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In one hundred feet, turn right onto access road," the stilted voice of the rental car's GPS intoned.
With a deep breath for courage, Tracy McCain signaled the turn. She noted with interest that the car ahead of her on the isolated stretch of rural Oklahoma highway also made a right onto the side road leading to the sprawling ranch of cattleman John "Big J" Colton.
More interesting were the three cars that followed her onto the long driveway, including a television news van complete with a satellite dish on top. What the heck was going on at the Lucky C ranch today?
The iron gates, normally requiring someone at the main house to buzz you in, stood agape, allowing the parade of cars to continue up to the house unimpeded. As Tracy passed through the stone-walled entry, she noticed the Lucky C logo, an upright, good-luck horseshoe with a C inside, atop the posts on either side of the iron gate.
She hoped the logo boded well for her. She could use a bit of good luck today for her mission. From what her cousin had told her, the Coltons were a stubborn bunch, hard-nosed and highly protective of their family and their business.
Tracy wiped her sweaty palms on the legs of her slacks as the string of vehicles rolled closer to the ranch buildings, past acre upon acre of prime grazing fields. She looked for a place to pull off and park as they approached the main house, but, trapped between the SUV in front of her and the news van behind her, she had no real choice but to pull right up the drive to the front door of the Colton mansion. Laura had told her the Coltons were wealthy, but the glorious estate before her sent a fresh roll of trepidation through her. Holy cowor maybe she should say holy cowboythe place was big
She knew how David must have felt going up against Goliath. What were the odds that she, an unemployed widow, a down-on-her-luck nobody with only a tenuous right to the claim she wanted to stake, could hold sway with the mighty Coltons?
She glanced at the snapshot of a small boy that she'd laid on the passenger seat, and her spirits lifted. Seth was worth the effort. And she owed Laura. Big time.
When the line of cars stopped on the cobbled drive in front of the stone-facade mansion, a man in a white button-down shirt and black pants yanked open her driver-side door.
Tracy gasped and shrank away as he stuck a hand toward her. "Wh-what are you doing?"
He flashed a lopsided grin. "Offering you a hand out. We cowboys are raised to be helpful to ladies."
thanks, but no." She glanced around at the manicured lawn. "Where should I park?"
She jerked a startled look back to the dark-haired man, who either had a head start on his summer tan or an enviable heritage lending him his copper-toned skin. "Pardon?"
Had she been recognized as an interloper? Was she being dismissed even without getting to state her case?
The cowboy chuckled and wiggled his fingers, indicating she should get out of the car. "Parking is my job today. But don't worry. I drive cars as well as I drive cattle. I won't scratch it."
A car horn blasted behind her, and another man in a white shirt leaned out of a vehicle behind her and shouted, "Come on, Daniel. Schmooze the ladies on your own time, man. You're holding up the line!"
The cowboy-valet at her door smiled at his cohort and deliberately scratched his temple with his middle finger. Offering his hand to her again, he said, "Ma'am."
With a nervous grin, she grabbed her purse off the floor and took his callused hand to slip out of the rental car. As the valetDaniel, the other man had called himclimbed behind the wheel, she remembered her messenger bag. "Wait! I need that."
She pointed past him to the passenger seat. But instead of the bag, he zeroed in on her snapshot. He picked up the photo with a curious frown. "Hey, isn't this?"
She snatched the picture, drawing a deeper scowl from him. "My bag. Please."
Daniel retrieved the satchel and handed it to her, along with a small piece of paper. "Write your tag number on this and give it to whoever's manning the front door when you're ready to leave. Someone will bring your car around."
With that, he closed the door and sped away.
"But I don't know" She quickly shifted her attention to the rental car's license plate and caught the first few digits before her valet-cowboy turned out of the circular drive and headed toward the back of the property. As she crossed the driveway, headed for the front door, she stuck the photo in her purse, then fumbled for a pen to write the plate numbers down.
Tracy joined the stylishly dressed reporter and bored-looking cameraman from the news station, climbing the decorative concrete steps to the front door. The reporter knocked on the dark wood door inset with an ornate glass window. While they waited for an answer, Tracy practiced in her head what she would say when she confronted her cousin's ex. Honesty was a good policy, but how open would the Coltons be to her proposal, if they knew her past? She didn't have long to mull over the question, as the door was answered quickly by an effusive older woman with a dark bob.
