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"Wh en Boston comes to Montana, it's never a good thing." Jake Hunter frowned into the distance.
"You always were too hard on your mother."
Jake turned his head to look at the older man standing beside him. At seventy-five years old, Ben Hawkins didn't stand as straight and tall as he once had. But he still had a full head of snow-white hair, piercing blue eyes, and a face weathered and tanned from years of working in the sun.
"And you were always too soft on her."
Ben shrugged that away with a half smile. "She's my daughter."
"There is that." Jake nodded. "Anyway, if it all goes as promised, this will be the last time Boston comes calling for anything but a family visit."
"I've got to ask. Are you sure about this?" Ben pulled the collar of his coat up higher around his neck against the cold autumn wind. "I mean, what you're planning can't be changed. You're signing away your rights to the business your family built."
"Oh," Jake assured him, "I'm sure. This has been a long time coming, Pop." Jake shook his head. "Hunter Media has nothing I want. Never has."
And he knew how much that fact irritated his mother. She had always planned on Jake taking over the day-to-day running of the company built by her husband's family. The fact that Jake had never been interested really hadn't bothered her any. Elise Hawkins Hunter was nothing if not determined.
Ben snorted a laugh. "You always were more stubborn than anything else."
"Not stubborn." Jake took a deep breath, relishing the sharp, cold sting that hit his lungs. "I just know what I want. Always have."
Now he glanced around at the ranch he loved. The place that had been his solace and comfort when he'd come here during the summer as a kidand when he'd returned here after leaving the military.
October in the mountains of Montana was spectacular. As though God was putting on a show just before the winter cold settled in. The trees were turning brilliant shades of gold, orange and red. Dark clouds scudded across a sky so wide and blue it almost hurt your eyes to look at it. From the corral and barn came the sounds of horses and the men working with them. And spilling out in front of and below the huge ranch house he'd built was Whitefish Lake, sapphire water surrounded by tall pines that dipped and swayed with the wind.
The view soothed the dark places inside him, just as it had from the first time he'd seen it as a kid. Jake had known even then that this was his place. Not Boston, where he was born and where his family created and ruled a dynasty. But here on the mountain where his grandfather had carved out a way of life that spoke to Jake's soul in a way that nothing else ever had.
"No," he murmured, gaze still locked on the lake below. "Boston has nothing to offer me that can compete with this place."
"Have to say I agree," Ben mused. "Though your mother never did feel the bone-deep connection to the land that you and I do."
That simple statement made Jake smile. Maybe a love of the land skipped generations, he thought. This ranch had been in Ben's family for more than a hundred years, always falling to the oldest child to maintain the legacy the Hawkinses had built since the first settler stumbled into Montana and staked a claim to the land. Until, Jake thought, his mother.
Elise Hawkins Hunter hadn't felt the pull of the ranch. His mother had been born and raised here, and she had escaped as soon as she was able. Going to college in Boston, she'd met and married Jake's father there and settled into the kind of life she'd dreamed of. No early mornings to take care of animals. No quiet stillness. No solitude when the ranch was snowed in.
She'd made plenty of trips to the ranch to visit her parents and sent Jake and his sister out here for a few weeks every summer, but Boston was her home as the ranch had never been.
Elise was still puzzled by her son's decision to walk away from moneyed sophistication in favor of hard work and empty spaces. But Jake had his own moneya fortune he'd built through good investments and well-chosen risks. He didn't need to enslave himself to a desk to get his share of Hunter Media.
His mother might not ever understand his decision, but she had at least, finally, accepted it.
"So when's your mother's assistant due to arrive?"
Jake glanced at his grandfather. "Sometime today, and with any luck, by tomorrow she'll be on her way back to Boston."
"Shame she had to fly all the way here to have you sign papers you could have faxed in."
"You know Mom. A stickler for details." Jake shook his head and hopped off the fence, his battered brown boots sinking into the soft dirt of the corral. "She wants the papers notarized and the assistant's a notary."
"Handy," Ben said. "But then, your mom's always been a thorough one."
