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The C.E.O. & The Cookie Queen
By Victoria Chancellor
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGreg gripped the metal fence, resisting the urge to step backward as a wild-eyed black-and-white calf ran right at him. Following closely on the poor animal's heels, charged an evil-eyed horse and determined rider. Dirt sprayed across Greg's new snakeskin-and-cowhide boots as the calf suddenly turned and raced down the arena.
Letting out a sigh of relief, he watched the pursuing cowboy swing a rope overhead, then toss it in the direction of the calf. The noose settled over the desperate calf's neck. The rope cinched tight and flipped the animal to the ground. Greg winced.
"Doesn't that hurt?" he asked the tall, raw-boned man next to him.
Both eyebrows raised, the man pushed his sweat-and dust-caked hat higher on his forehead. "Hurt what?"
"The cow," Greg answered, nodding toward the rodeo drama unfolding in the arena.
The man narrowed his eyes, gave Greg a look that said, "I can't believe you asked that," then asked, "You're not from around here, are ya?" He raised a battered red soft drink can to his lips and spat into it. Gross. Chewing tobacco, Greg suspected, or perhaps the disgusting snuff that permanently imprinted the back pockets of many of these cowboys.
The contestant threw the calf to the ground after it struggled to get up, then proceeded to loop another rope around three of its legs. "Yeah, but it's just a baby."
The man shook his head. "Son, ain't you never been around beef cattle?"
"No, I can't say that I have."
"Ever eat any veal?" the man asked with a gaptoothed grin. Greg silently thanked the orthodontist his parents had dragged him to. They might not have given him everything, but he did have good teeth.
Instead of answering the man - or thinking about where veal came from - he turned back to the action in the ring. The cowboy finished looping the rope, then stood up and thrust both hands in the air. Showoff, Greg wanted to mutter. So what if the guy could wrestle a poor defenseless animal to the ground and tie it up? Should he get some kind of medal?
"Ten point three seconds," the announcer reported.
"That puts Tim Roberts in third place. Nice try, Tim. And that wraps up today's calf roping competition."
A smattering of applause and a few "whoops" followed the recitation of the winner and second-place finisher. From the end of the arena, a loud tractor entered, pulling a devise that smoothed the surface of the dirt into some version of level. A small cloud of dust rose only slightly from the ground, then settled back as though it was also hot and tired in the summer heat.
If the rest of the crowd could tolerate dust up to their knees and sweat pouring down their backs, Greg could, too. Besides, he had a real good reason for traveling to Texas in August, then standing in a metal barn that could have doubled as one of Huntington Foods' huge ovens. He wasn't going to let the dirt and hot temperatures keep him from his goal.
The man who had been standing beside Greg wandered off. Unsure what was coming next, he reached into his back pocket - where his round, flat canister of snuff would have been if he were a real cowboy - and retrieved the rolled-up flyer listing the county 4-H events. Sure enough, the junior steer competition was next. Greg wasn't sure whether that meant the people showing them were young, or the steers were young, but whatever was going to happen next in the arena involved Ms. Carole Jacks.
And she was the only reason he was standing in this hellish Texas inferno, sweat pooling inside his new Justin ropers and running down the legs of the stiff boot-cut jeans he'd bought hours earlier in Austin. His secretary had laughed at the idea of dressing like a cowboy to visit this small community, but Greg wanted to make a good impression. He knew he wouldn't fit in if he were wearing a suit, or even his normal Chicago casual attire.
One of the principle rules of salesmanship he'd learned at Ohio State was to blend in with the customer, to make them feel comfortable. He wasn't sure his professors would have encouraged him to go quite this far to make someone believe he fit in, but the disguise had seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, his mother had warned him that Carole Jacks didn't take to outsiders. She rarely left Ranger Springs, Texas, and preferred all her correspondence by mail.
No email. No fax. There wasn't even a photograph of her in the file. For all he knew, she could be pushing ninety and senile. Personally, he imagined her as the no-nonsense Alice on The Brady Bunch. At best, she'd resemble a kind, portly Aunt Bea. He just hoped she'd accept the wardrobe and makeup consultants necessary before her photo sessions and public appearances. As long as she managed to smile and remained well mannered while in public, she was the best hope they had for reforming Huntington Foods' image.
Of course, it would have been nice if his mother had given him a description of the formidable Carole Jacks. Instead, Roberta Huntington Rafferty had shrugged, smiled, and told him to have a nice trip. If he hadn't known for a fact that his mother possessed a very limited sense of humor, he would have suspected she'd been laughing at his first big challenge as C.E.O.
Whatever her age or disposition, Ms. Jacks had negotiated a hell of a contract. She'd gotten the privacy she wanted in exchange for her recipes. He'd tasted each selection Huntington produced, and the "food police" might have a point; they weren't low cal, low carb or low fat. They were, in fact, delicious.
The tractor chugged by, sending dust and diesel fumes Greg's way. He rubbed his watering eyes and wished he'd bought something cold to drink from the refreshment cart he'd spotted on his way into the arena. He wished he knew what he was looking for. All Ms. Jacks's neighbor had said was that she'd be at the ring for the junior steer competition, and no, there was no Mr. Jacks. Maybe she wasn't related to anyone showing. She could even be a judge.
As the dust and diesel fumes settled, a flash of silver caught his eye. Blinking against the bright sunlight coming through the open windows, he needed to make sure he wasn't seeing a mirage. No, she was real.
Standing directly across the dusty arena was a woman who would make any man forget his parched throat. Blond hair, tied back in a low ponytail, escaped the black cowboy hat she wore. A white T-shirt left little to his imagination, molding to breasts that appeared just the right size. And that big silver belt buckle fastened around a waist that obviously hadn't eaten too many of "Ms. Carole's Cookies." He could tell she wasn't too tall, but in those tight blue jeans, her legs looked as if they went on forever.
She stepped onto the bottom rail of the fence, then folded her arms along the top and rested her chin. The position caused her to bend a little, curving her rear out just enough to send a stampede of wicked fantasies through Greg's imagination. Unfortunately, the pounding affected more than his mind. He propped one boot on the bottom rail and hoped no one noticed his new jeans were even tighter than before he'd fantasized about the blonde. Or worse yet, thought that he had a predilection for either tractors or cows.
Excerpted from The C.E.O. & The Cookie Queen by Victoria Chancellor Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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