Sam exuded a powerful presence, like a man who was used to getting what he wanted or taking what he couldn't have. And when he set his sights on Caroline, she knew she was out of her league and about to bed down with the real boss.
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Tie-One-On Bar and Grill was known for two things: earsplitting country music and beautiful female patrons. Sam Beaumont indulged in both. He sat at a corner table in the honky-tonk listening to Toby Keith's latest, while eyeing a tall blonde up at the bar. She'd caught his attention the minute she walked in. The thing of it was, the Texas bombshell had stared back at him with interest, then spent a minute deep in conversation with the bartender before grabbing two Coors and walking over to him.
"I need a man," she said, with a shake of her head. Her long locks gyrated right back into place. She set the two bottles down on the table and gave him a good long assessing look.
"Chuck over at the bar says you might be interested." He surveyed the leggy blonde, sweeping a leisurely look over her body. She was beauty-queen pretty, but Sam had seen more than a fair share of pretty women in his day. No, it was something in her eyes that spoke to him, a guarded look he knew too well. It was that vulnerability, even as she stood there brazen as all hell, claiming she needed a man, that intrigued him.
Sam sipped his beer slowly, keeping her waiting, and a surge of something he hadn't felt in nearly a year traveled through his veins. An unhurried rush, a tingle of awareness that he had believed long buried, surfaced.
That, in itself, was enough for him to send the woman packing. He didn't want to feel anything. Not ever again.
"So are you?" she asked. "Interested?"
He swept her a look. "What'd you have in mind?" Even through a layer of smoky haze and dim light, he couldn't miss her face color to tomato red, but the woman seemed determined. She slid into the booth at the same time she slid a beer his way. "I need a month's work, for a month's wages, room and board included. Chuck vouched for you. He said you're looking for work."
He sipped his beer and thought about the events that had brought him here. The CEO of a major construction company on the run, not from the law, but from his own guilt-ridden past — Sam was running from things he could no longer face. He didn't need the cash, but hell, staying real busy kept those agonizing thoughts at bay. And Sam needed that, almost as much as he needed his next breath.
"Maybe." He surprised himself with his answer.
Truth be told, he wouldn't mind staying in one place longer than a week. So far, nobody had caught up with him. And he wanted to keep it that way. When he'd left his CEO position with its staggering responsibilities and his old life behind, he'd called his younger brother Wade occasionally, at his insistence, but Sam had never disclosed his location. Trust only went so far. He needed running room and manual labor to keep his tortured mind from remembering.
"I'm Caroline Portman." She held out her hand and Sam took it. Well, hell, he wasn't in the habit of shaking hands with women. But her handshake was firm, even though her skin was soft as butter.
"I'm kinda desperate for help right now, so you can take advantage of me, but only just a little."
She smiled briefly, and he noted two dimples peeking out from both corners of her mouth. Like he said, beauty-queen pretty. He felt another unwelcome surge travel through his body.
"I've got one month to get my place up and running. It's hard work and long hours, but I can pay well."
"What kind of work?"
Sam cursed himself for asking. He'd pretty much determined that those sparks he felt a moment ago weren't anything he wanted to feel again. He'd spent the better part of this year numb to the outside world. Keeping the status quo was essential. If those tiny sparks nudged away the numbness to any degree, then he'd never survive. He'd have to say no to pretty Miss Caroline Portman.
"I'm rebuilding my stables. The place sort of went downhill, and, well, I'm planning on bringing it back up to the way it was before, uh, before..."
She stopped, blinked several times, biting down on her lip, unable to get the words out. It wasn't an act — he'd had enough experience to know when someone was downright lying. The lady had choked up, and Sam saw the heartache there, the pain she tried so bravely to hold back.
He didn't want to know. He'd had enough grief of his own to last a lifetime. Hell, he'd been drifting for months, heading from one Texas town to another, trying to forget, and that was what kept him going. The forgetting.
He liked this town. Hope Wells reminded him of the place he'd been raised since the age of five, a small friendly place where life was simple and fair. But looking into Caroline Portman's eyes, maybe he needed to amend the fairness part. Sam knew that life held more unfair uncertainties than sometimes a man could take.
Or a woman.
Damn if he didn't love horses. Rebuilding a stable and working with horses again appealed to him. He had spent his young life around ranches. He knew a thing or two about livestock and would enjoy the work, but he still didn't think this a good idea.
Caroline blinked her big baby-blue eyes.
Sam rose from the table, finishing off his beer.
"Thanks for the offer."
Stunned, the blonde sat there wearing a disappointed look.
He set a few bills on the table and strode out of TieOne-On. If nothing else, meeting Caroline Portman had added a little spice to an ordinary day.
