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Jocelyn Montrose didn't mean to eavesdrop. But the arguments and shouting coming from the library at the Castle, the legendary ranch house at Bitter Creek, were hard to ignore. Her future husband, Clay Blackthorne, was being verbally attacked in that room.
Those assaulting him were his family -- his twin brother Owen and sister-in-law Bay, his younger sister Summer and brother-in-law Billy Coburn, and his father Blackjack and stepmother Ren. Clay's brother Trace and his wife, Callie, were on the speakerphone from Australia, where Trace owned a cattle station.
Jocelyn pressed her cheek against the wall next to the slightly open door, peeked inside and listened.
"You see what a reliable advisor Morgan DeWitt turned out to be," Owen snarled, his hand on the SIG P226 he wore as a Texas Ranger. "That bastard was an out-and-out thief and murderer."
"Morgan's suggestion to incorporate the Bitter Creek Cattle Company and sell stock seemed sound to me," Clay replied. "The DeWitt ranch is incorporated, and they've never had a problem. I didn't know until a year ago that Morgan was anything less than the astute advisor he seemed to be."
"We incorporated Bitter Creek on your advice," Summer said angrily.
"A suggestion I made based on -- "
"That sonofabitch's advice," Blackjack interrupted. "This is getting us nowhere. The question is, how do we stop that bastard -- whoever he is -- from buying up a controlling interest in the Bitter Creek Cattle Company?"
The silence was deafening.
"This is a disaster," Trace said from the speakerphone on Blackjack's desk.
"It's not my fault!" Summer shot back.
"I wasn't blaming you," Trace said.
Jocelyn saw Clay's jaw tighten. It was clear they blamed him. She wanted to walk into that room and put her arms around him and comfort him. But he'd forbidden her to attend the family meeting. She wasn't Clay's wife yet, as he'd made very clear to her earlier this morning.
They'd arrived at Bitter Creek last night to make final preparations for the wedding and had discovered that all hell had broken loose. Clay's rejection of her offer of support, her plea to be allowed to stand by his side, still stung.
"Anybody got a useful suggestion how to get us out of this fix?" Billy said, his dark-eyed gaze moving from grim face to grimmer face around the room.
Jocelyn felt her heart sink. No one seemed to have any idea how to stop the anonymous corporate raider who was threatening to steal the Blackthornes' heritage. In a hostile takeover, the existing management was usually terminated. Summer and Billy ran the ranch, but the Blackthornes had owned Bitter Creek, a property in South Texas the size of a small northeastern state, for nearly a hundred and fifty years. The new management would have the power to do whatever they wanted -- even sell the ranch to strangers.
"Maybe this raider just wants greenmail," Trace suggested.
"What's that?" Bay asked from her seat in one of the two horn-and-hide chairs in front of Blackjack's desk.
"He makes a quick profit by threatening to take control and then selling the stock back at a premium -- more than it's really worth," Clay explained to his sister-in-law as he poured himself another glass of Jack Daniels from the bar.
Jocelyn watched Blackjack, who sat in a swivel chair at his desk, down a glass of whiskey in two swallows.
Clay's stepmother laid a hand on Blackjack's shoulder and said, "It would be worth any price to save Bitter Creek, wouldn't it?"
"It's blackmail, plain and simple," Blackjack said, slamming his empty glass on the old-fashioned wooden desk. "And I'll be damned before I'll pay it!"
"What else is left?" Summer said, her voice breaking. "You won't consider a poison pill or a scorched earth defense or . . ."
Jocelyn heard Summer swallow a sob as she turned into Billy's open arms, and then Billy saying, "It's all right, sweetheart. We'll think of something."
But what she heard was more deathly silence.
Apparently the Blackthornes were unwilling to use the few methods of shark repellent -- ways to discourage an unfriendly takeover -- still available to them. A poison pill was anything that might make the target company stock less attractive, like authorizing a new series of preferred stock that gave shareholders the right to redeem shares at a premium after the takeover.
Jocelyn shuddered when she considered the scorched earth defense. That involved the target company disposing of its crown jewels -- its most desirable property -- to thwart the takeover. The Blackthornes might be able to save the assets of the Bitter Creek Cattle Company from being confiscated by a corporate raider -- if they sold the precious land their forebears had bled and died for since the Civil War.
No wonder they were unwilling to consider that option.
"I know who the raider is," Clay said.
"Why the hell didn't you say so?" Blackjack said.
An expectant hush fell on the room. Jocelyn held her breath, wondering who the anonymous corporate raider could be.
When Clay took another slow swallow of whiskey instead of divulging the name of their nemesis, Summer prodded, "Please, Clay. Who is it?"
