Read an Excerpt
Gentlemen, never forget the importance of protecting your family jewels."
Unfazed by his grandmother's outrageous comment, Stone McNair ducked low as his horse sailed under a branch and over a creek. Gran prided herself on being the unconventional matriarch of a major jewelry design empire, and her mocking jab carried on the wind as Stone raced with his cousin.
Alex pulled up alongside him, neck and neck with Stone's quarter horse. Hooves chewed at the earth, deftly dodging the roots of a cypress tree, spewing turf into the creek.
Even as he raced, Stone soaked in the scents and sounds of home-the squeak of the saddle, the whistle of the wind through the pines. Churned earth and blue-bonnets waving in the wind released a fragrance every bit as intoxicating as the first whiff of a freshly opened bottle of Glenfiddich whiskey.
This corner of land outside of Fort Worth, Texas, had belonged to the McNairs for generations, their homestead as they built a business empire. His blood hummed when he rode the ranch. Ownership had branded itself into his DNA as tangibly as the symbol of the Hidden Gem Ranch that had been branded onto his quarter horse's flank.
Outings on the ranch with his grandmother and his twin cousins were few and far between these days, given their hectic work schedules. He wasn't sure why Gran had called this little reunion and impromptu race, but it had to be something important for her to resort to pulling them all away from the McNair Empire.
His other cousin, Amie, galloped alongside Stone, her laughter full and uninhibited. "How're the family jewels holding up?"
Without waiting for an answer, Amie urged her Arabian ahead, her McNair-black hair trailing behind her just like when she'd been ten instead of thirty. Rides with their grandmother had been a regular occurrence when they were children, then less and less frequent as they grew older and went their separate ways. None of them had hesitated when the family matriarch insisted on an impromptu gathering. Stone owed his grandmother. She'd been his safe haven every time his druggy mother went on a binge or checked into rehab.
Damn straight, he owed his grandmother a debt he couldn't repay. She'd been there from day one, an aggressive advocate in getting the best care possible to detox her crack baby grandson. Gran had paid for her daughter to enter detox programs again and again with little success. Year after year, Gran had been as constant as the land they called home-for his cousins, too.
And she'd given each one of them a role to play. Alex managed the family lands-Hidden Gem Ranch, which operated as a bed-and-breakfast hobby ranch for the rich and famous. Stone managed the family jewelry design house and stores. Diamonds in the Rough featured highend rustic designs, from rodeo belt buckles and stylized bolos to Aztec jewelry, all highly sought after around the country. If everything went according to plan, he intended to expand Diamonds in the Rough with international offices in London and Milan, making the big announcement at a wild mustang fund-raiser this fall. And Amie-a gemologist-was already working on designs for new pieces to meet the expected increase in demand.
Yes, the world was finally coming back together for him. After his broken engagement knocked him for a loop seven months ago
But he didn't want to think about Johanna. Not today. Not ever, if he could avoid it. Although that was tough to accomplish, since Johanna worked for Hidden Gem Stables as a vet tech. He'd missed her this morning when they'd saddled up. Would he bump into her after his ride?
The possibility filled him with frustration-and an unwanted boot in the libido.
Gran slowed her favorite palomino, Goldie, to a trot near the pond where they'd played as kids. Apparently race time was over. Maybe now she would explain the reason for this surprise get-together.
Stone stroked along Copper's neck as the horse dipped his head to drink. "So, Gran, care to enlighten us on the reason for this family meeting?"
His cousins drew up along either side of her.
She shifted in the saddle, her head regal with a long gray braid trailing down her stiff spine. "The time has come for me to decide who will take over the reins of the McNair holdings."
Stone's grip tightened on the pommel. "You're not actually considering retiring."
"No, dear " Gran paused, drawing in a shaky breath at odds with her usual steel. "The doctor has told me it's time to get my affairs in order."
Her words knocked the wind out of him as fully as the first time he'd been thrown from a horse. He couldn't envision a world without the indomitable Mariah McNair.
Amie reached across to touch her grandmother's arm lightly, as much contact as could be made without everyone dismounting, and Gran didn't show any signs of leaving the saddle. Which was probably the reason their grandmother had chosen this way to make her announcement.
"Gran, what exactly did the doctor say?"
Alex patted Gran's other shoulder, he and his sister protecting her like bookends. They always had.
Amie's and Alex's childhoods had been more stable than Stone's, with parents and a home of their own. As a kid, Stone had dreamed of stepping into their house and becoming a sibling rather than a cousin. Once he'd even overheard his grandmother suggest that very arrangement. But Amethyst and Alexandrite's mother made it clear that she could handle only her twins. Another child would be too much to juggle between obligations to her daughter's pageants and her son's rodeos.
