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What rotten luck. Alex Keller ended the phone call, tucked his phone in his jeans pocket and nudged Doozie into a canter. He needed to get back to the ranch house and figure out what the hell to do now that the country band he'd hired wouldn't be showing up tomorrow. He couldn't expect to get a replacement at four o'clock on a Friday afternoon, which meant no live music for the open house. Damn.
The open house had been his idea. Two months ago, after accepting a job as the first-ever marketing director for the Last Chance, he'd proposed the event to increase the ranch's visibility and establish it as the premier place to buy registered paints. Technically he was up to the challenge. He held a degree in marketing, and although he'd spent most of his career as a high-profile DJ in Chicago, he'd also been instrumental in the radio station's marketing campaigns.
But this was his first event for the ranch, and he needed it to go well. The Chances were family now that Alex's sister Josie had married Jack Chance, so the ranch's bottom line had personal significance. The Chances weren't in immediate financial danger, but spring sales had been slow. Alex had been hired to fix that.
He'd saddled Doozie earlier that afternoon, figuring a ride might settle his nerves. Instead he'd ended up with a phone call that added to his growing list of problems. Most of the issues involved keeping the invited guests dry. Rain-filled clouds hovered on the horizon and only one of the three canopies he'd ordered had shown up. Now he had no band, either.
Live music would have gone a long way toward setting the tone for tomorrow's open house, even if it rained. Sure, he could rig up a sound system and use canned music and his DJ abilities, but it wouldn't have the same feel as live music, and he couldn't be stuck behind a microphone all day.
At this point on Friday afternoon, nothing could be done about either of those glitches. He'd spent all his life in Chicago and was used to its vast resources. If one band canceled, you hired another, and if one delivery of event canopies didn't work out, you went with a different company. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was a whole other situation, and he was screwed.
He had to make this work, though. All three of the Chance brothersJack, Gabe, and Nickhad put their faith in him, and he'd do his damnedest. Everyone knew Alex Keller was a hard worker, especially his ex-wife, who'd wanted him to work less and play more.
Oh, well. Crystal was back in Chicago cavorting with her new boyfriend, and he was out here in God's country, working his butt off because that's who he was. And he couldn't complain. The ranch's location, west of a little town called Shoshone in the Jackson Hole region, was spectacular.
Following his divorce last summer, he'd left Chicago and found a combination DJ/marketing director position with a radio station in Jackson. But he'd spent more time out at the Last Chance than at his apartment in Jackson and had, to his surprise, gone country. When the offer came to work for the Chance brothers, he'd jumped at it.
Slowing Doozie to a trot as he approached the barn, he glanced over at the massive, two-story ranch house, a log structure that had grown as the family had grown. Its front windows faced north with a view of the state's scenic crown jewelthe perpetually snowcapped Tetons. The acreage was worth millions, and the family wanted to keep every square foot of it, which meant the Chances were land rich and cash poor.
From what Alex had heard, Jonathan Chance Sr. had been comfortable with that, but after his death, his three sons had taken stock of the situation. They'd decided on a more aggressive breeding and sales program for the ranch's registered paints to give the operation a bigger financial cushion.
Alex could see why. A ranch this size had a fair amount of overhead, including a payroll for several regular hands and a few seasonal ones, all of whom had to be housed and fed in addition to their wages. On top of that were maintenance and utility costs for the large ranch house, the bunkhouse, the heated barn and various other outbuildings.
Dismounting by the hitching post beside the barn, he answered a greeting from Emmett Sterling. The ranch foreman, a seasoned cowboy in his late fifties, paused on his way into the barn. "Want me to take care of her for you?"
"Thanks, but I'll do it." Alex had bonded with this bay mare, who'd put up with his beginning riding mistakes without complaint. Doozie had arrived in Jackson Hole last summer about the same time Alex had. They'd both been in need of sanctuary, and the Last Chance had provided that.
Doozie wasn't a paint, so she couldn't be part of the breeding program, but she'd been allowed to stay, anyway. Alex thought it was appropriate that she'd been assigned to him, because he wasn't a cowboy, but he'd been allowed to stay, too. Doozie would never become a paint, but damned if Alex hadn't started to feel like a cowboy.
