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Alana Richardson had precisely one hour to vacate her office. She kicked off her new Christian Louboutins, swung her stockinged feet onto her desk and stared out the large glass windows at her perfect view of Madison Avenue and Saint Patrick's Cathedral. The autumn sky was more gray than blue, but the trees compensated for the drabness with their orange and yellow brilliance. Normally October was her favorite month. But not this year, not with the move from Mid-town to Tribeca, with which she was in total disagreement.
She was the newly appointed vice president of marketing for an ad agency that had laughed in the face of recession. Partly thanks to her, they'd increased their net worth by fifty percent and had outgrown the twenty-first-floor office that was more home to Alana than her Upper West Side apartment. Though sentiment had nothing to do with her attitude toward the move. What she objected to was being sidelined for an entire week. The whole transfer of files and furniture and computers could've happened in two days if her boss had been more reasonable.
She flexed her toes. Damn, her feet hurt. The four-inch heels weren't the problem; for her those were standard. They put her at six feet and brought her eye-to-eye with, and sometimes taller than, most of her male coworkers. She liked the psychological advantage. For some of her peers it didn't seem to matter that she was at the top of her game, or that she worked harder than anyone else. They thought she was too young, too green to have moved up the ladder so quickly.
At least no one assumed she'd slept her way into her position. She wasn't unattractive, but she was no great beauty, either. She simply didn't have the kind of face and body that made men stupid enough to pass out unearned promotions.
Her office door opened, no knock first, which meant it was her assistant, Pam. Alana turned from the window and eyed the blonde's jeans. She hadn't wasted any time in shifting out of work mode. "I thought you were coming to tell me you were staying in the city with me."
Pam tilted her head to the side. "Let's see skiing in the Alps with Rudy or working fourteen-hour days with you. I'll have to think about that for a second." With her usual deadpan expression, she checked her watch. "You can still come with us. Our flight doesn't leave for another four hours."
"So you're going to stay cooped up in your apartment and work."
"I've been meaning to see Wicked, and that other one ." Alana waved her hand. "That musical with what's his name."
Pam shook her head in resigned dismay. Young, only twenty-five, she'd been three years behind Alana at Yale. But she was sharp, ambitious and didn't miss a trick. That's why she'd been hired twenty minutes into her interview. She reminded Alana of herself. With the exception that Pam had the good sense to spend a week in the Alps and regenerate, while Alana planned on burying herself in ad copy.
"I want to show you something, and I need you to promise to keep an open mind." Pam moved around the desk, shoving Alana's feet off and taking over her keyboard.
"I'm not promising anything." Alana rolled her chair back to give her assistant room. Though Pam seemed distracted by something under the desk.
She dragged out Alana's wastebasket and sighed at the remains of the desktop Zen garden Pam had given her as a stress reliever. The sand had fallen to the bottom of the basket and the miniature wooden rake had snapped in two. "I see this worked well."
"Actually, it did." Alana smiled. "Trashing the whole thing felt remarkably soothing."
With an eye roll, Pam went to work, her fingers flying over the keyboard. She brought up a website and stood back.
"check this out."
Alana scooted closer, squinting at the startling expanse of blue sky above a huge log-cabin-style house. In the lower corner of the screen were three cowboys, but it was one of their horses that caught her attention. With that lean, powerful body and a shimmering gray mane, he looked like an Arabian, but she couldn't be sure from the picture. What was this, anyway? Her gaze went to the top of the screen. The Sundance Dude Ranch.
It took a second for the words to register. She narrowed her gaze on her assistant. "A dude ranch. Me. You're kidding."
"Why not? You like to ride. Do it where the air is clean and men are men."
Alana laughed. "I haven't been riding in years." She slid another look at the three cowboys. Not bad, if a woman liked the rugged outdoor sort. .
"All the more reason to get your overworked type A ass out of the city and do something fun for a change."
Groaning, Alana swiveled to find her shoes. "Remind me why I keep you around."
"Because I don't take your crap, I'm very good at what I do, and I know how to fix your computer," she said, then pointedly added, "without erasing the entire hard drive."
