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Pride filled Zaire Kingdom as he sat atop powerful Thunder, one of the most beautiful palominos out of his stable of numerous horses. His golden brown eyes stared down at the magnificent ranch below, as the orange sun slowly descended. The vast acreage where hilly land masses and skies appeared to meet was a sight to behold. The view from the highest ridge on the Brownsville, Texas, property was breathtaking. This was his home.
Several of the nine beautiful lakes on Whispering Lakes Ranch offered great fishing experiences, one of Zaire's favorite pastimes. The entire place was a relaxation haven for the successful corporate cowboy and his host of family members.
Zaire's eyes suddenly zeroed in on a car pulled off to the side of the road leading up to the main building where guests registered to check into the log cabin-style guest cottages. Spotting a slender figure standing next to the auto, it appeared to be a woman, but he was too far away to be certain. Why the driver had pulled over was his main concern. Guests didn't normally check in this late in the day. He wondered if the car or possibly the driver was in distress. Either way, help was on the way.
Pulling gently on the reins, turning Thunder around, Zaire headed in the direction of the automobile. With the horse's hoofs flying across the familiar terrain, Zaire felt totally relaxed in the saddle, loving the feel of the wind. Out of the many entertainment venues offered at the ranch, he loved riding his horses and teaching his guests how to ride.
Stopping Thunder a couple of feet away from the car, Zaire dismounted. Tethering the reins to a nearby fence, he walked over to where a young woman leaned against the driver's door of a late-model Toyota convertible. An expression of total bewilderment was etched on her pretty face. "Is everything okay, Ma'am?"
Embarrassment flashing in her sparkling chocolate brown eyes, China Braxton looked up at Zaire. "Would you believe I'm lost?"
"That's not so hard to believe." Zaire chuckled. "Where you headed?"
"Whispering Lakes Ranch. I have reservations there. Think you can point a lost city girl in the right direction?"
Zaire grinned. "You're already on the ranch." He pointed ahead. "Another mile or so up the road is the registration building. I'll lead the way on horseback."
China sighed with relief. "That's so kind. Are you a guest, too?"
"You could say that." He was a permanent guest, but she'd find it out in due time.
"My dad told me a lot about this place. I hope it lives up to all his hype. By the way, I'm China Braxton." Looking over at the horse, she wished she had the nerve to stroke it. Being intimidated by such a powerful, beautiful animal made her feel silly.
"I'm Zaire Kingdom, Ma'am." He gave her a warm smile. "Ready?"
"Lead the way."
Waiting until China was buckled up, Zaire mounted Thunder. Settling into a moderately paced gallop, he rode toward the main building. The area would be well lit in another couple of yards. She would've seen the huge neon sign welcoming guests to the property had she continued on. He gave thought to adding an additional mile or two of lights to the route, yet no previous problems with lighting had been reported.
Even though Thunder wouldn't stray far from its owner, Zaire tethered his horse. Bred, born and raised on this land, Thunder knew every square inch of the entire ranch.
China looked toward the massive A-frame structure. Turning around, she faced Zaire. "Impressive piece of architecture! Wish I'd gotten here a long time ago. I stopped in town 'cause I can't resist browsing quaint little gift shops. Billboard advertisings are posted everywhere. Do you think someone's inside to check me in?"
He gave an assuring smile. "Don't worry. You'll be checked in. Come with me."
China lifted an eyebrow. "You seem to know the ropes around here."
"You could say that," he answered.
China followed Zaire into the cozy, comfortably furnished lobby. A beautiful pregnant woman with flawless burnished brown skin stood behind the counter. As she looked up, her striking, dark amber eyes showed compassion. Flowing like a curtain of silk, thick auburn hair fell softly below the stunning woman's slender shoulders.
"China Braxton, this is Hailey Hamilton-Kingdom. She'll get you checked in and assigned to a cabin."
Acknowledging each other with slight nods, the women smiled warmly.
"I'll wait around and escort you to the cabin," Zaire said. "The property is well lit, but I'm sure you can use help with your luggage."
"Thank you." China was a bit amazed by this good-looking man. He reminded her of her father, a loving, caring gentleman from head to toe. Brody Braxton had always been ready and willing to help anyone in need.
"I'll be right outside when you finish up. Take your time, China," Zaire said.