After settling Doozie in her stall with Hornswaggled, a goat who was her constant companion, Alex headed for the ranch house, where a cold bottle of Bud was calling his name. These days he drank beer instead of wine, just as he wore jeans instead of chinos.
A guy couldn't hang out in a living room with a wagon-wheel chandelier and Navajo rugs on the walls and keep wearing city-slicker clothes. The unwritten dress code for logging time in the cushy leather armchairs in front of the giant rock fireplace included faded jeans, boots and a Western shirt.
Alex had complied. The day he'd bought a Stetson and settled it on his head, he'd bid a permanent farewell to the Chicago city boy he used to be.
His boots echoed hollowly on the porch as he crossed to the large front door and pulled it open. No one was in the living room, which always smelled faintly of wood smoke even if the hearth was cold, like now. He turned left down a long hall. His route to the kitchen took him through the dining room with its four round tables that each sat eight people.
At this time of the afternoon the tables were empty, but three hours ago the place had bustled with activity. The Chance brothers had continued their father's tradition of eating lunch with the hands so everyone could exchange information about ranch chores. Sarah, Jonathan's widow, usually joined the group, and now her three daughters-in-law were included, too.
When Alex heard Sarah's laughter coming from the kitchen, he knew she must be talking to the cook, Mary Lou Simms, who was as much a friend as an employee. Alex wished he weren't the bearer of bad news. He'd worked hard to make this event tomorrow successful, but now he wasn't sure it would be.
Sarah needed to know that, even if it spoiled her good mood. He could talk to the Chance brothers over dinner. Friday night was family night at the big house, a way to stay connected now that all three pairs of newlyweds lived on different sections of the ranch's vast acreage.
Taking a deep breath, Alex walked into the kitchen and found Mary Lou and Sarah pulling baby stuff out of a mail-order box. Gabe's wife, Morgan, was eight months pregnant, and soon-to-be grandma Sarah had obviously gone catalog shopping.
Sarah was the kind of woman who seemed ageless even though she'd let her hair go white. She wore it in a sleek bob, and her high cheekbones and flawless skin made her look years younger than she was. Her mother had been a runway model, and Sarah took after her.
Alex had heard that Mary Lou had been a blonde bombshell twenty years ago, but now she enjoyed her own excellent cooking and didn't seem to care about a few extra pounds or the state of her unruly gray hair.
Sarah glanced at Alex as he came into the kitchen. "What do you think?" She waved an impossibly tiny shirt in a red bandanna print. "Since Gabe and Morgan won't tell me if they're having a boy or a girl, I'm going with unisex clothes, which is probably better because they can be handed down."
"Cute." Alex hoped that was the appropriate response, because he'd never given much thought to baby clothes. Crystal had been fanatic about birth control during their years together, and he'd had no burning desire to be a father, especially after the marriage began to sour. Baby clothes were foreign objects to him. "Mind if I grab a beer?"
"Help yourself." She held up a one-piece deal that was supposed to look as if the baby wore jeans and a Western shirt, although it was printed on stretch terry. "Is this adorable or what?"
"Sure is!" Alex crossed to the refrigerator and opened it. Maybe once he'd wrapped his hand around a cold beer, he'd be able to find a gentle way to introduce some gloom and doom into this happy little baby scene.
Sarah was understandably excited about the impending arrival of her first grandchild. Alex had been the DJ for Morgan and Gabe's wedding reception last August, and Morgan had stated clearly then that she didn't plan to rush into motherhood. Yet within a couple of months she'd turned up preggers and was apparently thrilled about it.
Thoughts of Morgan's wedding always reminded Alex of Morgan's younger sister, Tyler, who had agreed to spend a memorable few hours in the hayloft with him following the reception. Alex couldn't smell fresh hay without remembering the feel of Tyler's soft, willing body and her muted cries of pleasure. They'd taken care not to make too much noise so they wouldn't draw any unwanted attention.
