Cade Covington is struggling with turning his family's beloved ranch into a tourist attraction. It's not just the mortgage big enough to choke a horse, or the invasion of his home by strangers. It's also the arrival of a city slicker PR professional who doesn't understand ranch life and puts every beautiful woman he's ever seen to shame. Cade wants her.
With her company on the line, Emma can't afford any mistakes. Especially if that mistake is a broad-shouldered, blue-eyed cowboy who drives her crazy with hunger. But all it takes is one small wager and their chemistry explodes. When the dust settles, will Emma have obliterated her career or captured her cowboy?
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The black, horseshoe-shaped bootjack sat just inside the front door. It served as a subtle but unmistakable reminder to all who entered the Bar C's main house that cowboy boots came off right there. If the boots, or the cowboy in them, went any farther than the foyer, that cowboy would find himself wielding a broom and a mop, courtesy of the lady of the house.
Cade Covington notched his left boot heel in the jack and tugged his foot free, repeating the action with his right. Standing in his stocking feet, age-old instinct had him looking down to see if they had holes. The action made him grin unexpectedly, as memories settled over him, thin as late-morning mist.
Not since his mother died more than nineteen years ago had shoe removal been a house rule. But Reagan Matthews had resurrected it the moment she'd moved in with the eldest Covington son and Cade's older brother, Elijah. Didn't matter that the house was owned equally by all three brothers. Reagan had taken over the majority of the household chores and thereby set the place to rights as only a woman ever could, turning house into home, and she'd lain down the law.
Cade had grumbled at the time because his easy acceptance would've been suspect. It was no secret he resented change, particularly in his personal life. But his dislike of mopping floors far exceeded "resentment." He hated that particular chore. So he'd deal with this particular change.
The major ranch renovations were a different story. His personal comfort level was currently parked in another countyin a neighboring state, in fact. The project was almost done, and as soon as the last nail was driven and the last plant planted, the results would set in motion massive, unimaginable changes in everyone's lives.
Cade had gone along with the initial suggestions months ago as a last-ditch effort to keep Eli involved in the ranch again, as a desperate measure to reestablish the lost relationship with his older brother, as an effort to fill the aching void Eli's absence had wrought when he'd left the ranch years ago.
And there was also the money aspect. The three brothers and Reagan, at her insistence, had taken out a mortgage on the ranch. Land they'd owned free and clear, land that had been in the Covington family since before New Mexico had officially been a state, now held a milliondollar-plus mortgage on it.
The idea brought Cade to an unsteady stop. A million dollars. He'd never thought to see that kind of dollar figure attached to his name in any way, let alone as debt. Always the brother most focused on fiscal security, his hand had shaken so hard at the bank signing, he'd screwed up the paperwork. Twice. But it was done. Finding another way forward wasn't an option anymore. No, his "option" was more door-be-damned "obligation." The Bar C would be a successful dude ranch or they'd lose it all. Forcing himself to stand, Cade continued through the living room and headed for the kitchen, stockinged feet padding softly over worn hardwood floors.
Food first. Worry later.
If he was lucky, Reagan might have packaged the leftover enchiladas she'd made for dinner last night. She was awesome about stuff like that, the nurturing, thinking ahead, meal planning. All that and more, really. After his old man died, when it had just been Cade and his younger brother, Tyson, living at the house, mealtimes had been fend-for-yourself events. They'd considered it a good day if they came up with something that couldn't be mistaken for a mold culture, wasn't seriously outdated or hadn't suffered such severe freezer burn it was rendered unrecognizable. Survival had depended greatly on peanut butter sandwiches or, if either of them finished their day and wasn't too tired to boil water, one man might have put in the effort to cook spaghetti noodles and open a can of eighty-eight-cent sauce. Those days were over, though.
One change that's been pretty good overall
He grinned and shook his head. Keep up that kind of positive attitude and people would begin to wonder if he'd suffered a head injury. Not that he was negative, just realistic. The smile faded as quickly as it had shown. Cade was very, very realistic.
Hinges squeaked obnoxiously as someone opened the front door and let in the sound of bullwhip-like cracks of hammers striking nail heads. Sporadic pauses were punctuated by supervisors' shouted directives and the crew's answers. Then the door closed, muffling construction sounds that had, in their own unique way, become white noise over the past eleven months.
And every nail driven home brought them one step closer to completion.