He walked along the sidewalk, heading toward the motel adjacent to the honky-tonk. He'd almost made it to his room, but a shuffling sound from behind alerted him. He spun around.
"Wait up, Mr. Beaumont!"
Caroline Portman walked briskly toward him. Out of breath and flustered, she looked even sexier, like a woman who'd just had a wild night. Sam envisioned putting that look on her face and his momentary slick-hot fantasy made him shudder.
She came up to face him. "I need to know — why?"
"Why?" Sam kept walking, but at a slower pace. She stayed with him. "Why did you refuse my offer?"
"I don't recall telling you my name," he said, as old instincts kicked in.
"It's a small town. I know a little about you. You're here looking for work, aren't you?"
"I'm offering you a job."
"Yep." He kept walking until he reached his motel room. He leaned against the door to face her. Moonlight streamed onto her form like a spotlight and Sam noticed the snug fit of light-blue jeans and a chambray shirt with some sort of rhinestone work on the chest. Not gaudy, but with style, the color bringing out the true blue in her eyes. She was a woman who didn't flaunt what she had, but yet she couldn't conceal the perfection of her body. "Don't men say no to you very often?"
Caroline blinked and shot him a stern look. "Men say no to me all the time, Mr. Beaumont, but that's not any of your business. I know you're looking for work. The man I had lined up broke his leg, and now I've run out of time. Seems to me we could make some sort of arrangement."
He glanced at his motel door, raising his brows. "Not that kind of arrangement," she hurried out. Sam chuckled.
She folded her arms and waited.
Sam pursed his lips. He admired this kind of determination. Damn, if he wasn't the biggest kind of fool. "I need to know something first."
He pulled her into his arms, and leaning back against the door he brought her with him. She was too stunned to protest, so he did what he'd wanted to do the minute he'd laid eyes on her. He kissed her.
It wasn't long, and it wasn't sweet, but rather a deep exploration of lips meeting and mating. Sam steeled himself against her honey-soft mouth. He braced himself against the onslaught of holding a beautiful woman in his arms. He breathed in her female scent, some fruity fresh concoction that reminded him of a lazy summer day, and willed his body not to react. It didn't. Not in the least. Relieved, he released her immediately. He'd learned everything he needed to know.
He stared into furious blue eyes. "I accept the job."
Caroline smiled with sugary sweetness and stepped out of his arms. "Good, because now I can fire you, Mr. Beaumont."
Morning dawned way too fast for a woman who hadn't slept a wink. Caroline Portman rose from bed, dressed quickly and went out to the kitchen to make breakfast. Her head ached and her eyes burned, but she couldn't afford to waste any more time. She had work to do. And keeping busy kept her from thinking about Annabelle, her sweet five-year-old, who she had unselfishly sent off to Florida for a vacation with her grandparents.
How she missed her daughter. She and Annabelle had never been apart. But Caroline's mother and father had insisted on taking Annabelle home with them, especially as they lived just minutes away from every child's fantasy come true, Disney World.
Her parents' offer had come once they'd heard Caroline's plans to refurbish the stables. They had given her their blessing, backing her up one hundred percent. Her parents knew what the stables had meant to her, and how much it had hurt her that her ranch had been run down nearly to ruin. She'd given up her heart and her trust to the man she'd married and he'd abused both. He'd run her livelihood into the ground, putting her so much in debt that she'd only just now surfaced in the black again.
Gil Portman hadn't the mind for business. He'd entered into one bad deal after another, running up bills that he couldn't pay, then trying to recoup the loss by entering into one dubious deal after another. The last one had been investing in a shady stud-service scheme that had nearly bankrupted them. Caroline had been busy raising Annabelle, placing her trust in her husband, but she'd learned a hard lesson with Gil, and she'd never place her life or her livelihood in the hands of another man again. Caroline had vowed when Gil had run off, abandoning his family, that she'd never allow a man to run roughshod over her good intentions again. She knew better now. She could only rely on herself and her two very loving, supportive parents.
Edie and Mike Swenson knew that their daughter would need time alone to achieve her goals without a five-year-old distracting her. They wanted the ranch to succeed again, because they knew that the ranch meant stability for Caroline, but it also meant something more. It meant independence. Caroline needed both now, for herself and for her daughter. Her parents hadn't flinched, but had stepped in, offering to help with her little bundle of energy. And, as they'd put it so tenderly, they'd missed seeing Annabelle. Spending time with their granddaughter would be good for all of them.
Caroline had finally relented, agreeing to let them have Annabelle for one month. In that time, she planned to work harder than she'd ever worked to get her stables back up to par. She'd come up with a new name to signify all the changes she'd planned to make. Annabelle Star Portman would be excited to know that Portman Stables would now be known as Belle Star Stables.
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