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In most situations, twenty-nine-year-old Claire Olander had no problem standing her ground.
The only two Texans who could weaken her resolve ambled to a halt in front of her. In perfect synchronization, the "negotiators" turned their faces upward.
Her niece, Heidi, pushed the halo of short, baby-fine blond curls from her face and tucked her favorite baby doll under her arm, football-style, so the head faced front. "How come we have to clean up our toys now, Aunt Claire?" the preschooler demanded.
Her twin brother, Henry, adjusted his plastic yellow hard hat with one hand, then gave the small wooden bench he was "fixing" another twist with his toy wrench. His amber eyes darkened in protest as he pointed out with customary logic, "It's not dinnertime!"
Claire wished it was. Then the business meeting she had been dreading ever since the bank auditors left to tally their results, six weeks ago, would be history. Aware there was no use worrying her nearly four-year-old charges, she smiled and tidied the stacks of papers on her desk one last time.
Everything was going to be all right. She had to keep remembering that. Just like her late sister, Liz-Beth, she was more than capable of mothering the twins and managing the family business they'd started. "We are cleaning up early, kiddos, because we have company coming this afternoon," she announced cheerfully. In fact, the Big Bad Wolf should be here at two o'clock.
Heidi sat down cross-legged on the floor, placed her doll, Sissy, carefully across her lap, and began stuffing building blocks ever so slowly into a plastic storage bin. "Who?"
Claire knelt down next to her, and began to help, albeit at a much quicker pace. "A man from the bank."
"Can he hammer stuff?" Henry demanded.
Claire surveyed the two children who were now hers to bring up, and shrugged. "I have no idea."
Heidi paused. "What can he do?" she asked, curiously.
"Manage a trust." Destroy my hopes and dreams
Henry carefully fitted his wrench in the tool belt snapped around his waist, and sat down beside Heidi. "What's a trust?"
"The fund that's going to pay for your college education one day."
"Oh." He looked disappointed that it wasn't something he could "repair" with his tools.
"Is he our friend?" Heidi asked.
Claire fastened the lid on the building blocks bin, and put it on the shelf in her office reserved for the twins' playthings. "I've never met him, honey. He just moved here a couple of weeks ago." She'd heard a lot about him, though. The newest member of the Summit, Texas, business community was supposed to be thirty-three years old, to-die-for handsome and single, a fact that had the marriage-minded females in the community buzzing. Fortunately for Claire, she was not one of the group jockeying for attention. She had her hands full with her fledgling business and the twins she had inherited from her late sister and brother-in-law.
"Is he going to have good manners?" Henry, who'd lately become obsessed with what to do and what not to do, inquired.
"I'm sure Mr. H. R. McPherson is very polite," Claire said. Most bankers were.
Heidi put Sissy on her shoulder and gently patted her back, as if burping her. Her brow furrowed. "What's H. R. McDonald's?"
"H. R. McPherson, honey, and those are initials that stand for his first and middle names." Claire could not blame him for using them on business correspondence, even if it did make him sound a little like a human-resources department. "Although," she observed wryly, shelving the last of the toy train cars scattered about, "who would name their son Heath-cliff and Rhett in this day and age, I don't know."
"As it happens," a low male voice drawled from the open doorway behind her, "the hopeless romantic who came up with that idea was my mother."
As the sexy voice filled the room, it was all Claire could do to suppress her embarrassment. Talk about bad timing! She'd just mouthed off about the man she could least afford to insult.
Slowly, she turned to face the interloper.
The ladies in town were right, she noted with an inward sigh. Tall, dark and handsome did not begin to do this man justice. He had to be at least six foot four inches tall, and buff the way guys who worked out regularly were. Nicely dressed, too, in a striking charcoal-gray business suit, navy-and-gray-striped shirt and sophisticated tie.
His midnight-blue eyes glimmering with amusement, he waited for her to say something.
Flushing, Claire flashed a smile. "This is awkward," she said.
She took in the chiseled features beneath the thick black hair, the straight nose, the eminently kissable lips. "And you're early."
He shrugged and stepped closer, inundating her with the compelling mixture of soap, man and sun-drenched November air. "I wasn't sure how long it would take me to find the ranch." He extended his hand for the obligatory greeting, then assisted her to her feet. A tingle of awareness swept through her.