Jocelyn gasped, then covered her mouth and looked through the crack in the door to see if she'd been discovered.
No one was paying any attention to her. The Blackthorne and Coburn men stared at Clay through narrowed eyes, their jaws locked and their hands fisted in anger. The women reached out to restrain their enraged husbands, but their bodies were no less tense, their anger no less palpable.
"I should have known," Blackjack said. "Those damned Grayhawks have been the bane of my existence since -- "
Jocelyn saw him cut himself off as he glanced over his shoulder at his wife, who caressed the hair at his nape and said, "I'm so sorry, Jackson."
"It's not your fault," he said gruffly. He reached a hand up toward his wife and she grasped it, as their eyes met and held.
Jocelyn felt her throat swell with emotion at the look that passed between them. She wondered what it would be like to be loved like that. In the stories she'd heard, Blackjack and Ren were star-crossed lovers who'd married other people -- Eve DeWitt and Jesse Creed, respectively -- and raised families who'd become mortal enemies.
After Ren's husband was shot and killed under suspicious circumstances, Blackjack had offered to give up everything he owned, including the land that was the source of contention now, to marry Lauren Creed, the woman he'd always loved. Eve's untimely death had made the sacrifice unnecessary.
Blackjack turned back to his family and said, "If anyone's to blame for this mess -- "
"It's the Grayhawks," Summer interjected. "King's behind this, Daddy. He must be."
"I'm not so sure King Grayhawk is the villain this time," Clay said.
"He hates Daddy," Summer said.
"So does North," Clay said. "And he's the man my shark watcher says is our anonymous corporate raider."
"I don't disagree that North hates us," Blackjack said. "I just don't understand why that pup has taken up his daddy's fight like it was his own."
"He blames you for his mother's divorce from his father, her suicide, and the succession of stepmothers that came and went because King could never find a replacement for Eve DeWitt. The woman you stole from him. The only woman he ever loved," Clay said.
"How could you possibly know something like that?" Summer asked.
"Libby told me."
Jocelyn felt her heart skip a beat at the mention of North Grayhawk's sister Libby, the woman she knew Clay had loved once upon a time. The woman he might have chosen to marry instead of her, but hadn't. Libby Grayhawk was closer to Clay's age, and they had a history -- and a daughter -- together. Jocelyn had tried to convince herself that Libby was no threat to her future happiness. She hadn't been entirely successful.
Two years ago, Jocelyn had spent day after day at her sister's bedside while Giselle's body was being slowly eaten away by cancer, listening to stories of Giselle and Clay's life together. Libby Grayhawk's name had come up surprisingly often. Clay had definitely loved her. The only reason he hadn't married her twenty years ago, when she was pregnant with his child, was because King Grayhawk had forbidden it.
A year ago, Libby and Clay had met again in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, when their eighteen-year-old daughter Kate was kidnapped. Jocelyn wasn't sure what had been said, but something had changed between them. Some dormant ember had sparked to life.
Jocelyn had been worried that she might lose Clay to his former love. So she'd admitted to Libby that she'd fallen in love with Clay before he'd ever met her sister Giselle. That she'd been so jealous of her sister, when Clay had chosen Giselle over Jocelyn, that she'd stayed away for years -- until Giselle had gotten sick with cancer.
She'd revealed to Libby a secret she'd previously told no one. As her sister lay dying, Giselle had begged Jocelyn to take care of Clay and to love him. And that she did love Clay...and hoped to marry him.
Jocelyn didn't know if her speech to Libby had made a difference. But when the summer was over, Clay had proposed to her -- not Libby.
Jocelyn had discovered over the past year that she was engaged to a far different man than Giselle had married. The Clay Blackthorne her sister had married had been groomed his whole life to become president of the United States.
That dream was gone. Dead. Killed by scandal.
It had turned out that Kate's kidnapping was a ruse to get Clay from Washington, D.C., to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Once there, a villain hoping to blackmail Clay into using his position as U.S. attorney general to push through an illegal oil deal had framed him for murder.
Clay had been cleared of the charge, but the scandal had resulted in his resignation as U.S. attorney general. And ended his political career. In a world dominated by appearances, there would always be people who believed he'd literally "gotten away with murder."
Clay's life had turned in a new direction with his appointment as a federal judge in the Western District of Texas. Jocelyn was still in culture shock with the sudden move from Washington, D.C., to what felt like the Wild, Wild West. But she was ready to be Clay's wife, even if it meant living in a world of cowboys and cattle.