Thorough. And stubborn. There was a part of Jake that still didn't believe his mother had given up on luring him back to Boston. But whether she had or not didn't really matter, did it? He wasn't going anywhere. Montana was his home. His sanctuary. Damned if he'd give it up.
Cassidy Moore's hands hurt after an hour of gripping the steering wheel tightly enough to make her knuckles white. Driving up a mountain was more harrowing than she would have thought. Maybe if the narrow road had been straight rather than curved with the occasional sharp right-angle turn, it wouldn't have been so bad. But those curves were there and so was the steep drop off the left side.
If she had known the kind of drive she was letting herself in for, she would have tried to rent a tank at the airport in Kalispell rather than the four-wheel-drive sedan she was currently driving.
"But then," she told herself, "a tank never would have fit on this road."
Seriously. The people who built the darn road couldn't have made it a little wider? Every time another car came toward her, she winced in anticipation of a horrific crash. The only good thing about this drive was that it wasn't the dead of winter. "Imagine dealing with this road in snow!"
Just the thought of that gave her cold chills. Ordinarily, she probably would have enjoyed this drive through the mountains, with the bright splashes of fall color on either side of her. But the threat of imminent death sort of took the fun out of it.
Cassidy was out of her element and she knew it. Born and raised in Boston, she had never been west of the Massachusetts border. She was used to busy highways, crowded streets and stoplights every block. In her world, tall buildings created shadowy canyons in the city and the sound of honking horns ensured there was never any quiet to be found. Still, she'd be fine. She was only here for the night, and tomorrow she'd be flying back to Boston with the signed paperwork her boss needed.
She pulled off the narrow road and followed a graveled drive up a sharp incline. When she came out from beneath the arch of trees, she simply stopped the car, turned off the engine and stared.
My son refuses to leave his little ranch, her boss had said. So you'll have to go to him and get these papers signed.
Shaking her head, Cassidy got out of the car, her heels shifting precariously on the gravel beneath her feet. She did a slow turn in place, letting her gaze sweep across her surroundings before finally coming back to land on the "little ranch." There was nothing little about it. Granted, the only experience Cassidy had with ranches was what she'd seen on late-night movies. But this was no ordinary place. Jake Hunter's home was a mountain palace.
Two stories tall, the main house was wood and glass, with floor-to-ceiling windows on each story that would provide a wide view of the lake below. Pine trees huddled close to the house, so that it looked as though it was actually a part of the landscape rather than an intrusion. There were other, smaller houses scattered across the property, no doubt for the employees who worked here. Lucky them, Cassidy thought, since she couldn't imagine driving up and down that mountain every day for her commute. "Hello, young lady."
Surprised at the deep voice coming from directly behind her, Cassidy spun around so quickly, one of her heels caught on the gravel and her balance went wobbly. The older man snapped one hand out to take her arm to steady her.
"Didn't mean to startle you," he said, giving her a slow smile.
He was in his seventies, but his eyes were sharp and clear and his skin was like old leather from years spent in the sun. His smile was warm and the chuckle beneath his words was kind.
"Sorry," she said, holding one hand out. "I didn't hear you come up. I'm Cassidy Moore."
He took her hand in his and gave it a firm shake. "You're Elise's new assistant." Nodding, he added, "I'm her father, Ben Hawkins."
"She has your eyes."
His smile got wider. "My eyes, but thankfully she got everything else from her mother, God rest her." He took a step back and said, "You're here to see my grandson."
"Yes," she said, grateful for the quick change of subject. "I've got some papers for him to look over and sign "
"My daughter's a fiend for paperwork," he said, then waved one hand. "Come along with me, I'll take you to Jake."
She glanced at her car, thinking about her purse lying on the front seat, but then she realized that this wasn't Boston and a purse snatcher wasn't going to reach in and grab anything. So she followed Ben Hawkins, taking careful steps that didn't come close to matching his long, even strides.
Cassidy had dressed to impress and now that it was too late, she was rethinking that. She wore black slacks, a white dress shirt and a cardinal-red waist-length jacket. Her black heels added an extra three inches to her measly five-foot-four frame, and in the city that gave her extra confidence. Here, walking on gravel, she could only wish for the sneakers tucked into the bottom of her bag.