"Veronica Hamm, KRQY News," the reporter said, offering her hand.
"Of course! I'd know that pretty face anywhere!" the woman at the door gushed, ignoring the proffered hand and swooping in for a girlie hug and air kisses on each cheek. "Come in, come in! I'm Abra Colton. Thank you for coming."
Tracy's stomach flip-flopped. Abra Colton. Seth's grandmother. As matriarch of the Colton clan, Abra could be key to whether Tracy was accepted by the family or not.
Their hostess waved the cameraman and Tracy through the door without so much as a "hello." Abra clearly had use only for the newswoman, and she continued buzzing over her like a bee to the sweetest rose. "The media room is to the right at the back. We'll have our big announcement in just a little while." She hooked arms with Veronica, ignoring Tracy and the cameraman as she walked the reporter into the house. "In the meantime, help yourself to the buffet out by the pool, and a glass of champagne. Big J and I ordered cases of the best bubbly from France for the occasion!"
As the cameraman trailed after Abra and Veronica like an obedient puppy, Tracy lingered awkwardly in the entry hall. She glanced around at the high ceilings, marble floors and triple arches leading into the formal living room, and her pulse picked up speed.
How had Laura walked away from all this grandeur and wealth? Seth clearly had a better life here than what she could have offered, but leaving her son behind had been harder on Laura than she pretended to the Coltons. She'd done what she had because she'd wanted the security and opportunity that a life with his father could afford Seth.
"A little less ogling and a little more giddy-up if you don't want to get separated from the rest of your crew."
Tracy gasped and spun to face the man who'd spoken. She found herself staring up into the bright green eyes of a cowboy with broad shoulders, shaggy chestnut hair and a somewhat surly expression.
Her mouth dried as she held his level stare. He had the rugged good looks Laura had said the Colton men all shared, and a commanding presence that made Tracy's toes curl in feminine appreciation, despite his less than welcoming greeting.
not with the news crew."
Tall, Dark and Sullen grunted. "In that case, the food is out by the pool. Eat up, 'cause your hostess spent as much on that buffet as two pure-blood, registered breeding bulls would cost at auction." With that, he strode away, his gait brisk and confident, and disappeared into the crowd of guests.
When the doorbell sounded a few seconds later, Tracy was still standing in the foyer, gaping at the spot in the mingling crowd where the devilishly handsome but curt cowboy had joined the soirée. A woman wearing a housekeeper's uniform and her silver hair twisted up in a bun scurried out from a side door and balked when she saw Tracy.
"For Pete's sake, don't just stand there, girl!" The older woman flapped her thin hands as if to shoo her out of the entry hall. "There are guests to serve and drinks to be poured. Get busy! Don't make me report you to the catering company."
Tracy gave a self-conscious chuckle. "I'm not with the caterers. I'm looking for"
The woman jostled her out of the way to open the front door. Tracy's opportunity to ask for directions was lost as the housekeeper greeted the arriving guests with enthusiastic smiles and hospitality.
Rather than continue to stand at the door like a bump on a log, Tracy sidled into the living room. She clutched her messenger bag close to her body to avoid jostling anyone or knocking over one of the numerous champagne flutes resting on trays in the exquisitely furnished room. Dressed in basic khakis and a simple print blouse the same caramel color as her hair, she noted that she was underdressed for whatever event the Coltons were celebrating. Feeling all the more out of place, and hoping to camouflage herself against the French-vanilla walls, she began inching her way through the clusters of guests.
Maybe she should just leave. Clearly, now was not the time to approach Jack. She was an uninvited interloper at a high-society event. She didn't belong. Story of her life.
Sighing with resignation, she'd started weaving her way back toward the front door when a large, boisterous man with a thick shock of silver hair caught her arm.
"Hey, little darlin'. Whatcha doin'?"
"II'm sorry. I was just leaving."
"Leaving? Hell, darlin', the party's just getting started good."
She recognized the green eyes that flashed at her with mirth. Tall, Dark and Surly's eyes had mesmerized her with the same bright emerald shade, and the gruff cowboy could be this flirtatious gentleman in thirty years
if he added this man's playful smile.
"Why is your hand empty? You should have a glass of bubbly. This is a celebration, darlin'!" He snagged a glass of champagne off a passing tray and shoved it at her. "Bottoms up!"