China's eyes followed Zaire to the door. Knowing she'd see him again made her smile. As of late, she hadn't met many kindhearted men. His left ring finger was bare, she'd noted, but Hailey's last name was also Kingdom. Was she his wife?
Hailey pushed a lengthy form in front of China. "Please read the rental agreement and sign at the bottom. We're thrilled to have you as a guest. Welcome!"
"I'm excited to be here. My father loved this place." At the thought of Brody Braxton, her eyes suddenly filled with tears. "He requested I bring him back here to scatter his ashes. A native Texan, Dad chose Whispering Lakes Ranch as his final resting place."
Hailey felt instant sympathy for China, but she didn't think now was the time to address the obvious grief.
"Do you work here full-time?" China asked Hailey, shaking off her grief.
"I help out whenever and wherever. I'm on maternity leave from the Air Force. Not sure yet if I'll return to active duty after the baby comes. We'll see."
"Is Zaire an employee? He seems so knowledgeable about the place." Talking about Zaire would be a good distraction from her father.
Hailey laughed softly. "Along with his brothers, Zurich and Zane, the three Kingdom brothers own this fantastic resort. Zaire gave up his corporate job to live his dream. He's made the ranch a favorite vacation spot for folks from all over the world."
China smiled softly. "Three Z's, huh!"
"Their mom loved the names. My mother-in-law, Ber-nice, is a sweetheart. So is my father-in-law, Morgan."
"Wow, you sound like a woman who actually likes her in-laws! Which brother are you married to?" Hoping she wasn't married to Zaire, China sucked in a deep breath, holding it tightly.
"Zurich. He's retired from the Air Force. He's employed at a local Brownsville television station. We're both meteorologists." Hailey grinned. "I need to make a slight correction to your comment. I love my in-laws. They're wonderful."
China was pleased at Hailey's answer. "Do your in-laws visit the ranch often?"
"They own a house on the land and a huge motor home. The entire family has custom-built homes on Whispering Lakes Ranch. Our residences are a good distance apart, but we're as close as a phone call. Our family participates in most of the guest activities. The brothers and their father pull many of the instructor and guide duties."
China signed the registration form and handed it back to Hailey along with her American Express card. "Do you need any ID?"
"Just your driver's license. The other important information was supplied on the application you filled out online."
Amazed by the wealth of information Hailey had imparted on the Kingdom family, China had an urge to ask her if Zaire was married. She refrained. Instead, she picked up a brochure describing the ranch, though she had glanced over one at home.
The dude-style ranch was advertised as a lively playground for family vacationers and couples or singles looking for a fun getaway. Horseback/trail riding, hiking, calf roping, swimming, fishing, tossing horseshoes, Country-Western dancing and having fun barbecues were a big part of the ranch's entertainment package. Inside a barnlike structure, the indoor-activities clubhouse included a bar, dance floor, pool tables and mechanical bull. Karaoke was offered two nights a week. Weekends featured live bands.
Whispering Lakes Ranch was touted as the perfect place for the outdoorsman or the sports-minded woman, as well as for the man or woman who blossomed outdoors in the wide-open spaces. China was glad she'd get to experience firsthand the place that had kept her father intrigued enough to return there year after year. Working long hours and continuing education classes had kept her from vacationing with Brody.
Chewing on a toothpick, Zaire looked out over the horizon. He never got enough of this idyllic place. His love of the land and the peace it brought was why he'd left his corporate job. He'd leave the hustle and bustle of city life every weekend and on holidays to ride the range, survey and explore the extensive Kingdom-owned acreage.
The more Zaire had thought about what he could possibly do with all this prime land he and his brothers owned, the more elaborate plans began forming in his mind. After several months of serious soul-searching and researching, he'd shared his ideas with his brothers. Sold on Zaire's brilliant vision, they'd agreed to act upon it. Zurich and Zane hadn't initially planned to live on the land like Zaire had. The brothers later realized it was the best solution for making the place a huge success.
In perfect harmony with the land, Zaire was never more content in his life. From sunup to sundown, he lived and breathed Whispering Lakes Ranch. This was his safe haven, a place that never let him down. He had no desire to live anywhere else.
Hearing the door open and shut, Zaire turned around and saw China. "I'll drive my SUV back to the cottages. You can follow me. What cabin did Hailey assign you?"
China looked at the key in her hand. "Cabin nine."