In one fell swoop, Stone had realized that while his family loved him, no one wanted him-not his mother, his aunt or his grandmother. They were all looking for some way to shuffle him off. Except Gran hadn't bailed. She'd taken him on regardless. He respected and loved her all the more for that.
Mariah patted each twin on the cheek and smiled sadly at Stone since he held himself apart. "It's inoperable brain cancer."
His throat closed up tight. Amie gasped, blinking fast but a tear still escaped.
Their grandmother shook her head. "None of that emotional stuff. I've never had much patience for tears. I want optimism. Doctors are hopeful treatment can reduce the size of the tumor. That could give me years instead of months."
The wind got knocked out of him all over again. More than once, Stone had been called a charmer with a stone-cold heart. But that heart ached right now at the thought of anything happening to his grandmother.
Shrugging, Mariah leaned back in the saddle. "Still, even if the treatments help, I can't risk the tumor clouding my judgment. I won't put everything I've worked for at risk by waiting too long to make important decisions about Diamonds in the Rough and the Hidden Gem Ranch."
The family holdings meant everything to her. To all of them. It had never dawned on him until now that his grandmother-the major stockholder-might want to change the roles they all played to keep the empire rock-solid. He must be mistaken. Better to wait and hear her out rather than assume.
Amie wasn't so restrained, but then she never had been. "What have you decided?"
"I haven't," Mariah conceded. "Not yet, but I have a plan, which is why I asked you three to come riding with me today."
Alex, the quiet one of the bunch, frowned. "I'm not sure I understand."
"You'll each need to do something for me-" Mariah angled forward, forearm on the saddle horn "-something to help put my mind at ease about who to place in charge."
"You're testing us," Amie accused softly.
"Call it what you like." Gran was unapologetic, her jaw set. "But as it stands now, I'm not sold on any of you taking over."
That revelation stabbed pain clear through his already raw nerves.
Enough holding back. He was a man of action, and the urge to be in control of something, anything, roared through him. "What do you need me to do for you?"
"Stone, you need to find homes for all four of my dogs."
A fish plopped in the pond, the only sound breaking his stunned silence.
Finally, he asked, "You're joking, right? To lighten the mood."
"I'm serious. My pets are very important to me. You know that. They're family."
"It just seems a strange test." Was the tumor already affecting her judgment?
His grandmother shook her head slowly. "The fact that you don't know how serious this is merely affirms my concerns. You need to prove to me you have the heart to run this company and possibly oversee the entire family portfolio."
She held him with her clear blue gaze, not even a whisper of confusion showing. Then she looked away, clicked her horse into motion and started back toward the main house, racing past the cabins vacationers rented.
Shaking off his daze, he followed her, riding along the split rail fence, his cousins behind him as they made their way home.
Some would call it a mansion-a rustic log ranch house with two wings. Their personal living quarters occupied one side, and the other side housed the lodge run by Alex. His cousin had expanded the place from a small bed-and-breakfast to a true hobby ranch, with everything from horseback riding to a spa, fishing and trail adventures even poker games, saloon-style. They catered to a variety of people's needs, from vacations to weddings.
The gift store featured some of the McNair signature jewelry pieces, just a sampling from their flagship store in Fort Worth.
Alex was one helluva businessman in his own right. Gran could be serious about turning over majority control to him.
Or maybe she had someone else in mind. A total stranger. He couldn't even wrap his brain around that unthinkable possibility. His whole being was consumed with shock-and hell, yes, grief-not over the fact that he might lose the company but because he would lose Gran. A month or a year from now, he couldn't envision a world without her.
And he also couldn't deny her anything she needed to make her last days easier.
Stone urged his horse faster to catch her before she reached the stables.
"Okay, fine, Gran," he said as he pulled alongside her, their horses' gaits in sync. "I can do that for you. I'll line up people to take, uh " What the hell were their names? "Your dogs."
"There are four of them, in case you've forgotten that, as well as forgetting their names."
"The scruffy one's named Dorothy, right?"
Gran snorted almost as loudly as the horse. "Close. The dog looks like Toto, but her name is Pearl. The yellow lab is Gem, given to us by a friend. My precious Rottie that I adopted from a shelter is named Ruby. And my baby chi-weenie's name is Sterling."
Chi-what? Oh, right, a Chihuahua and dachshund. "What about your two cats?"
Surely he would get points for remembering there were two.
"Amie is keeping them."
She always was a suck-up.