"God, I'm going to hear about that for the rest of my life."
"Take a damn vacation, Richardson. You need it."
"A dude ranch. Sure thing." She winced, trying to stuff her foot back into the narrow shoe. It had to be the correct size. Her personal shopper had chosen them, but they were new. Alana had figured half a day's wear would be enough to break them in.
"Look, I probably wouldn't have thought of it on my own, but I have friends who went last month, and they came back raving about the place. Plus they said the guys were totally hot."
"You have time for friends? Obviously I don't work you hard enough."
"Just read some of the reviews."
"Yeah, I'll do that."
Pam exhaled in that long-suffering way she had perfected. "You are so myopic."
Alana quit trying to put on the shoe and brought it up for closer inspection. Her eyes were tired from another late night reviewing ads, and the print was too blurry. "This is an eight, right?" She showed the toeless black pump to Pam.
"That's not what I meant." clearly annoyed, her assistant ducked her head to glance at the size. "Yes," she said, her expression changing to one of banked amusement. "By the way, your mother called while you were meeting with Mr. Giles."
That was odd. Eleanor rarely called the office. Alana opened the desk drawer where she kept her cell and saw that she had several messages waiting. "And?"
"She's lecturing at a conference in Boston this weekend. After that she's going to the Cape for a few days. She wanted to let you know she'd be away."
A sick feeling churned in Alana's stomach. "You didn't tell her about the move," she said, not liking the knowing gleam in her assistant's eye. "Or that the office would be closed."
"I'm not sure." Pam frowned, but couldn't quite keep a straight face. "I might have mentioned it. Was that wrong?"
"I'm not afraid of her." Not a total lie. Terrified was a better description. The woman wasn't a monster, nothing like that. But if Alana thought she was good at manipulating people, Dr. Eleanor Richardson was the damn master. Nine out of ten times she could get her only daughter to crumble like a stale brownie. And if her mother knew she was free, she'd insist Alana accompany her to the Cape. "I can say no to Eleanor."
"Of course you can." Pam grinned as she moved around the desk toward the door. "But you know, with all the fall foliage, Cape Cod is gorgeous this time of year ."
Sighing, Alana dug out her phone. All three messages were from Eleanor. Oh, crap.
"Have fun with Mom," Pam said on her way out with a wave over her shoulder.
"That was so beneath you," Alana muttered, loudly enough for Pam to hear, then drummed her short, pale, manicured nails on her desk while staring at the phone as if it were the enemy.
She had to call her mother back. If she didn't, Eleanor would inevitably show up at Alana's apartment. The doormen all knew her. They'd probably lay out the damn red carpet without even giving Alana a heads-up that her mother was in the building.
And why not? Eleanor Richardson was beautiful and charming, a world-renowned psychiatrist who knew exactly how to get what she wanted. With her expertise perpetually in demand, she was wined and dined, courted by some of the most prestigious institutions in the world. The woman knew no humility, though Alana marveled at how well her mother hid her arrogance and sense of entitlement. Her ability was truly something. Almost enviable.
The thought made Alana shudder. She loved her mother and respected her because she really was brilliant and worked hardher discipline was an amazing thing. But Alana didn't want to be like her. Eleanor had no friends. Never in a hundred years could Alana imagine her having a conversation like the one she herself had just had with Pam. It was a small thing, perhaps, and there were many qualities passed on to her from her mother for which Alana was grateful.
She also appreciated the top-notch education she'd been provided, the fabulous trips abroad, the trust fund that guaranteed she'd never have to worry about her future. But the perks had come at a price. A normal childhood had been the trade-off. No sleepovers or going off to summer camp or attending Friday-night school football games like her classmates. No father to read her stories or tuck her in at night.
When she was younger, Alana had thought often about how her life might've been different if she'd had a more traditional upbringing. She'd even considered inquiring about the man who'd fathered her. One particular time she'd been so furious with Eleanor for planning a Caribbean trip for them the weekend of the junior prom that she'd nearly asked her mother why she'd bothered having a child.
