merchandise, they also planned hot-air balloon rides, sunset cruises and handled all the arrangements required when it came to everything from catering romantic dinners for two right up to full-blown wedding showers and anniversary parties. If it involved romance, Premiere Vue made it happen.
The electronic door chime did its thing and the cowboy stepped inside. He wore jeans and boots, and the dove-gray T-shirt that wasn't quite cowboyish but showed off the rock-hard muscles of his arms. No sense in hiding those guns.
The hat was the kicker, though. Apparently he played the good guy on whatever movie or soap opera he filmed. Didn't all good cowboys wear white hats? when he stopped to peruse the latest arrivals from Paristiny black lace corsets with soft pink ribbons and matching pantiesshe found herself studying him as thoroughly as Alicia and wishing she had her glasses to sharpen the fuzzy edges.
Alicia approached him with an extra sway in her sashay. "Welcome. I'm Alicia. May I help you?"
The moment he heard Alicia speak the man pierced her with a surprisingly intense stare. "Maybe."
Alicia gave him her most flirtatious smile and indicated the shop in a graceful Vanna White wave. "We're the best in the business. Are you looking for something for your wife? A girlfriend?"
Instead of answering Alicia's question, the cowboy's gaze shifted to Gabriella and narrowed.
"You're not the woman I need to see."
A knot formed in Gabriella's stomach. Not the woman he needed to see? What did that mean?
Maintaining eye contact, he left the display of corsets and moved toward her. Gabriella straightened to her full height. She was five-eleven-and-a-half in her bare feet and presently wore four-inch heels, but this man was taller and definitely broader, and he moved with a careful pace, like a man stalking prey.
Or one intimidated by the contents of her store? "Gabriella?"
He knew her name. Up close she knew he hadn't come from a sound stage or recording session but was the real deal. Which could only meanSurely not?
Despite the hat, crinkles fanned out from the man's eyes from too much time in the sun. His boots were well worn, layered with a coating of dust he hadn't picked up on any L.A. street. "Who's asking?"
"Braddock McKenna. We need to talk. Privately."
McKenna. A short huff of a laugh left her chest as awareness kicked in. Of course. A somewhat handsome cowboy walks into her shop and he was one of them. "I'm not interested."
She didn't care why her biological father's adopted son was there to see her. Molly had harped for years that Gabriella needed to ignore her mother's dictates and go to Montana, settle the issues between her and Zane McKenna face-to-face. But this close to Molly's death, Gabriella simply wasn't capable of making that leap. "As you can see, I'm busy."
Gabriella turned to walk away but two steps into her grand exit, Braddock caught her by the arm.
"Not so fast. I'm here about your father and I've come a hell of a long way to talk to you. The least you can do is hear me out."
"Of course it's about Zane. Why else would you be here? But whatever it is? I'm not interested. Why would I let you waste my time talking about a man who means nothing to me?"
Braddock's face turned to stone at her words but he didn't budge.
"Fine, what? Is he sick? Needs a kidney? A piece of my liver? What?" She knew she sounded mean but the man had cared less about her, why should she care about him?
"Zane died two weeks ago. His attorney has been trying to contact you but you haven't returned his calls."
Because of Molly. Because she'd slept on Molly's couch or even sometimes in Molly's hospital bed beside her so Molly wouldn't be alone, and she'd thought
She wasn't sure what she'd thought the calls from the Montana attorney were about. She'd figured if it was important, the man would have left a message that wasn't merely a curt request to return his call.
"Honey, you need to take a step back and let go of Gabriella," Alicia ordered.
Gabriella hugged herself when Braddock did as ordered. In the three years Alicia had worked here, she had personally taken down two perverts, five shoplifters and a paparazzo who had snuck in when J-Lo was shopping post-pregnancy. No one messed with Alicia.
Braddock's gaze narrowed on Gabriella's face and she found herself wanting to squirm at the intensity.
"You almost seem sorry."
She was. Every life was important and should be mourned, even Zane McKenna's.
The phone rang. In response, Alicia pointed a finger at Braddock and waggled it in warning but moved to the desk to answer it.
"Thank you for letting me know. I won't keep you."
"Stop." His tone was brusk.
Gabriella didn't like being ordered around. Most business owners were people who didn't like being told what to do.
She lifted her chin, careful to keep her voice level. "Whatever this is about, leave me out of it."
Braddock's mouth flattened into a hard line. "That's not a problem. All you have to do is sign." He pulled folded papers from his rear pocket.
"Wait a minute, what is she signing?" Alicia demanded, off the phone and moving close once again.
"Simply put," he said, never breaking eye contact with Gabriella, "you are agreeing to sell your inheritance to me and my brothers for the price Zane specified in his will."
Braddock shifted, his lashes lowering over his eyes. "Zane left you one-fourth of the Circle M Ranch. The selling price is one hundred thousand dollars."
Gabriella gasped while Alicia whistled long and low. Why would Zane leave her a piece of his ranch? Why would he leave her anything at all when he'd ignored her nearly all of her life? "I see. I don't know what to say except I'm surprised. I'll have my attorney look over the paperwork."
She didn't think it possible but Braddock McKenna tensed even more. "We've put this off several weeks already due to you not responding to the calls or the notification letter. If it's all the same, I'd like to get this taken care of today. Now, preferably."
He waved a hand toward the contract Alicia had plucked from Gabriella's hands and was now reading.
