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Just what was so funny?
Daniel Warren's focus dropped from the hot blonde sending over a half amused, half pitying look to the architectural model he and three of his design team were struggling to carry. Admittedly, the mock-up was large in more ways than one, but Texas was a big state. The new headquarters for the renowned Texas Cattleman's Club needed to make a big statement. Aesthetics like giant steer horns adorning a twenty-foot-high cowhide double entrance wasn't over the top.
His second in charge, Rand Marks, spoke in his ear.
"Boss, this weighs a ton. Want to keep moving?"
From their expressions, the other assistants were also curious about the holdup. There wasn't one. Or shouldn't be.
Daniel was known in the business not only for talent but also decisiveness. He couldn't remember the last time he'd second-guessed himself. When he'd been invited to submit for this project, he'd put his fifteen odd years of successful industry know-how behind developing a design that would blow the committee members awayold-school as well as avant-garde. And yet now, that bombshell's one dubious look burned like a smoking brand in his mind. Who was she anyway?
"I'm sorry to intrude, but you must be Abigail Langley's friend?"
At the sound of a sultry, Southern, very female voice, Daniel's heartbeat skipped and his attention shifted again. The blonde, and her ambivalent expression, now stood an arm's length away. Close up, she wasn't merely hot. Lord above, she was stunning. Wrapped up in a silver-fur jacket and jeans that hugged hips and thighs just right, she looked as if she'd just stepped off the Aspen slopes. Set in a fine oval face, large, well-lashed green eyes sparkled like a pair of priceless jewels. But her long bouncy mane struck him most. It was the kind of hair that made a man's fingertips itch to reach out and touch.
Setting his jaw, Daniel straightened his spine.
None of that altered the fact he was less than thrilled by her reaction to his work. He'd satisfied countless clients and had become filthy rich in the process. He didn't need to field subtle insults at the eleventh hour from "Miss Texas and Loving It" here.
Dragging his gaze from those plump kissable lips, Daniel cleared his throat and answered the lady's question.
"Yes. I'm Abigail Langley's friend"
"Daniel Warren." She tasted his name as if she were enjoying a sip of sweet hot chocolate on a blustery winter's day. "You're the hotshot architect Abigail brought in all the way from New York City."
When the peak of one fair eyebrow arched, Daniel took a moment. Was she goading or flirting? With these Southern belles, who could tell?
"Don't know about hotshot, but I'm well-known in the industry," he confirmed as her weight shifted from one denim-clad leg to the other and she hitched her Birkin higher on one shoulder. "You know Abigail, too?"
"Everyone in these parts knows Abby. Her husband, God rest his soul, was the great-great-great-grandson of Tex Langley, the founder of this establishment." When she leaned a conspiratorial inch closer, he caught the scent of her perfumedelicate with undertones of dangerous. "My money's on Abigail to win the upcoming election. She'd make a fine club president" those lush lips pursed "no matter what that stick-in-the-mud Brad Price has to say on the matter."
A suit in his forties sauntered up. He spared Daniel a cursory glance before addressing the lady with a lazy Texan drawl.
"My dear, we're expected inside."
"I was introducing myself to a visitor to Royal," she said, indicating Daniel with a nod and interested smile. "Boss?"
Daniel's attention slid back. Damn, he'd forgotten the boys.
"If you're going to be a while," Rand said, "mind if the rest of us take this inside? Don't know about you but my arms are ready to snap."
Daniel slipped his arms from beneath the model's base as the other three continued on up the path to the headquarters' front doors.
Daniel wiped his palms down his trousers then offered his hand. "Daniel Warren."
"Elizabeth Milton." Her hand was small and warm but her grip defied the term weaker sex. "And this is Chadwick Tremain."
Her escort offered a curt nod and, without accepting Daniel's extended hand, wound his arm through Elizabeth Milton's.
"Mr. Warren," he muttered in acknowledgment. Then to Elizabeth, "Our table's waiting."
She glanced over her shoulder as his team disappeared through the headquarters' opened doors. Then, looking back at her companion, she angled her head, sending that blond waterfall cascading like a sheet of silk over one shoulder. "Y'all go on ahead, Chad. I'll catch up."
