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Christmas With the Billionaire Rancher
Billionaires Club: Texas Heartthrobs
By Mandy Baxter
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Mandy Baxter
All rights reserved.
"I'm so sorry for your loss, Nate. Your father was truly an extraordinary man."
Nate Christensen stared blankly at the shriveled-up raisin of a woman who'd offered her condolences and then down at her hand clutched tightly over his. Huh. He hadn't even noticed her reach out. "Thanks." What else could he say? That his father had been extraordinarily good at chasing tail for a man his age? That to his sons, he'd been about as extraordinary as vanilla ice cream? Byron Christensen had cared for little else than his money. That and a string of ex-wives that would make Hugh Hefner jealous.
He was sure the pruney old gal meant well but the fact was, Nate and his father hadn't been close in a long time. He'd barely said five words to the man since the day he'd left for boot camp seven years ago. And now he was dead. Looked like they weren't going to have any sort of heartfelt reconciliation now. Not that he'd wanted one.
The parade of mourners and well-wishers carried on. The ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas was decorated for the season: bright twinkling lights, garlands, and ornate Christmas trees scattered throughout. You'd think tonight's dog-and-pony show was some sort of holiday gala, not the somber "celebration of life" it had been touted as. Nate gave the same mechanical canned response to each person who offered their condolences. In the corner of the ballroom, wife number five dabbed at her eyes with a Kleenex. He had to give it to Miranda, her acting skills had gotten better since he saw her last. Trolling for sympathy with her red, swollen eyes and downturned mouth, the only people who paid her any mind were the crowd of old hens near the buffet table who gossiped with glee about Byron's child-bride widow and the fact that she wasn't going to see a red cent of his billions.
"How you holding up?" Nate's younger brother Travis held a plate piled with gourmet buffet food in one hand. He stood six inches taller than Nate and his hours spent conditioning showed in his bulk. He was one of the largest goalkeepers in the NHL, as quick on his feet as he was tough. One of the rock stars of pro hockey, he looked the part with his shaggy hair and edgy designer clothes. He had a reputation for being an irresponsible party boy and notorious player, and while some of it was true, Travis could be counted on when it mattered.
Nate was sick of everyone walking on eggshells around him. As though his mental state simply couldn't handle the blow of losing their dad. "I'm fine." It's not like his dad had been blown to shreds by a mortar shell or some shit. The man died of a heart attack. And everyone knew that he'd been exerting himself over Miranda when the big one hit. "I just want this extravaganza to be over so I can get the hell out of here."
Travis snorted. "This is only the beginning."
Wasn't that the fucking truth? Nate and his three brothers were set to inherit Byron's kingdom. The oil magnate was worth billions. And as the oldest brother, Nate was in charge of the estate. "I don't want a dime of it." He brought the bottle of beer to his lips and drank deeply. "You can have my share."
"I don't want your share." Travis had more than enough of his own money. As the starting goalkeeper for the Dallas Stars, he was set. So was Travis's twin, Carter. Though they were identical in height and bulk, Carter was the epitome of the clean-cut, all- American athlete with his conservative dress and short-clipped hair. He'd just been traded to the Cowboys for a fat paycheck after they'd lost their star QB to the Seahawks when he went free agent.
"Fine, I'll give it to Noah." No doubt he'd be appreciative of a fatter inheritance check to supplement his salary as a county sheriff.
"What makes you think I want it?" Noah stepped up to him, arm outstretched, and handed over a fresh bottle of IPA. "Here. You look like you could use it."
No one could deny the Christensen brothers' parentage. They were all basically carbon copies of their dad. And while Noah was closer to Nate's height and not quite as bulky, they all shared the same towering frames and dark brown hair. Their hazel eyes were the only trait they'd inherited from their mother and Nate often wished that when he looked in the mirror, he didn't see so much of his dad staring back at him.
As a self-made man, Byron Christensen had adhered to the belief that it would build character in his sons to give them absolutely nothing. No financial support, no leg up with his extensive connections ... And he hadn't stopped there. He'd been less generous with his affection. After their mom's death when they were only kids, they'd basically fended for themselves. And now that the old man was dead, he was giving them his fortune. They'd gone without it for so long, none of them was interested in it now.
Maybe they'd all built a little character after all.
"I'd bet his only concern was making sure she didn't get it." Travis jutted his chin to where Miranda sat.
"I'm sure she expects everyone to feel sorry for her," Noah said. "As though she deserves something for putting up with him. And — OMG — she still married him after he made her sign a prenup!"
Nate snorted at Noah's mocking tone. His dad had had the nerve to actually invite him to the wedding, as if Nate hadn't packed up his shit and run from that fucking bullshit as fast as his legs could carry him. In fact, he couldn't get far enough away from his dad and had already been on his way to basic when the invitations went out. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan ... Nate had traveled halfway around the goddamned world and it still hadn't been enough to wipe the memories of his father's betrayals from his mind.