"It's simple language and very straightforward. All you have to do is read and sign."
"Not so fast, cowboy. It says here her part of the land is worth an estimated one million dollars."
Shock bulleted through Gabriella. A million dollars? "Let me see that."
Alicia handed over the document and pointed out the paragraph. Gabriella read that portion then started at the top, her eyes skimming over the words as quickly as she could, mentally tallying up the points of interest.
"As you can read, there are conditions to be met before you'd ever get your hands on the property," Braddock said. "To be done with Zane, as you wanted, the price is a hundred thousand."
She ignored his statement and kept reading. One fourth of the ranchworth an estimated one millionhad indeed been left to her by her father. She had two options: sell immediately to Braddock and his adopted brothers for one hundred thousand. Or to obtain full legal rights she had to
"I'd have to live there three months?'" She reread the paragraph a second time but the details didn't alter. To be deeded the land, she had to spend three consecutive months on the ranch, living in the house. At the end of that time, she would be deeded the property and could do with it what she wanted.
Gabriella stared at Braddock. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"What conditions do you and your brothers have?"
"None. We've already been deeded our portions."
Gabriella thought of a few choice words she didn't have to say aloud because Alicia was muttering them for her. "So let me get this straight. The man fathers me, abandons me, gives me an inheritancebut I can't have it unless I jump through hoops Zane's no longer even here to see me jump through?"
Carrying the document with her, Gabriella paced several steps away, her back to Braddock as she tried to take it all in.
"He didn't abandon you. Zane wouldn't do that."
"But he did," Gabriella argued. "Don't stand there and tell me he didn't when you weren't even around."
"Maybe I wasn't around when you were little but I've been there the past fifteen years. Where were you?"
Gabriella gasped but he didn't give her time to answer.
"I have a flight in a couple hours. Are you signing or not? I have a check for a hundred grand in my wallet ready for you."
"Why are you in such a hurry?" Gabriella demanded.
He removed the hat long enough to run his thick fingers through his dark brown hair. "Because I have a ranch to run. I didn't come here to argue with you but I do need a decision."
He obviously didn't think she could do it, or would do it. And he was right. She had no interest in Montana, visiting it or owning a piece of it. She would always associate the state with her father and the combination brought out enough baggage from her childhood to choke a horse. She couldn't do it, no matter how badly she wanted to wipe the knowing, you'd-never-make-it expression off Braddock's face.
He produced a folded square of paperthe checkand held it between two fingers. "You'll never have to think about Zane or Montana again. A hundred grand is nothing to sneeze at. What business can't use extra cash flow?"
Some businesses, maybe, but Premiere Vue was doing very, very well. Her clients had money to blow and people to impress, typically a new love interest every few weeks.
But that wasn't to say she didn't have improvements she wanted to make. She and Molly had always wanted to expand into a chain. They wanted to take what was a single-store boutique business and go global. But the website alone was estimated at approximately thirty grand. The check would cover it and then some, and she should be grateful for it.
Still, a part of her was tempted. With a million dollars, she could open that second location and have a website. A million would make their dream a reality.
"Gabriella, can I talk to you?" Alicia asked, tilting her head to step away from Braddock.
"Sure." Gabriella needed a few minutes to soak in this latest development. Couldn't anything ever be simple?
"We'll only be a minute. Why don't you look around for a while?" Alicia suggested to Braddock. Then under her breath, "Country boys like you could learn a thing or two in here."
Gabriella smirked at the slight, glad someone had gotten a shot in after his boorish behavior, and allowed the other woman to pull her behind the counter.
"Okay, I'll make this quick. I know this" Alicia indicated the legal document "is probably the last thing you want to think about right now, and I know I'm not the one who should be bringing this up butdo it!''
Gabriella blinked, taken aback. "What?"
"Do it. I've taken care of things for a while now, right? So you could be with Molly?"
Gabriella pressed her fingertips to her temple. A pounding headache loomed. "Alicia, it's three months when I've already been gone most of the past two months. Besides, it would never work. Me? On a ranch? What would I do?"
"Sleep. Eat. God knows you haven't done enough of that lately. You could rest and relax, pretend it's a working vacation."
A vacation? She hadn't had one in a couple years. Not even a day on the beach. "If you added up all the time Zane spent with me growing up it wouldn't total much more than three months. Why should I go there now?"
"Because not everybody gets a shot at a million dollars?" Alicia said with a coaxing smile.
"Yes, I know it's a great opportunity but it would be unprofessional of me to be away that long, especially since I've been away so much."
"Gabriella, no offense, but you look like you're ready to topple over. You need a break. Maybe this is it. If you don't stay the three months, you still get a hundred grand."
"But you'd be working seven days a week again."
Alicia took a deep breath that nearly made the girls pop out of her top. "And it'll be hard. It was hard. But Molly needed us to be there for her. Now you need this. And maybe you couldn't expect or trust your assistant manager to run the business for that long with you so far away, but you could expect your new partner to."
Alicia raised both eyebrows high, a wary yet hopeful expression on her face that was at odds with her tough-girl appearance. "I know. I know my timing sucks but, come on. Like you and Molly didn't know I've always wanted to be a part of things? You think I'm busting my hump to be an assistant forever? Uh-uh. I was biding my time because you two kept talking about expanding, and two stores would eventually lead to three. Molly's death changed things but this place is still a gold rush waiting to happen and I'm a big part of why. You can't deny that."