The one good thing to come out of Clay's resignation from politics was that he'd been able to publicly acknowledge his illegitimate daughter. Clay had made it clear that once he and Jocelyn were married, Kate would become a part of their family. Jocelyn was hoping they'd have children of their own, as well.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Blackjack's brusque voice.
"All right. We know the worst. What do we do about it?" he said, his gaze moving from face to face in the room and finally focusing on Clay.
"What do we have that North wants?" Trace asked on the speakerphone. "What could we give him to entice him to walk away?"
"What can we possibly offer him that he doesn't already have?" Summer said derisively. "He's rich as Croesus."
"He doesn't even need Bitter Creek," Owen pointed out, setting his empty whiskey glass on the bar and pouring himself another drink. "He already owns a ranch in the hill country west of Austin."
"This is vengeance, pure and simple," Billy said.
"Like it or not, he's beaten us," Clay said in a quiet voice.
"I'm not giving up," Billy retorted. "I'll never give up."
"Me neither!" Summer said.
"Easy to say," Trace said on the speakerphone. "But how do we fight back?"
"I can always shoot the bastard," Blackjack muttered.
An uneasy silence settled on the room.
Jocelyn wasn't sure whether Blackjack was serious or not. The family had a history of violence that made his threat seem all the more provocative.
Jocelyn felt her stomach clench when she realized that she knew something North Grayhawk wanted, something that might even assuage his need for revenge.
Me. He wants me in his bed.
Jocelyn inched away from the door and stood with her back against the wall, her heart pounding in her chest. Suddenly, she saw a way she could provide the help Clay had refused earlier in the day. When she'd begged him to let her help, he'd replied, "There's nothing anyone, including you, can say or do that will make a difference. That bastard has no heart, no soul. This is my fault. My responsibility. Just stay away. I don't want you there!"
Jocelyn had felt terribly wounded by Clay's rejection of her offer to stand by his side. She'd felt sure he would have allowed Giselle to be there. What was it her sister had been able to offer him that he didn't seem to find in her? She'd wondered how she could ever prove that she was as capable of providing love and support as Giselle.
And now this opportunity had fallen into her lap.
What if she could persuade North Grayhawk to part with his Bitter Creek stock in exchange for having Clay Blackthorne's woman in his bed?
How are you going to get Clay to take you back after you've made the ultimate sacrifice? a little voice asked.
She couldn't think about that right now. Right now she had to focus on what she must do to save Bitter Creek. She had to prove to Clay she loved him every bit as much -- indeed, much more -- than Giselle ever had.
If she told Clay what she was thinking, he would probably forbid her to act. She couldn't bear to be shut out again. She wanted to help. She was determined to help. Her idea might be a little crazy, but it was just crazy enough to work.
She tiptoed away from the door, then hurried up the stairs to her bedroom. She threw a few things into an overnight bag, grabbed her purse, and headed back downstairs, easing past the library, afraid that if she thought too much about what she was about to do, she might revert to her normal, sensible behavior -- and chicken out.
She left a note for Clay in his bedroom, telling him that she had something very important she had to do -- for both their sakes -- that she was borrowing his car, and that he shouldn't follow her. She promised to call him when she got where she was going. Jocelyn didn't intend to make that call until she was sure it was too late for Clay to interfere.
She was determined not to fail. Too much depended on her success. And she had no other way to prove her love for Clay. No other way to convince Clay that she could offer him something her sister never had.
Jocelyn could hear arguing behind her as she headed down the hall toward the back door. The lunch dishes had been washed and put away, and she could smell dinner already roasting in the oven, but luckily, the housekeeper wasn't in the kitchen. She took the keys to Clay's car from the rack by the back door and stepped outside, easing the screen door closed behind her.
It was early May, but the sunny, mid-morning heat was stifling. Jocelyn realized she was dressed all wrong for the trip she was about to make. Her navy skirt and matching jacket, long-sleeved, white silk blouse that tied in a bow at the neck, spiked high heels, and nylons were de rigueur in Washington, D.C., but they weren't very functional in South Texas.
She could already feel the sweat -- her mother would have said perspiration -- pooling under her arms and inching down the center of her back. She'd bought herself a cotton western shirt, denim jeans, and cowboy boots after she'd arrived at Bitter Creek, but she felt like she was dressing in a Halloween costume every time she put them on.
She'd packed them for this trip.
Jocelyn opened the door to Clay's Mercedes SUV and slid onto the seat, biting back a yelp when the hot black leather hit the backs of her nylon-clad legs. She sat forward to get her legs off the seat, keyed the ignition, and turned the air-conditioning up full blast.