He shook himself from unpleasant memories. "What was that?" Carter had said something to him, but he wasn't tracking.
"I said, the girls are getting antsy and I should probably take them home."
"Oh, yeah. Sure. You don't need to stick around. Get out of here."
Carter's wife, Stephanie, had died of cancer last year. It tore Nate up to think of his brother trying to get over losing the love of his life — they'd been high school sweethearts — while juggling football and five-year old twins. That was a tragedy. The people at his father's tribute acted as though Byron kicking the bucket was some unthinkable, sudden catastrophe. Sixty-eight years old with a bad heart, an affinity for scotch and cigars, and a twenty-eight-year-old wife. Hell, it was a wonder he'd lasted this long.
"If you need anything, let me know."
Nate should have been the one offering Carter help, not the other way around. Awesome. He was the family fuck-up. The emotionally unstable war vet who hid out at his ranch so he wouldn't have to deal with real life. "I've got it under control," Nate said. He could assemble an AR-15 in less than ten minutes. Running an oil empire couldn't be much harder.
"All right. I'll call you tomorrow."
"Sounds good." Nate watched as Carter headed toward the buffet tables where his daughters, Jenny and Jane, were running in a circle with a few other kids.
"Gird your loins, brothers," Travis said out of the corner of his mouth. "The grieving widow is headed this way."
Great. If Nate's brothers didn't want his share of his dad's fortune, he bet he could convince Miranda to take it off his hands.
"Don't even think about it." Noah pinned Nate with an accusing stare.
"What? You don't want it. Carter and Travis don't want it. Why not give it to her? I'd say she earned it."
"She deserves shit," Noah said. "Besides, she's getting the house. And the cars."
"Maybe she needs some cash, too."
"Not a chance. She's a deceitful, lying money-grubber and nothing else. She'd party it away in a matter of weeks. Take the money, Nate. I'm not saying you have to be the CEO of Christensen Petroleum or some shit, but you deserve it more than she does. Hell, as much as any of us does."
Nate took a long pull from his bottle. "I don't need it." He had all of about seven hundred bucks in his checking account right now. But he didn't want his life — or the people in it — to be defined by the numbers in his checkbook. Never had.
"Buy a few more cows. Hell, get a tractor. Make that sorry excuse of a ranch into something that might actually turn a profit."
"Wouldn't that violate dad's make-your-own-way policy?"
Noah cocked a brow and fixed Nate with a sad smile. "Doesn't matter now. The old man's gone."
* * *
Chloe Benson had done some crazy things to get her hooks in a high roller's checkbook, but crashing a memorial service was a new low even for her. She didn't have time to debate the morality of getting in line for a handout when Byron Christensen's body hadn't been in the ground for even a week, though. This was her eleventh hour. And if she couldn't get her hands on some serious cash by Christmas Eve, she was as good as screwed.
Desperate times called for desperate measures.
She scanned the crowd in search of Nathan Christensen. According to the gossip mill, the oldest Christensen son was looking to off-load the substantial inheritance his father had left him. Speculation on the reasons why ranged from Nathan being mentally unstable to a falling out with his father years ago. Chloe didn't care why he didn't want the money. She simply wanted to be first in line when he started handing it out.
A small crowd gathered around a group of men and Chloe moved in. The Christensen brothers were infamous for being the black sheep of Dallas high society. The rumor mill had speculated for years about why the brothers hadn't entered into the family business and why they never showed up at events, the country clubs, or any of the other places where the elite hung out to pat each other on the back. Two of the brothers were pro athletes, the other a sheriff a few counties over. As for Nathan, he was the blackest sheep of all. He'd run off and joined the Navy. Rumor had it that Byron hadn't even known when his son returned home. Talk about estranged ...
Through the press of well-wishers and ass-kissers, Chloe caught sight of him. At least, she thought it was him. The picture of the brothers in the Dallas Morning News had obviously been several years old. The man she was now looking at resembled that guy. But he was older. Bigger. And projected a hardness that Chloe swore she could feel in the center of her chest. Probably a tough nut to crack. Fortunately for her, she wasn't one to back down from a challenge.
Chloe made her way toward the brothers, taking note of the fact that the accumulated net worth of the people here was enough to buy a country or two. Hell, with the politicians they all likely had in their pockets, it was safe to say they owned this country. Chloe had played to crowds like this for years. The rich and powerful loved to have their egos stroked. Unfortunately, she'd made the rounds and most of these people had already given her the cold shoulder — Byron included — which was why she had her sights set on Nathan Christensen. He didn't want his newly acquired wealth. She did. It was a win-win situation.
"I just loved him so much, you know?" Chloe stopped short of her goal. She recognized the woman fake-crying into a pile of tissues as Miranda Christensen, Byron's widow. Decked out in a sexy black dress, she looked better suited for a cocktail party than a memorial service. "I gave him the best years of my life, Nate! How could he leave me nothing?"
