BACK IN THE SADDLE
Gage Remington needs a place to start over, and Durango, Colorado, is it. By reconciling with his rancher grandfather, Gage hopes he can begin repairing past damage. It doesn't occur to Gage that his heart needs fixing, too, until he meets gorgeous doctor Cori Parker. And he's sure his troubled past will send the single mom running.
Since her husband's tragic accident, Cori's been focusing on her family. Though she's deeply attracted to the banker-turned-buckaroo, Gage is a wild card, and Cori can't let anyone bring her life crashing down again. Still, she realizes Gage's finally ready to be the manand the cowboyhe always wanted to be. But will Cori be part of his future, or one more regret from his past?
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"I'll get the bags," Gage Remington told his grandpa Buck as he pulled into the last available parking spot. On any other occasion Gage would never drive his expensive car over gravel and dirt, but he'd spent the past thirty minutes trying his best to find parking in town and he was at his wits' end. Gravel would have to do.
"Don't be treating me like I'm an invalid," Buck said, as he swung open the passenger door on the black Mercedes. "Just 'cause you ain't seen me for the past five years, don't mean I deteriorated into some feeble old man. There might be snow on my roof, but there's still a fire burning inside. I can roll a dang suitcase up the sidewalk."
"It's your call, Grandpa. I was just offering."
"Thanks, but I'm fine."
It had been a stressful drive into Durango from Albuquerque, New Mexico, the closest town with a major airport, where they'd met to drive in together. It had taken four long hours and Gage was already second-guessing his decision to spend some quality time with his grandfather.
Gage had worshiped his grandfather when he was a kid, and had spent three weeks every summer with his grandparents on their ranch just outside of Briggs, Idaho, a quirky little town that Gage had loved. It had been the single event he'd looked forward to all year long. His grandma always said they were like two peas in a pod. That Gage was simply a younger version of his gramps. Gage had loved the comparison and tried his best to imitate his gramps.
Not only had his grandfather taught him how to saddle up and ride a horse, but he would spend hours teaching him how to do a chore the proper way, how to be patient with a bucking horse, how to listen to someone's complaint with an open heart and how to suck it up when something unfortunate happened. He shared his beliefs that the common folks had the ability to change a society for the good, that the rising tide lifted all boats, and that you never asked a cowboy to ride a horse you wouldn't ride yourself. But the one truth Gage remembered most was how "sometimes it takes something bad to happen to a person before that person can bring out his best."
When Gage was a kid, his grandfather's wisdom hadn't always meant much, but now, after everything he'd gone through in recent months, Gage wasn't so sure his best would be good enough.
He wished he had spent more summers on the ranch, but once he'd gotten into college and later graduated, he landed a high-paying job on Wall Street. Soon after, he'd gotten married and begun moving up the corporate ladder. There wasn't any time to visit his grandparents. Even when his sweet grandmother passed away two years ago, he hadn't been able to make the funeral due to all his obligations, a decision that still haunted him.
He had been all set to go, even bought the plane tickets for himself and his wife, but then at the last minute his boss had offered him his weekly spot with Tricia Massey, dispensing Wall Street Wisdom to her millions of fans. His boss had had a conflicting obligation and was depending on him to step in with Ms. Massey on her TV show. Gage had talked it over with his wife and concluded it was the chance of a lifetime to take his career to the next level, so he simply couldn't pass it up.
His grandfather never quite forgave him.
Now Gage was trying his best to rekindle that shredded bond and make it up to him. So far, it didn't seem to be working. Ever since his grandma had passed, his grandfather had turned into a recluse with attitude. Gage knew this trip would be difficult.
He never imagined it would be impossible.
Gage slipped out of the car, and popped open the trunk. Before he could say another word Buck had pulled out his suitcase, tugged up the handle and was headed for the Strater Hotel a block away, leaving Gage in his dust literally.
Not only were his black jeans now covered in white powder, but a pickup truck had sped through the lot, shooting up stones and dust that now covered Gage from head to toe. Even his new cowboy hat, which he'd carefully placed on top of the suitcases in the trunk, showed a fine sprinkling of white.