Zaire nodded to show he approved. "The full kitchen and separate rooms make it one of our premier cottages. I think you'll love it. Wait here until I pull around the SUV."
As Zaire strode toward the side of the building, China took in an eyeful. Watching him walk was electrifying. The man was over six feet tall, deliciously dark and handsome. She loved his sexy, confident swagger. The cowboy boots appeared to be cut from the finest leather. The off-white Stetson with a thin black leather band further enhanced his hot, rancher-cowboy aura. If she lit a match right now, his white-hot sex appeal would no doubt spark a blazing fire.
Zaire wasn't a bit surprised by the amount of luggage China had. He hadn't helped out many women who hadn't brought along every single creature comfort, those least needed on the open range. Jeans, T-shirts, shorts, tennis shoes, hiking boots, swimwear and a few dresses for special events would suffice.
As Zaire stored the luggage in the roomy walk-in closet, the audible gasps from China weren't lost on him. This was one of the best cabins at the resort. He couldn't hold back his laughter, as she dared to bounce up and down on the queen-size bed like a child. The bed was beautifully dressed in a box-stitched white comforter, white sheets and pillowcases and frilly pillow shams. A variety of brightly colored pillows breathed life into the snowy white linens.
China pointed at the windows. "I really like the wood shutters, and the off-white rocker-recliner looks pretty comfy. Does the fireplace burn wood or gas?"
"It's electric. With a flick of the switch it can produce heat and display colorful mock flames. Most guests only use heat in winter months, but almost everyone uses it for atmosphere. Can I get you anything before I leave?"
Frowning, she palmed her forehead. "I forgot to get a couple of Diet Cokes from the vending machine. I can do without until tomorrow. No big deal."
Zaire steered her back to the kitchen and opened the full-size refrigerator door. "All sorts of soft drinks are in here." He picked up a form. "Whatever you use, check it off on here. You'll be billed at checkout. Soft drinks are much cheaper here than those in other hotel vending machines."
He then showed her the cupboard where microwavable cups of soup, popcorn, chips, single-serving-size cereals, packaged pastries, candy bars and a variety of other food items and treats were stored. The kitchen was equipped with modern appliances.
"How often are perishable items changed out?"
"Most food items have expiration dates. Our employees check the refrigerator and pantry often. Small cartons of milk are changed out daily."
China laughed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply anything sinister. I'm terribly curious by nature. I'm a nurse so I always concern myself with health-and-safety issues."
"A nurse, huh? Well, the closest medical facility is twenty miles away. We've thought of hiring a full-time RN, but we haven't had enough incidents of illness or injury to warrant it. As well as staff members, our lifeguards are certified in CPR and first aid. We also supply transportation to and from the medical facility."
The expression on China's face showed amazement. "You Kingdom brothers got it going on. I'm looking forward to my stay."
"We're happy to have you. If you're not interested in cooking, breakfast is served in the dining room of the main building from five-thirty to ten-thirty. Look at the activity schedule for whatever you're interested in. There's plenty to do out here."
"I recall reading an endless list of activities. I want to go fishing and learn to ride a horse, but I'm a bit intimidated by their size. Your horse is one big boy."
"Thunder is gigantic but gentle as a lamb. Let me know when you're ready to get acquainted with him. Fishing excursions begin at five o'clock."
A gasp was followed by a loud groan from China. "Why so early?"
"The fish are hungry and biting." He moved toward the door. "I'd better get going. See you around. Have a great evening, China."
"You, too, Zaire. Thanks for everything, especially for rescuing me."
He grinned. "Glad I could be of service." Backing out of the exit, he closed the door behind him. Turning around again, he rapped hard on her door.
China appeared immediately. "Did you forget something?"
"Not really. Wanted to tell you since it is Friday, there's a great band playing tonight in the pavilion, which also serves as a clubhouse, bandstand and dance hall." He looked down at his watch and whistled. "The band starts in a couple of hours."
"I think I will check out the band. I probably won't get there at starting time, though. A shower and short nap will help rejuvenate me. Will you be there?"
"The entire Kingdom family will be there. We pretty much check in on everything happening around the place. I rarely stay until the last set, but I'll definitely drop in."
Resisting a strong urge to flirt with Zaire, China smiled. "Good. Hope to see you there." China wished her lifelong best friend, Brooke Clay, had come to keep her in line.
Zaire grinned. "You probably will. Get settled in. Later, China."