The man's salt-and-pepper eyebrows knitted. "I told Michaels we'd be"
"Chad." She unwound her arm from his. "I'll meet you inside."
Daniel thought he heard the older man growl before he straightened the Windsor knot at his throat and sauntered away.
Daniel grunted. "Your boyfriend doesn't like me much."
"Boyfriend?" Those emeralds sparkled as she laughed. "Chad's my financial advisor. He keeps an eye out for me."
"You need looking after?"
A faint line creased between her eyebrows. "I suppose that's a matter of opinion," she said, before placing one cowboy boot in front of the other and heading at a leisurely pace up the path. "You sound like a Yankee, Mr. Warren." She grinned at his custom-made black wool overcoat. "You dress like one, too. But I detect a hint of South Carolina in your accent."
While Daniel's throat swelled, he maintained his unaffected air. It had been years since his move. His escape. Few picked up on the remnants of a drawl anymore.
"These days, home's a long way from Charleston," he offered.
"You don't miss the"
"No," he cut in with a quick smile. "I don't."
New York was just far enough away from the South and its memories. The only reason he was down this far was business, and as soon as that was concluded he'd roll his sleeves back down and red-eye it home to the life he'd built and loved.
"I hope you plan on seeing a little of our state while you're here," she went on as they strolled side by side.
"Famous for the Alamo, ten-gallon hats and, uh, long-horns."
Her lips twitched at his leading look and inflection on his last word. "Oh, your design's not entirely bad."
He wanted to ask her what, in her opinion, would make a good design. Which was crazy. Firstly, he was the guy with the credentials and, secondly, he didn't need to complicate his limited time here by musing over someone who was, perhaps, ten years his junior and whose loyalty no doubt lay in her daddy's oil fields and memories of the wild, Wild West.
Definitely not his scene.
Entering the club's foyer, which was all dark wood and old-world smells and charm, he stopped to bid his little-known companion goodbye. But Elizabeth Milton's attention had drifted elsewhere, to a sign hung over the entrance door.
"Abigail would've told you about this?" she asked.
He examined the iron-studded plaque and read the words burned into the wood. "Leadership, Justice and Peace."
"The Texas Cattleman's creed," she explained reverently. "The words are strong enough without the legend that brought them together." Her gaze caught his, so wide and innocent that something in his chest swelled to twice its size then fisted tight. "You ought to get Abigail to tell you the story. It might give you something to work with."
Daniel's jaw shifted. He could take that comment as a slight. And yet every cell in his body urged him to put pride aside and listen up. If there was an anecdote behind the plaque that might help with his design, who better to relay it than someone who could combine those boots, which were only missing their spurs, with a ten-thousand-dollar coat and somehow make it work.
Only now Elizabeth Milton's attention, as she wound out of her fur, had veered toward the dining room. Mr. Tremain, and the lasso he liked looped around his client's waist, was waiting.
"Perhaps I'll see you around," Daniel said.
Her beautiful smile was wry. "I'm around most of the time."
When she tipped her head, preparing to leave, that something lurking in Daniel's chest looped and tugged all the tighter. In another time and place, he'd have asked if she'd care to join him for a drink. Instead, he merely returned the smile when she said, "Good luck, Mr. Warren. Hope you enjoy your time in Royal."
He watched those sinful jeans sashay away beneath a dark timber lintel. That woman might be Texan to her core, but she sure as heck didn't walk like she spent most of her time on a horse. In fact, she moved with the finesse of a runway model, with the fluid grace of a cat.
A smile hooked one corner of his mouth.
Yeah. Elizabeth Milton sure was something.
A heartbeat before she disappeared around that corner, he said to hell with it and called out, "Miss Milton!"
Shimmering blond arced out as she spun around and stepped back into his direct line of sight. Winding out of his own coat, he stepped forward.
"I wondered if you can recommend a good place to eat. Aside from here, I mean."
Those gorgeous green eyes flashed. "I could recommend several, Mr. Warren."
"In that case, would you consider joining me for dinner? I'd be interested to hear that story."
Her teeth worried her lower lip as one hand went behind and, he imagined, slid into a back jeans pocket.
"On one condition," she announced.
"That we don't discuss building plans?"