"You go on ahead, Gramps. I'll be right behind you," Gage yelled to the spunky older man who had somehow managed to get to the sidewalk before the pickup had roared through the lot.
His grandfather never turned around or acknowledged Gage. He just kept walking toward the hotel.
"Fine," Gage mumbled to himself, then slammed the trunk closed without taking out his bags. No way did he want to go up to the room with Gramps to get settled in. "Oh, yeah, this was a good idea. What the heck was I thinking?"
He locked the doors and headed down the street, some twenty-five feet behind his grandfather, grateful they were no longer stuck together in the car. For the past four hours they'd barely spoken, and when they had, Gramps disagreed with just about everything, even the type of gas Gage should use in his own car.
What he needed now was some time away from him at a barpreferably a crowded barto make him forget that he was spending the next two weeks with the man.
In the same hotel.
In the same room.
Attending the same convention.
Thankfully the convention only lasted a few days. After that, instead of "seeing the sights," they could each return home if they so chose. And if Gage had anything to say about it, they would leave tonight.
Gage walked toward the Strater Hotel, which happened to be located in the historic section of downtown Durango, Colorado. Fortunately, right there on the bottom floor of the grand old red Victorian brick hotel and seemingly not connected to the lobby where his grandfather was no doubt dutifully checking in, was a noisy old-time saloon named The Diamond Belle.
As soon as Gage approached the entrance, the sound of honky-tonk piano filled his ears. He opened the screen door to discover a large crowded room with agreeable-looking people enjoying a late afternoon fermented beverage.
Gage had stopped drinking alcohol six months ago, right after his wife had asked him for a divorce. He still longed to partake, but knew he would merely enjoy the atmosphere of a tavern and save the hard liquor for some other time.
The mix of familiar sounds and smells put a smile on Gage's otherwise weary face as he entered the colorful old-time room.
He immediately made his way to the one open spot at the impressive oak bar and ordered a tall glass of soda water with three limes from a male bartender who looked a lot like he'd just stepped out of a Western movie.
"Been a long day?" a woman with raven hair that curled down her back sitting on the barstool next to him asked.
"Way too long," he said without really looking at her. He wasn't exactly in the mood for small talk.
The bartender delivered his drink and Gage guzzled half of it down.
"Well, at least it's over," the woman told him, her voice low and sexy.
He placed the glass down on the cocktail napkin and turned to face her, thinking he'd find a way to brush her off and move on down the crowded bar to a better spot where he wouldn't be required to speak.
As soon as he saw her face, his stomach tensed and he knew his ability to ignore her would be difficult. Not only was she beautiful, with that silky hair caressing her lovely face and those amazing gray eyes staring up at him, but she had a smile that changed his mind about walking away.
Instead, he said, "Actually, it's only just begun."
"Something you still have to do?"
"Two weeks' worth of somethings."
"Ouch! That's a long time to be miserable."
He needed some sympathy at the moment, and this goddess in blue jeans seemed to be saying all the right words.
"Might be, but for now, sitting here talking to you, I'm feeling a whole lot better."
He hoped she would stick around for a while, at least until he finished his soda. She was easy on the eyes, and after staring at his grandfather's sourpuss face for the past several hours Gage could feel his disposition changing for the better.
"Glad I could help," she said, her voice enticing enough to make him imagine things he shouldn't be thinking about. Especially since he'd made a promise to himself to steer clear of women until he figured out what the heck he wanted to do with his life now that his divorce was officially final.
It had been one of those messy divorces and had caught him completely off guard. They had been talking about having a baby and buying a bigger place when his wife of four years had sprung it on him during a dinner party at her parents' house. She confessed that she had fallen out of love with him and "didn't like who he'd become," as her dad plated the pot roast. Her two older brothers and their wives were seated around the table as she made clear her intentions. His wife had never liked to do anything major without her family present, and announcing that she wanted to jettison her marriage had apparently been one of those major moments.