"Then I'll keep the dogs. They can live with me." How much trouble could four dogs be? He had lots of help. He would find one of those doggy day cares.
"I said I wanted them to go to good homes."
He winced. "Of course you do."
"Homes approved of by an expert," she continued as she stopped her horse by the stables.
"An expert?" Hairs on the back of his neck rose with an impending sense of Karma about to bite him on the butt.
He didn't even have to look down the lengthy walkway between horse stalls to know Johanna Fletcher was striding toward them on long, lean legs that could have sold a million pairs of jeans. She usually wore a French braid to keep her wavy blond hair secure when she worked. His fingers twitched at the memory of sliding through that braid to unleash all those tawny strands around her bare shoulders.
What he wouldn't give to lose himself in her again, to forget about the thought of his grandmother's illness. Even if the best scenario played out, a couple of years wasn't enough.
For now, he would do whatever it took to keep Gran happy.
"Your expert?" he prodded. "All adoptions must be approved by our ranch vet tech, Johanna Fletcher." Of course.
His eyes slid to Johanna closing the gap between them as she went from stall to stall, horse to horse. Her face shuttered the instant she looked at him, whereas once she would have met him with a full-lipped smile, a slight gap between her front teeth. That endearing imperfection only enhanced her attractiveness. She was down-to-earth and sexy. He knew every inch of her intimately.
After all, she was his ex-fiancée.
The woman who had dumped him in no uncertain terms in front of all their friends at a major fund-raiser. A woman who now hated his guts and would like nothing more than to see his dreams go up in flames.
Stone McNair, the CEO in a business suit ruling the boardroom, commanded respect and awe. But Stone McNair, cowboy Casanova on a horse, was a charismatic charmer Johanna Fletcher had always been hard-pressed to resist.
Johanna tamped down the urge to fan herself as she stood just outside a horse stall and studied her former lover out of the corner of her eyes. Damn it, he still made her hot all over.
She busied herself with listening to a horse's heartbeat-or pretending to listen at least. The palomino was fine, but she didn't want anyone thinking she was still pining for Stone. Everyone from Fort Worth to Del Rio knew her history with him. She didn't need to feed them any fodder for gossip by drooling every time he strutted into the stables.
Lord help her, that man knew how to strut.
Jeans hugged his thighs as he swung a leg over his horse, boots hitting the ground with a thud that vibrated clear through her even from twenty yards away. The sun flashed off his belt buckle-a signature Diamonds in the Rough design-bringing out the nuances of the pattern. Magnificent. Just like the man. All the McNairs had charisma, but Stone was sinfully handsome, with coal-black hair and ice-blue eyes right off some movie poster. Sweat dotted his brow, giving his hair a hint of a curl along the edges of his tan Stetson. She'd idolized him as a child. Fantasized about him as a teenager.
And as a woman? She'd fallen right in line with the rest and let herself be swayed by his charms.
Johanna turned her focus back to the next stall with a quarter horse named Topaz, one of the more popular rides for vacationers. She had a job to do and she was darn lucky to work here after the scene she'd caused during her breakup with Stone. But Mrs. McNair liked her and kept her on. Johanna hadn't been able to resist the opportunity to work with so many unique horses in the best stable.
Her career was everything to her now, and she refused to put it in jeopardy. Her parents had sacrificed their life's savings to send her to the best schools so she had the educational foundation she needed to pursue her dreams. Although her parents were gone now after a fire in the trailer park, she owed them. Perhaps even more so to honor their memory. Her father's work here had brought her into the McNair world-brought her to Stone, even if their romance ultimately hadn't been able to withstand the wide social chasm between them.
She had no family, not even the promise of one she'd once harbored while engaged to Stone. She had her work, her horses. This was her life and her future.
Hooves clopped as Mariah and Stone passed off their rides to two stable hands. Johanna frowned. Even though the McNairs were wealthy, they usually unsaddled and rubbed down their horses themselves. Instead, the grandmother and grandson were walking directly toward her. Tingles pranced up and down her spine. Ignoring him would be impossible.
She hooked her stethoscope around her neck. Her own racing heartbeat filled her ears now, each breath faster and faster, filling her lungs with the scent of hay and leather.
Trailing her hand along the plush velvet of the horse's coat, she angled her way out of the wooden stall and into the walkway. "Hello, Mrs. McNair-" she swallowed hard "-and Stone."
Mariah McNair smiled. Stone didn't. In fact, he was scowling. But there was also something more lurking in his eyes, something sad? She hated the way her heart pinched instinctively, and hated even more that she could still read him so well.