She headed the SUV around the magnolia-lined circular drive that led ten miles back to the state highway. She would have to keep her foot on the accelerator if she wanted to get to North Grayhawk's hill country ranch before dark.
She started to punch off the country-and-western song on the radio, but the melancholy lyrics of a love affair gone wrong caught her ear. And made her think twice about what she was about to do.
The impulse to confront North Grayhawk and offer her body in exchange for his controlling interest in Bitter Creek stock suddenly seemed silly. Why should he listen to a word she had to say? More to the point, what if she was wrong? Perhaps she'd misunderstood North when they'd had their confrontation at his cabin in Jackson Hole a year ago. Maybe he hadn't meant what he'd said.
Jocelyn flushed. He'd meant it, all right.
Libby had introduced her to North in the living room of his cabin and then gone into the kitchen to get coffee. Jocelyn had immediately felt a frisson of fear run down her spine, as though she'd been left alone with a predatory wolf.
She was five foot eleven in her bare feet, but even to her, North Grayhawk looked big. He had to be six foot five, with enormous, rippling shoulders narrowing to a lean waist and hips.
Jocelyn knew how to handle men in suits, but North was dressed in jeans that molded his masculinity, and the sleeves of his plaid wool shirt had been folded up to reveal strong, sinewy forearms. His shiny black hair hung over both his brow and his collar, and a day's growth of dark beard made him look unkempt and...dangerous.
She'd felt edgy and had surreptitiously backed as far away from him as the room allowed, until she reached the crackling fire in the stone fireplace. She'd faced him with her hands knotted behind her and tried to ease the tension by smiling, which had been amazingly difficult, and saying something innocuous. "You have a lovely home."
He'd focused his ice blue eyes on her as he closed the distance between them until they were only a breath apart. She'd been mesmerized, unable to look away. She'd felt the heat of his body and caught the musky odor of a man who'd just been chopping wood. She found herself imagining his muscles flexing, swinging a heavy ax, and the sharp crack of splitting wood.
Without warning, he'd reached out and brushed her breast with his big, callused hand.
Her nipple instantly peaked.
Her breath caught in a gasp of disbelief at his effrontery, and her heart actually skipped a beat as she jerked backward a step. She ran into the fireplace mantel and lost her balance.
He rescued her by snaking a powerful arm around her waist and pulling her close. So close that she became unmistakably aware of his arousal. She trembled in his embrace, aware of her own body's equally unmistakable response, to a man she'd only met sixty seconds before. A man who was rude and arrogant and disturbing and cocksure. A man she hated without knowing a single thing more about him than what he made her feel.
Hot. Achy. Wet with desire.
He spoke in a low, grating voice that rasped over her flesh, making the hairs stand on end. "I want to lay you down and put myself inside you so deep -- "
She hadn't heard the rest of what North Grayhawk wanted, because that was when she'd slapped him.
And fled the room like the hounds of hell were after her. She'd found Libby in the kitchen and sputtered and stuttered and been unable to get her to leave before he showed up in the doorway -- with the white imprint of her hand still starkly visible on his reddened face.
She wasn't proud of having slapped North Grayhawk. But she wasn't sorry, either. He'd deserved it. She was a perfect stranger, for heaven's sake! She was a lady. And pure as the driven snow.
Although North couldn't be expected to know that. What twenty-four-year-old woman in this day and age was a virgin? She wondered what it was about her behavior that had led him to think he could act on his desires.
It was only later that she'd figured out he must have acted boorishly on purpose, to scare her away, unwilling to endure his sister's matchmaking attempt.
And matchmaking, she'd realized, was exactly what Libby had tried to do. She'd introduced Jocelyn to her brother North in hopes that North would distract Jocelyn from Clay.
It hadn't worked.
Jocelyn had put the incident completely out of her mind and focused on Clay, the man she'd loved from the first moment she'd set eyes on him.
The man who'd married her sister instead of her.
Which made Jocelyn wonder again what it was about her that had made the right man reject her -- and the wrong one desire her. She supposed she should count her blessings. If she was right and North really did want her, despite the scene he'd acted out to scare her off, she had a bargaining tool that might save Bitter Creek.
Jocelyn was certain the Blackthornes would never go down on bended knee before their enemy, but perhaps she could persuade North to show mercy. Or negotiate with him to do so. After all, he was so wealthy, he didn't need another piece of property in Texas. Especially one the size of Rhode Island.
She gnawed her lower lip, uncertain whether her sexual inexperience was going to be an asset or a liability. Would North want an accomplished lover? Someone who could give him pleasure? Or would he find satisfaction in knowing he'd stolen her virginity from Clay Blackthorne?