Needless to say, the dinner hadn't gone well after that, at which her mom had literally cried, not because of the pending divorce, but because she had worked all day in the kitchen preparing the perfect pot roast and a seven-layer cake that was "to die for."
The memory of that dinner party still stung as Gage watched the woman on the bar stool next to him flip her silky hair over a shoulder and blink those steel-gray eyes, as a warm smile creased her seductive red lips.
Oh, yeah, she was way too easy on the eyes.
He drank down more of his soda and once again thought about moving to another spot. And once again she changed his mind.
"You have no idea."
He wanted to tell her all about his recent divorce and his voluntary extended leave from his lucrative nine-to-five to go on some misguided nostalgic trip with his grandfather in order to reconnect with his youth. But getting into the details of his sordid life was not something he had ever enjoyed doing.
Instead, Gage switched his thoughts back to his grandfather. "I'm thinking the relationship might improve if I try a little harder."
"By 'relationship,' are you talking about a relationship with a woman?"
Gage shook his head. "No. I'm through with women for a while." He sucked in a deep breath and slowly let it out. "What I mean to say is, my main focus at the moment is on rebuilding a relationship with my grandfather."
She took a sip of her red wine, and he noticed her dark red manicured nails. They screamed city girl.
"I take it that's not working out either."
He shook his head. "Not really. He hates me, and I'm beginning to think he has just cause. I haven't been a very good grandson lately."
Gage stared into those big eyes of hers. "You cut right to the chase, don't you?"
"Only because you seem to want to talk about it."
He hesitated. Baring his soul had never been easy for him and he wasn't about to start stripping for a stranger, albeit a beautiful, intuitive stranger.
"Maybe some other time."
"So you don't want to talk about it?"
"Not really. No."
She smiled. "I'd ask you if there was any way I could help, but under the circumstances, you may get the wrong idea."
He chuckled. "What, you mean because you're sitting on a bar stool, and you're offering me comfort?"
He leaned into the bar and turned toward her, a smirk on his face. "Okay, if it's not that kind of comfort then tell me what you're offering?
"A shoulder to cry on. Sometimes it helps to vent. No judgment or advice involved."
He gazed at her shoulders covered in the crisp white cotton shirt that hugged her petite body, black hair tumbling down the front of her, hiding full breasts, and a delicate gold necklace fastened around her neck sporting a rather large square-cut ruby. He wondered if the ruby had been a gift or if she'd bought it for herself. Either way, it told him she liked the finer things in life. It was a trait his ex-wife lived for and had kept him addicted to, making more and more money for the entire four years they were married.
"I wouldn't want to get those pretty shoulders of yours all wet," he told her.
"It's a warm day. A little moisture might cool things off a bit."
"Are you always this friendly to strangers, or am I the exception?"
"You have kind eyes. Makes me think you're a good man."
"Not very. People I love seem to end up hating me."
"Hate's a strong word." She sipped her wine. "You're too charming for anyone to hate you."
A great big grin captured her face and he about melted. The woman was all allure and style too bad he wasn't interested. This trip was about his finding his soul again, rekindling a relationship with his grandfather, going back to his roots, remaining sober and deciding what he really wanted out of life. Those were the important things.
It most certainly was not about hooking up with a captivating woman he'd met in a bar.
"You don't know me. I could be a terrible person."
"A little misguided perhaps, but definitely not terrible."
"How can you be so sure?
"It's right there in your eyes. Besides, I'm a good judge of character."
Gage turned his back to the bar, to get a better look at his judge in cowgirl boots. "And what kind of character do you see in me?"
"It's your demeanor, and the fact that you're covered in dust. I'd say you just parked in the dirt parking lot behind this hotel. You seem a bit shaky, so I'm going to guess you're coming off a long drive with your grandfather. And, for some reason, you and he have a strained relationship that you're trying to mend, thus the sparkling water and not a beer or something stronger to hamper your reactions. That makes you a stand-up kind of guy."
Gage was stunned. "What are you, some kind of psychic or something?"
She laughed. "Not exactly, I just went through almost the same experience with my grandmother. Note the dust on my boots."