She'd left the next day, returning to her job as activities director for a luxury cruise line headquartered in L.A. She'd confessed that constant traveling didn't leave much room for relationships. Just as well, he'd told her. He was still recovering from his divorce.
True enough, but watching Tyler leave hadn't been easy. That night in the hayloft had been perfect, at least from his viewpoint. He'd tried to talk himself out of that assessment but hadn't quite succeeded.
He'd resisted the urge to ask Morgan about Tyler in the months that followed. He was pretty sure nobody knew that he and Tyler had spent the night together in the hayloft. The Chance family had been too preoccupied to notice, and Alex somehow doubted Tyler had confided in Morgan.
If she had, he would have seen it in Morgan's eyes or felt it in her treatment of him. So maybe the night had meant nothing more to Tyler than a champagne-flavored roll in the hay. Somehow he doubted it, though.
He'd sensed that she'd been as deeply affected as he'd been. Then again, she'd been his first since the divorce, so maybe his perception hadn't been accurate. In the following months he'd dated a couple of women from the Jackson Hole area, but they hadn't inspired the gut-level response he'd had to Tyler.
As Mary Lou and Sarah continued to coo over the baby clothes, Alex reached for the longneck. He'd curled his fingers around it when Morgan called out a greeting from the kitchen doorway. He hoped the baby clothes weren't supposed to be a surprise.
"Look who's here!" Morgan sounded breathless. "My world-traveling sister just flew over from L.A. to surprise me!"
Alex straightened up so fast he banged his head on the door of the refrigerator. Praying nobody had noticed, he held his bottle of beer in a death grip and slowly closed the refrigerator door. His heart hammered as he turned to face the woman who'd played a prominent role in his dreams for nearly ten months.
His memory hadn't done her justice. She was even sexier than he'd remembered, with her ebony hair curling around her face and down the back of her turquoise dress. Dark eyes that reflected her mother's Italian heritage met his. She seemed as shocked to see him as he was to see her.
Although she looked nothing like Crystal, who was blonde with Scandinavian ancestry, Alex couldn't help noticing surface similarities to his ex-wife. Obviously Tyler spent time and money on her hair, nails and clothes.
She wore a dress that revealed a little cleavage and high-heeled sandals that showed off her pedicure. And she smelled amazing, like a bouquet of peach-colored roses. Although he'd fully embraced the country life, he'd been a Chicago boy first, and all that careful grooming still had the power to turn him on.
But it was more than that. One glance into those eyes and he knew that what they'd shared in the hayloft had been more than just sex. Whether they were prepared to deal with it or not, they were emotionally involved. Still.
"Hey, Tyler." He managed what he hoped was a nonchalant smile. "How're you doing?"
Tyler had been doing just fine until she'd walked into the Last Chance's kitchen and found Alex leaning into the refrigerator, his tempting buns encased in well-worn jeans. She hadn't expected him to be at the ranch, and she certainly hadn't expected him to have transformed himself into a cowboy. Judging from his denim shirt, snug jeans and scuffed boots, that's exactly what he'd done.
Ten months ago he'd been a hottie who'd tempted her into one night of wild sex. She'd tried to convince herself it had been about superficial pleasure, but there was nothing superficial about the feelings flooding through her now. She'd had casual affairs. This didn't qualify.
And God, did he look good. Apparently Wyoming agreed with him. The cute city boy had been replaced with a ruggedly handsome man. The dark blond hair he'd worn short and preppy now touched his collar. His face was leaner, his gray eyes more piercing, his body more ripped than she remembered. In ten months he'd gone from hottie to hero.
And what they'd shared had definitely been more than just sex. This man had made wonderful love to her, and she wanted him to do it again. Her skin warmed and her heartbeat quickened at the memory of his caress, his kiss, his gentle words. The time they'd been apart shrank until she felt as if she'd lain naked with him only hours ago.
On that cool August morning she'd forced herself to leave without a backward glance, although she'd mentally glanced back more than she cared to admit. Now she had even more reason to avoid a relationship, but she wondered how on God's green earth she'd be able to resist him.
"Tyler, you remember Alex." Morgan seemed to think her sister's silence meant she needed prompting. "He was the DJ at our wedding reception."