Jocelyn blushed at the mere thought of what North might want her to do. She wasn't ignorant. Just innocent. Which was more the result of a lack of opportunity than a lack of interest. She'd been in France with her father, the ambassador, most of her youth, and should have experimented. But her mother had told her she should seek love before sharing her body with a man.
She simply hadn't fallen in love.
That is, until she'd met Clay Blackthorne. There hadn't been another man after that, because she hadn't been able to fall out of love with Clay, even when he was married to her sister.
Jocelyn didn't let herself consider whether Clay would approve of the proposition she planned to make to North. There were some things a woman in love had to do for the man she loved. If the loss of her virginity would satisfy North Grayhawk's need for revenge against the Blackthornes, it was a sacrifice she was willing to make.
Besides, Clay didn't know she was a virgin.
It might have seemed odd that they hadn't made love yet, but they'd been separated for much of their year-long engagement. She'd needed to act as hostess for her father in Connecticut, and Clay had traveled between Texas, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C., tying up loose ends and meeting with family.
And there was the awkwardness of being his former wife's sister. The first time she and Clay had been alone after their engagement, she hadn't been able to give herself to him. She'd been surprised at her reluctance, and confused and distressed. This was the man she loved, she'd told herself. It was all right to have sex with him.
But she hadn't been able to go through with it.
Clay had been understanding, but she'd been careful never to let things go so far again. She'd convinced herself it would be better to wait for their wedding night, when they truly belonged to each other.
Jocelyn had the fleeting thought that it might not be that easy to have sex with North Grayhawk, either. But she couldn't afford to get cold feet. If he demanded sex from her, she would grit her teeth and bear it. She would make sure there was nothing in her bargain with him that said she had to enjoy it!
Jocelyn nearly turned back several times during the hours-long drive from South Texas to the hill country west of Austin. She knew where North lived because she'd dropped Kate off to visit her uncle North one weekend. She had no trouble finding the ranch.
Her cell phone had rung several times during the day, but she hadn't answered it, unwilling to argue with Clay over the phone. When it rang again, she picked it up and punched the button to take Clay's call. She was close to her destination, and it was too late for him to stop her.
"Where are you?" he asked. "Why haven't you answered my calls? I've been worried."
His voice was anxious, not angry, and she answered, "I borrowed your car. I hope you don't mind."
"Where are you?" he asked again.
"Just west of Austin."
Silence. And then he said, "What are you doing, Jocelyn?"
"Something I have to do," she replied.
"Listen to me, Jocelyn. Whatever you're thinking -- "
"Don't try to find me, Clay. Don't follow me. I'll get in touch...when I can."
"Don't do anything foolish," Clay said. "Come back to Bitter Creek. To me."
Jocelyn put her foot on the brake at the pleading sound of his voice. But it was far too late to turn around and go home. She was stopped at North's back door.
The back porch light flipped on.
"I'm hanging up now, Clay," she said.
"Jocelyn, please don't -- "
She closed the flip phone and turned off the ignition. She'd long since removed her jacket and thrown it into the backseat, but with the air conditioner off, she already felt uncomfortably warm. Jocelyn never appeared in public when she didn't look perfectly put together. But it was hot. And she knew North would be just as happy if she showed up stark naked. She left the jacket where it was, opened the door, and stepped out into the sultry night air.
The countryside was amazingly dark, with no sign of civilization for miles around. There was no moon and very few stars. She could hear crickets. And cattle lowing. And the wind rustling through the live oaks that shrouded the house.
She could see a half-naked male figure in the kitchen doorway. He pushed open the screen door and stood there.
It was North.
Jocelyn felt her heart begin to batter frantically against her chest, like a frightened bird in a cage. She was terrified he would send her away before she had a chance to speak. Everything she'd imagined saying fled her mind, and she halted, staring at the figure in the doorway. Surely once she looked into his eyes, the right words would come. She started toward him, but the dirt driveway was rutted, and her high heels made her stumble.
She saw his hand go over his brow to shade his eyes from the bright porch light, trying to figure out who she was.
Her high heels wobbled again on the rutted dirt road, and she balanced herself with a hand on the warm hood of the SUV until she reached the end of it. The last ten feet to the door, she kept her eyes focused on the uneven ground.
When she looked up again, North had backed up a step and the screen door had closed. She could see him silhouetted by a light beyond the dark kitchen. Moths and mosquitoes were buzzing the porch light, and she waved her hands to keep them out of her face as she stepped onto the back porch.
She looked up at him and opened her mouth to speak.
He shut the door in her face. And flipped off the light.
Copyright © 2005 by Joan Mertens Johnston, Inc.