The idea they'd be moving on to the next phase, actually opening the Bar C as a dude ranch to paying customers craving an "Old West experience," rattled Cade yet again. Strangers wandering around what had, for so long, been his private sanctuary. Strangers who would spend their vacation riding his horses and learning to be cowboys for a week before returning to their real lives with jobs that paid well and allowed them to live in the suburbs. They'd drive expensive SUVs and enroll their kids in all sorts of activities. Both husbands and wives would work long hours at jobs they hated in order to fund the lifestyle they'd become accustomed to living. To Cade, it was as foreign a way to live as his day-to-day life was to the same folks he'd be catering to.
Sweat dotted his hairline, a bead of moisture trickling down his temple. He swiped at it with frustration. "Suck it up, buttercup. You signed on for this. From money to mayhem, you knew what the end result would be." Cade entered the bright kitchen at the same time his stomach let out a sonorous rumble.
"You miss breakfast?" Eli asked, moving into the galley from the opposite doorwayhe must have been the one who opened the front door. It didn't escape Cade's notice his brother had been reduced to socked feet, as well.
Cade pulled the fridge door open. "Got an early start this morning and wasn't at a place I could stop when the breakfast bell rang." Moving contents around, he grinned when several plastic containers of individually portioned enchiladas came into view. A glance over his shoulder revealed a sheepish grin on Eli's face. "If I didn't know better, I'd believe someone tried to hide these."
"No idea what you're talking about."
"Liar." Cade pulled out two servings and tossed them into the microwave, shut the door and hit Reheat. He faced his brother and leaned his hip against the worn Formica countertop. "Before you go thinking I'm being generous, both of these are mine. Course, I ought to take yours from the fridge as well, just because you're such a selfish old man, hoarding the cook's goods."
Eli's brows drew down in a mock scowl. "Hey. She's my woman. You and Ty may benefit from it, but technically she's cooking for me."
Cade burst out laughing, fighting to regain control before he answered. "Man, I dare you to tell her she 'belongs' to you. Or, even better, tell her she's cooking for you. Go on. You might even tell her what she should fix for dinner tonight or that you hate the fabric softener she uses. I'll stand near the phone in case someone has to call in the paramedics, Life Flight or, you know, the National Guard."
Eli's grimace was exaggerated but probably appropriate all the same. "Yeah. I'm not about to say any of those things. Woman's wicked with a blade and a crack shot. She'd probably shoot me in the ass only to 'volunteer' to remove the slug without any kind of numbing agent."
"No, I'd probably shoot you both in the ass and let the wounds fester before I removed the slugs," a feminine voice answered. The woman under discussion strolled into the kitchen, long hair swinging from her high po-nytail. Reagan moved straight into Eli's embrace, their lips touching briefly, then lingering over the kiss.
Cade's chest tightened. He'd never dated much, hadn't considered it a priority, and now he couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to have the kind of intense intimacy Eli and Reagan had, the kind that would survive life's fiery trials and rise from tribulation's ashes stronger and surer. Nothing could tear these two apart now.
It didn't bother him that they'd reconnected after Eli found his way home. What ate at Cade was his personal reaction to their undisguised, unguarded happiness. That kind of thinglove, he supposed, if he had to name itdidn't fit anywhere in his life's plans. It never had. Had he been wrong to take that path?
The microwave beeped, and Cade shook off the melancholy before retrieving the leftovers. Hot plastic burned his fingertips, forcing him to juggle the bowls. He tossed them on the counter before grabbing a fork and paper towel. He pulled the lid off the nearest container, forked up a large bite of enchilada and shoved it in his mouth. Less than a second later he was reaching for the fridge, intent on grabbing the first cold thing he found. Milk. He twisted the cap off and drank straight from the plastic jug, swallowing rapidly but still spilling it down the sides of his face and soaking his shirt.
"Hot?" Eli asked, the laughter in his voice undisguised.
Cade lowered the jug, glaring at his brother. "I won't taste anything for a week."
"Sucks to be microwave challenged."
Blowing through his nose, Cade flipped his brother off even as Reagan closed in on him.
"How bad is it?" she demanded, wrapping a hand around his neck and pulling him down so she could examine his mouth and throat.
"Not that bad." He pulled against her grip, but she refused to let go.
"Let me see, Cade. No reason to fight me on this if you're sure it's nothing."
Cade closed his eyes and shook his head. "I'm fine, Reagan."
"I'll be the judge of that."
He extricated himself, stepping away. "I burned my mouth, but my brain's only singed. It'll be fine. I'll just finish up and get to work."