But Alana hadn't asked. Instead, she'd sneaked out of her room late that night. She'd made it only five blocks in their posh neighborhood when the police picked her up, assuming she was whacked out on drugs, given the way she was furiously muttering to herself. When they'd returned her home, Eleanor hadn't raised her voice, not even an eyebrow. She'd merely opened the door, thanked the police in that cool, elegant voice of hers, while Alana raced up the stairs to her room.
Until dawn she'd waited in agony for her bedroom door to open, for Eleanor to lash out at her. The lecture never came. She hadn't been grounded, no privileges were taken away, and later, when they'd sat across the table from each other while the housekeeper served them breakfast, Eleanor had smiled that charming smile she'd perfected, and reviewed the itinerary of their Caribbean trip as if nothing had happened.
It was then that Alana recognized the truth of their relationship. She'd finally understood her role. Eleanor hadn't necessarily wanted a child; she'd needed a companion. Marriage had never even been considered. After all, what man could meet her expectations?
But a child? Perfect, really, because it gave Eleanor the opportunity to mold Alana into someone who suited her mother's preferences. Infuriatingly, the plan had worked far too well. For all Alana's good intentions, she ended up bending to Eleanor's will far too often.
Alana blinked at the monitor when the unimaginative galaxy screen saver obliterated the picture of the Sundance Dude Ranch that had been there a second ago. She touched the mouse and recalled the website, her gaze sweeping from the beautiful Arabian to the cowboy straddling the animal. Hot guys. Right. What was Pam thinking? She knew Alana's taste was more sophisticated than that, in clothes, in men .
Although she had to admit these were some pretty nice specimens. She moved in for a closer look at their faces, but two of the cowboys had their hats pulled low. The third one had his brim tipped back and was very good-looking, but on the young side. They were the McAllister brothers, owners and operators along with their sister and mother, according to the blurb. The ranch had been in the family for several generations, but only recently had they opened their doors to paying guests.
Alana had to smile. Yeah, she'd just bet the place was popular, especially with women looking for a vacation fling.
Out of curiosity, she clicked on the descriptions of the activities offered and, impressed, started skimming the reviews.
Just as she figured, the ranch was solidly endorsed, and so were the men. Some of the guests had included photos of their vacation, and Montana was undeniably beautiful country, with breathtaking views of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains, open meadows and storybook streams. Though the highlight for most of the reviewers had beenbig surprisethe men who worked the ranch. A whole slew of photographs were dedicated to the brothers, the hired hands, the town's sheriff. .
She peered closer. Yes, she could understand why some women might find Sheriff Calder appealing. Alana wasn't one for a man in uniform, certainly not half a uniform. Along with his official tan shirt, he wore scuffed cowboy boots and worn jeanswore them quite well, in fact. But it was his strong, chiseled jaw that caught her fancy, even if his sun-streaked brown hair was a bit too long.
Her phone buzzed, signaling an incoming text.
She pulled open her drawer to check the display, though she knew who it was, and that she wasn't about to answer.
Eleanor's message was brief. She'd be in a meeting for an hour, but needed to talk to her immediately after.
Alana's gaze moved back to her computer screen and the blue Montana sky. Outside her door she heard laughter. The mailroom staff had been assigned packing duty, and it sounded as if her office might be next on their list.
Montana, huh? God, was she seriously considering this? Was the idea too crazy? She pushed her fingers through her hair, trying to recall when, exactly, she'd last been horseback riding. But a dude ranch?
Hell, why not? She wasn't allergic to fresh air. And she was getting tired of sailing in the Caribbean and visiting the Hamptons. Not that she ever had much leisure time.
Who was she kidding? She felt like a teenager again, trying to ditch her mother. The thing was, she hadn't really lied to Pam. Technically, Alana could say no to Eleanor, except the woman had a way of digging in her claws and making Alana feel guilty as hell. Sometimes it was just a look, a single word, a lift of a brow, and Alana was toast. She'd try not to give in. She'd call herself every kind of fool, because in all other aspects of her life she had a spine of steel.