But first impressions counted, and she'd wanted to come across as sleek and professional to her boss's son. So she'd find a way to maneuver over tricky ground and make it look good while she was doing it.
"It's a beautiful place," she said.
"It is that," the older man agreed, slowing his steps a bit. "I lived my whole life here, but in the few years Jake's been in charge he's made so many changes sometimes I look around and can't believe what he's done in so short a time."
She looked at him. "You sound pleased by that."
"Oh, I am." He winked at her. "I know most old men don't care much for change. But far as I'm concerned, if you're not changing, you're dead. So when Jake came to Montana for good, I turned over the ranch to him and said, 'Do what you want.'" Chuckling again, he added, "He took me up on it."
Smiling, she decided she liked Ben Hawkins.
"He started right out building the new ranch house," Ben said, waving one hand at the spectacular building on their left. "Designed it himself and even did a lot of the construction on his own, too."
"It's beautiful," she said, throwing another glance at the gorgeous house.
"It is," he agreed. "Too much house for a man on his own, though."
"On his own?" She frowned a little. "Don't you live there, too?"
Ben laughed. "No, I live there."
He pointed at one of the smaller buildings, and she noted that it did look older, somehow more settled, than the newer structures around it.
"It's the original ranch house and for me, it's home."
They approached a corral and Ben took her elbow to steady her as she stepped off the gravel onto soft dirt. Her heels sank and she grimaced, but her gaze was caught on the cowboy riding a big black horse around the interior of the corral.
The cowboy looked as comfortable in the saddle as she was in a desk chair. Animal and man moved as one and Cassidy stepped closer to the rail fence, mesmerized as she watched their progress. There was a cold wind blowing, yet she hardly noticed the chill as she kept her gaze fixed on the man on the horse.
"That's my grandson, Jake," Ben told her. "I'll let him know you're here."
Ben walked off but Cassidy didn't see him go. Instead, she studied the cowboy even more closely. And she realized why it was that her boss hadn't been able to convince her son to move to the city. A man that at home on a horse would never be happy in a city of concrete and cars. Even from a distance there was a wildness to him that intrigued her even as her mind whispered for caution. After all, she wasn't here to admire her boss's son. This visit was not only going to be brief, but strictly business as well. Which didn't mean, she assured herself silently, that she couldn't admire the view.
Ben whistled, sharp and short. Jake looked up, then looked to Cassidy when his grandfather pointed her out. She saw his features tighten and she told herself it didn't matter. But as he rode closer to her, she took a single step back from the corral fence.
Were all horses that big?
Jake Hunter swung down and leaned his forearm on the top rail of the fence even as he rested the toe of one battered boot on the bottom rung. Cassidy swallowed hard. Close up, he was even more intriguing.
Black hair, mostly hidden beneath his hat, curled over the collar of his brown leather jacket. His eyes were so blue and so hard, they looked like chips of ice. Black beard stubble covered his jaws and his mouth was thinned into a straight line. His jeans were faded and worn, and over them, he wore a pair of soft, light brown chaps that seemed to hug what looked like very long, muscular legs.
A swirl of something warm and intimate rushed through her and Cassidy took a deep, deliberate breath of the cold mountain air, hoping it would help. It really didn't.
"You're not what I was expecting," he said and his voice was a low rumble.
She could have said, yeah, same to you. But she didn't. This was ridiculous. She was here to do a job. This was her boss's son for heaven's sake, and standing there ogling him like an idiot was so not the kind of impression she had planned to make.
"Well, I'm pleased to meet you anyway," she finally said and held out one hand.
He glanced at her outstretched palm for a long second or two, then reached through the fence and took her hand in his. An instant zing of electricity shot up her arm to settle in her chest and send her heartbeat into a wild, hard gallop. Oh my. Only here for ten minutes and I am using horse metaphors.
Releasing her, Jake took off his hat and speared his fingers through his hair. Which only made things a little worse for Cassidy because really, did he have to have such beautiful, thick, shiny hair?