She tucked her thumbs in her jeans' pockets. "Whatever suits you."
Eyeing her warily, Cade forked up another bite but blew on it for a good bit before sticking it in his mouth. "Like I said, that would be getting back to work," he said around the food.
Eli pulled Reagan into his arms again, settling her against his chest. "What's on your schedule this afternoon?"
Cade shoveled the food in faster.
"It's not so much this afternoon as it is the next couple of weeks that'll be hell. Got news this morning the interior decorators won't be here with their semi-truck load of furniture until the day before our first guests arrive. Means we'll all have to pitch in to assemble what isn't already put together. Then we'll have to get the rooms set up, beds made, that kind of stuff."
Reagan's eyes widened slightly. "That's cutting it pretty close."
"There's absolutely no room for error, but there's no other option," he muttered around his last mouthful of lunch. "Can't make them get here any faster. I tried." He tossed the container and fork into the sink, the loud clatter startling in the heavy silence.
Reagan stepped out of Eli's arms and began rinsing the dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. "We're having a group lesson on loading the dishwasher soon."
Cade grimaced. "Sorry."
She waved him off. "I actually came in because I wanted to follow up with you guys on the invitations I sent out for the inaugural cattle drive. Anyone have the head count as of today's mail run? I haven't heard from the PR company since Friday. I swear, we need to invest in better internet service. We could've handled all this so much faster than with rural post."
"It's Sunday. Mail doesn't run," Cade offered.
"You know it's bad when you don't even realize what day it is anymore," Reagan grumbled.
Eli moved toward the small built-in desk. "Paper invitations are more personal. That's what Michael Anderson, our contact from the public relations firm, advised, and we're paying a pretty penny for his professional opinion. Regardless, I can give you the head count as of last night." He pulled a worn Day-Timer his way. Absently flipping through several pages, he stopped and did a quick tally. "We have confirmations from twelve of the fifteen, and one regret. Leaves us waiting for the last two responses."
Cade rolled his shoulders. Eli had won the argument about hiring a PR firm. Cade wasn't sure why they'd paid the company so much money to put together a freaking guest list, but he'd given up the argument, keeping his mouth shut about that at this point. "Hard to believe that the moment all those folks show up, the Bar C won't exist anymore."
"She will," Eli countered fiercely. "She always will. She's ours." He dropped his head to his chest. They stood in the ensuing silence, each of them surely lost to their own thoughts. Then his chin snapped up. "It's like introducing her with a pseudonym for publicity purposes. She deserved something catchy, and Lassos & Latigos Dude Ranch is perfect for those who haven't met her yet."
Closing his eyes, Cade let his head fall back. "I still can't believe you guys took me seriously on that name. I was joking."
"It is sort of catchy." The smile in Reagan's voice rang clear.
"So, about the guests who haven't responded?" Cade asked. "Do we chalk them off or plan on them showing up unannounced on opening"
The phone rang, the jangle of the old bell ringer loud enough to nearly knock Cade out of his socks.
Reagan jerked her chin toward the phone. "Grab that, would you? My hands are wet and Eli's lost in the guest list again. Could be a verbal RSVP."
He hesitated, the idea of talking to a "guest" somewhat daunting.
Then he yanked the phone's receiver off the wall.
The gruff voice infused that one word, an alleged greeting, with undisguised caution, throwing Emmaline Graystone off guard. "Hello?"
In the background, dishes clattered in a sink.
Did Michael give me the wrong number? Emma glanced at the invitation, and then checked the display on her smartphone. Nope. Right number.
Her business partner had handled this account save for a couple of phone calls she'd taken in his absence. For those, she'd talked to a man named Eli. He'd been cultured, polished and incredibly professional. This was clearly not the same man.
"Hello?" that deep male voice repeated, his impatience impossible to misinterpret.
"Hello hi. Um, I'm " She blew out a soft breath and squared her shoulders. "This is Emmaline Graystone. I'm with Top Priority Publicity, the public relations firm hired by Lassos & Latigos to guide the ranch through it's inaugural"
"I'm well aware of what your firm has been hired to do, Ms. Graystone. But I was under the impression Eli had been dealing with a man by the name of Michael Anderson."
"Michael is the firm's vice president and has been handling the account, yes. But he's involved in another project where the opening date was unexpectedly moved up and has left him pressed for time. With your grand opening quickly approaching, I offered to take over your account."
"You familiar with our account?" The Voice asked.