She laughed, a melodic sound that soaked into his pores and eased his smile wider. "To the contrary. I'd very much like to discuss possibilities for your design."
"Then we simply need the venue."
"Twenty miles down the main road on your left at, let's say, seven?"
"The name of the establishment?"
He did a double take. "You're inviting me to dinner at your house?"
"Trust me, Mr. Warren." She pivoted around and, hand still cupped low in that pocket, spoke over her shoulder as she moved off. "I believe you'll find the experience most rewarding."
As Elizabeth entered the Cattleman's Club dining room, a few people nearest the entrance glanced up from their meals or pre-luncheon drinks. She'd grown up knowing a great many of these folk, and anyone whose eye caught hers offered a warm smile.
At one time she'd rebelled against the idea of spending the majority of her time in Royal. Now, that seemed so long ago. In reality it had been only four years since her parents' deaths and her own life had taken a sharp turn. But, frankly, she was grateful for the legal roadblocks her mother and father had erected to help steer her against a course she would likely have takena course that would have led her away from her roots.
If she breached the terms of their will by spending more than two months away from home during any twelve-month period, she would forfeit the majority of her inheritance, not merely the ranch but also, she'd come to realize, a good portion of her identitywho she was and continued wanting to be.
Still she couldn't deny that meeting Daniel Warren just now had more than rekindled her interest in places beyond these borders. Daniel was different, Elizabeth decided as she handed her coat to the maitre d'. Amusing. Dark and polished and New York cool. Abigail had said her visiting architect was extremely successful. He'd have traveled widely and often. A man of the world.
Not that she opposed good Texan stock, Elizabeth noted, heading for her usual table in a far corner by a row of windows. In fact, when the time came to start a family, her partner would more likely than not hail from these parts. At the very least he'd appreciate her situation and stand one hundred percent behind her commitment to keep the Milton Ranch. Which ruled out hotshot architects from up North.
Although, God knows, that boy was cute.
Chad pushed to his feet as she skirted around the remaining tables.
"I was about to see what was keeping you," he said, retracting her chair.
"I'm not going anywhere," she replied in a sweet but pointed tone.
"I was only"
"I know you were only!''
She swallowed that spike of irritation and calmly collected the menu. But Chad wasn't prepared to let it go.
"Elizabeth, it's my duty to watch out for you."
"I'm not a child," she reminded him. She'd been twenty-one when he'd been handed, via the will, the role of her financial advisor. But she was older now, wiser and far more responsible.
"Your parents only had your best interests at heart when they included that caveat and put me in charge."
He leaned closer, about to say more, when the waiter arrived and took their orderssteak for him, pecan and avocado salad for her. Chad was looking thoughtful, pouring iced tea, when he spoke next.
"That manMr. Warren "
"Abigail Langley's architect." Relishing a grin, Elizabeth reached for her glass. "I can't wait to see the results of that election come December."
Chad scoffed. "If Abigail expects votes to swing her way because of an eyesore of a design like that, she's dreaming more than I'd thought."
Elizabeth wouldn't touch his comment about the design. "I'm sure the majority commend the committee for awarding Abigail full membership privileges after her husband passed away. She has as much right as any member to stand for president. If it weren't for her late husband's ancestors, there wouldn't be a Texas Cattleman's Club," she said.
"At the risk of sounding sexist, it's not the Cattleperson's Club."
"Perhaps it ought to be."
"Change isn't always good, Elizabeth. Sometimes it can lead to discord. To ruin."
And sometimes it was necessary. Even exciting. But she wouldn't waste her breath. Instead, her cheeks warm from building annoyance, she took a long sip of cool tea.
"Have you and Mr. Warren met before?"
"No." She set her glass on the table.
"He seems a smooth sort."
She grinned again. "Yes, he does."
"I don't trust him."
Enough. She met Chad Tremain's gaze square on.
"You were a dear friend of my parents, I count you as a friend of mine, but drop it." She forced a short laugh to temper her tone. "Okay?"
"It's just Elizabeth, you know that I care."
His fingers edged over the table. Her stomach knotting, Elizabeth slid her hand away and locked both sets of fingers in her lap. Yes, she knew Chad cared, far more than she would have liked. He was too serious and staid and not her type at all. Couldn't he see she wasn't interested?