"Oh, I'm not" She stopped short as she realized who this animated man was. She'd seen his picture when she'd researched the Lucky C on Google before coming to Oklahoma. "You're Big J! I mean.J-John Colton."
Though John laughed and nodded amiably, she felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment. Great. She'd just called one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the ranching industryheck, in all of the United States' agribusinessby his nickname. Way to make a good first impression
"Yes, I am, darlin'. Yes, I am." He took a step back and gave her a slow once-over that brought the stinging flush back to her cheeks. "And who might you be? I believe I'd remember meeting you, if I'd ever had the pleasure."
"Tracy McCain. I'm actually here to speak to Jack. Can you point me toward him?"
"I could, but
I'm still enjoying your company." The older man winked. "Besides, Jack is probably hiding somewhere until time for the announcement."
Big J gave her a you've-got-to-be-kidding look. "Greta's engagement. That's why we're all here lifting a glass."
"Oh." Tracy fumbled for anything Laura might have told her about Greta.
But Big J seemed oblivious to her mental catch-up and helped her out by adding, "It's not every day a daddy gets to toast his only daughter getting hitched, so we went all out for my Greta."
of course. Greta was Jack's sister. The youngest of the Colton children. Tracy smiled and raised the glass John had foisted on her. "Well, here's to Greta."
"To Greta!" Big J clinked his glass with hers, so hard the contents of both drinks sloshed out.
Without warning, he gave a shrill whistle, startling Tracy so much that a shot of adrenaline raced through her, tripping her pulse.
"Brett! C'mere, son." Big J waved someone over, and a tall, athletic-looking man with short brown hair separated himself from a circle of cloying women and strutted across the room.
Tracy goggled as he approached. Dear God, did the Coltons have an account at hunkycowboys
com? She had yet to meet one who didn't look as if he'd walked off the pages of a hot-ranch-hands catalog.
Big J put his hand on Brett's shoulder when he reached them, and jerked his glass toward Tracy. "Brett, my boy. This lovely filly is Tracy McCann."
"I am going to leave her in your good hands," Big J continued, as if he hadn't heard her correction. "She's looking for Jack. But before she talks to your brother, I think she needs something to eat."
"No, really, I'm not here to eat. I just need to speak to Jack." Tracy's stomach chose that inopportune moment to growl. Thankfully, the din of the party conversation and background country music muffled the sound.
Brett took her hand and, rather than shaking it, merely left his fingers wrapped warmly around hers as he gave her a smile that twinkled in his trademark Colton-green eyes. "My dad's right. You don't want to meet my brother on an empty stomach. Besides, the brisket is so tender it will melt in your mouth. Follow me."
He tugged her hand as he led the way out to the pool, where a small acoustic band was playing the country tunes she'd heard inside. Brett steered her to a buffet table piled high with beef brisket, rolls, fresh fruit, veggies and dips, cheeses of all types, and an array of the most sumptuous-looking desserts Tracy had ever seen. Her mouth watered, and she decided it would be a good idea to have at least a little something to eat. She and Brett both picked up plates and started down the buffet. "Wow!"
He chuckled. "I know, right? Abra knows how to put out a spread, huh?" He used the tongs from a tray of cheeses to pile sliced beef and bite-size meat pastries onto Tracy's plate. When melodic laughter drifted to them from a small group by the desserts, he called, "Hey, Ryan, save some of those brownies for the rest of us."
"You snooze, you lose," a muscular man with telltale green eyes marking him as another Colton quipped. "Greta said I could have hers."
The brunette woman beside Ryan elbowed him. "I said you could have mine, not the rest of the tray!"
Brett hitched his head toward the group. "Tracy, have you met this crew? My brother, Detective Ryan Colton of the Tulsa PD, and of course, the honorees, my baby sister, Greta, and her fiance, Mark You-Better-Be-Good-to-Heror-I'll-Kick-Your-Ass Stanton."
The russet-haired man next to Greta laughed as he offered his hand to Tracy. Brett's face sobered, and he gave Mark a squinty-eyed glare. "I'm not joking, man."
Greta shoved her brother's shoulder. "Brett, stop trying to intimidate my fiance, you big goof."
Brett grinned broadly. "Yeah, okay." But when Mark smiled in relief, Brett blanked his face again in an instant and raised an eyebrow. "But I mean it."
"I already warned Mark that I know a hundred ways to kill a man and hide the body without being caught," Ryan deadpanned.