Best years of her life? She was twenty-eight, for crying out loud. A year younger than Chloe. Nathan — Nate — listened to her rant with a stoic expression. With shuffling steps, Chloe sidled in closer and hid her curiosity behind the lip of her wineglass.
"He didn't leave you without anything, Miranda. You got the house, the cars, and I know for a fact you've got a bank account with plenty of cash in it."
"I'll have to sell it all," she sniffed. "Do you know how expensive it is to maintain a house that size? What was Byron thinking?"
Chloe was pretty sure he'd been thinking with what resided down south.
"Just consider my offer, okay, Nate? I loved Byron. And I was there for him at the end."
Oh, I bet you were. Chloe snorted a little too loudly. Right underneath him.
Miranda whipped around, her dark eyes glistening as she narrowed her gaze. The former social climber threw off enough shade to make Chloe wish she'd worn a sweater. Nate Christensen turned his head in the direction that Miranda directed her anger. Chloe froze and clutched the wineglass closer to her mouth to keep it from falling open. Up close, Nate Christensen was absolutely breathtaking.
Tall, and with a body packed with muscle that seriously stress- tested his dark gray dress shirt, he stood out among the crowd of leisurely wealthy. Dark brown hair brushed his brow in the front and the sides were buzzed short, giving him an edgy look. His nose looked as though it had been broken at one point, a tiny bump below the bridge that gave it away. Sharp cheekbones accentuated his full lips and strong jaw. But none of those godlike features held a candle to his eyes. The most beautiful shade of hazel she'd ever seen, and clear as a river in midsummer.
Chloe had never been the sort of woman to get weak in the knees over a good-looking guy, but holy crap. She wobbled on her stilettos as if the shock of his gorgeousness had temporarily disrupted her motor skills. Heat rose to Chloe's cheeks and the flush spread down her neck. Her heart rate kicked into gear and fluttered against her rib cage at the same time her stomach decided to crawl up her throat. Heat continued to swamp her as she studied him, her attraction almost embarrassing in its intensity. Guys like Nate Christensen hung out with supermodels. Willowy, bottle blond socialites. Starlets. Guys like that didn't date overworked charity administrators who didn't have the time for a walk let alone a personal trainer, and the hips and belly to prove it.
While Miranda and Nate continued their conversation in hushed tones, Chloe waited for an in. She usually had time to prepare, to research the fat cat she was about to butter up. Byron Christensen's death had been sudden, and the only information she had on his oldest son was that he'd been estranged from his dad for years. That and he had no interest in his family's wealth. Fine by her. She was more than willing to take some of that money off his hands. All she had to do was convince him that she deserved it.
"That money should be mine and you know it, Nate. Call me tomorrow and let's talk."
Chloe nearly choked on her chardonnay as Miranda brushed a hand along his arm and gave Nate a flirty smile in parting. Really? At your husband's memorial service? Byron Christensen's widow was klassy with a capital K. Nate watched her go, his expression an impassive mask that gave nothing away. He shifted his focus and that inscrutable hazel gaze locked with Chloe's. A shiver of anticipation traveled from her head to her toes as he studied her. Chloe had never felt more devoured by a simple glance and it wasn't altogether unpleasant. A renewed rush of heat spread from her abdomen, lower. She took a deep breath, held it in her lungs. And let it all go in a rush.
It was now or never. Time to make her move.CHAPTER 2
Nate turned toward the woman who'd been eavesdropping on his conversation with Miranda. He'd meant to intimidate her, to stare her down until she got the fucking message that he wasn't about to let some rich-bitch Dallas party girl spread any more gossip about him or his family. Whatever he felt about his dad or Miranda, it was his business and no one else's.
God, he was already so sick of this bullshit.
His gaze locked with hers and he prepared to give her his best fuck-off glare. Instead, Nate simply stared. His blood heated as he took her in. Pinup gorgeous with rich auburn hair, full lips, and a curvy figure that filled out her business-casual outfit in all the right ways. Her full breasts practically spilled from the open lapels of her shirt and the generous curve of her hips made Nate itch to reach out and grip them. He clamped his jaw down to keep it from hanging open as a rush of pure lust shot through his bloodstream. She hit every single one of his yes please! buttons and his dick perked up like a hound scenting fresh game. He didn't even know who she was and he wanted her. Their eyes locked and rather than look away, she met his gaze with a brazen challenge that fanned the flames of his mounting libido.
Nate forced himself to appear impassive when what he really wanted was to reach out and touch. A woman like that could bring a man to his knees and Nate was more than up to showing her what he could do for her from that exact position. Rather than tuck tail at his forced stoicism, she squared her shoulders and stepped up to him. Ballsy. And not at all what Nate expected.
"I'm sorry about your father," she said without preamble. "But between you and me, he could be a real ornery bastard."
Excerpted from Christmas With the Billionaire Rancher by Mandy Baxter. Copyright © 2015 Mandy Baxter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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