"I didn't think you'd mind," he added cordially.
Claire probably wouldn't have, had she not been down on the floor with the kids, speculating inappropriately about his lineage, at the exact moment he'd walked in.
Ever so slowly, he released her hand, and she felt her palm slide across the callused warmth of his. She stepped back, aware she was tingling all over from the press of skin to skin.
"You can call me Heath," he told her.
She swallowed nervously. "I'm Claire." Aware of the little ones taking refuge at her sides, she cupped her hands around their shoulders and drew them closer, conveying that they would always be safe with her. "And this is Heidi and Henry, the beneficiaries of the trust."
Heath shook their hands solemnly. "Pleased to meet you, Heidi. Henry, nice to meet you also."
"Pleased ta meet you!" the twins echoed, on cue.
Claire grinned, happy her lessons on manners were sinking in.
"So when do you want to get started?" Heath asked in a more businesslike tone.
"Just as soon as their sitter arrives," Claire declared, glad he was putting them on more solid ground.
Fortunately for Heath, that wasn't long in coming. A pickup truck parked in front of the office and a petite woman, with cropped salt-and-pepper hair, got out. Claire introduced Mae Lefman, who, with a warm smile, led the children out of the office.
Through the double hung windows that fronted the ranch office, Heath watched them go. "Nice place you've got here," he remarked.
He knew, of course, that the Red Sage Guest Ranch and Retreat had been in the Olander family for several generations, and that oil had been drawn from the ground, until the wells all went dry.
Claire's dad had dabbled in ranching and worked to restore the property to its natural state. Claire and her late sister and brother-in-law had figured out yet another way to earn a living from the twenty-nine-thousand-acre spread.
Which was why he was here.
Heath braced himself for what could be a very unpleasant meeting. Tensing visibly, Claire Olander gathered the flowing folds of her chiffon skirt close to her slender legs and sat down behind her desk. She wore a dark-green turtle-neck sweater, the same hue as the floral pattern in her skirt, and a charcoal-gray corduroy blazer. Soft leather boots peeked out from beneath the hem of her skirt.
Her hair was the same wildly curly honey-blond as her niece's and nephew's, the shoulder-length strands pulled back from her face in a clip on the back of her head. Silver feather earrings adorned her ears.
She was a fair bit shorter than he was, even with the three-inch heels on the bootsmaybe five foot seven. Slender. Feminine. Sexy in an innocent, angelic way. She was also stubborn. He could see it in the feisty set of her chin and the determined look in her long-lashed amber eyes.
Claire Olander was used to having things her own way.
And that, Heath knew, could be a problem.
He sank into a chair opposite her. "As you know, I've been recently assigned by the bank to administer the trust your sister and her husband left for the twins."
"Right. The banker who was doing it retired from First Star Bank of Texas a few weeks ago."
Heath nodded. "As trustee, my duty is to protect the financial interests of the kids. I'm concerned. The results of the audit were not good."
This was, Heath noted, no surprise to Claire Olander. She held up a slender hand. "I'm aware the health of the business could be better, but I've only had the guest cottages up and running for the past eight months."
He had noted how shiny and new everything looked when he drove in. "Orrin Webb, my boss at the bank, told me you opened after the death of Liz-Beth and Sven."
With sadness flooding her face, Claire turned her attention to the scenery outside the window. "This was our dream. Neither of us wanted to sell the ranch. Nor were we interested in trying to run cattle here, the way our dad did."
"It's my understanding that you inherited all the surface improvements on the propertymeaning the ranch house and the barnand your sister was bequeathed the mineral rights."
"The latter of which are worth nothing, since the wells here were pumped dry forty years ago."
"The land is owned jointly and can only be sold in one piece, if all parties agree."
Heath consulted his notes. "You and your sister had equal shares in the guest-ranch business."
Again Claire nodded.
"Heidi and Henry received all their parents' assets upon their death, all of which remain in trust."
Heath looked up again, as determined to do his job as she was to do hers. "Wherein lies the problem. The trust needs to be generatingnot losingincome. The results of the annual audit in September show that the business is in the red."
"Some months it's in the red, others it's in the black. For instance, we were fully booked most of June, July and half of August."
Heath had known she was going to be difficult. "What about now?" he pressed.
Her shoulders stiffened. "What do you mean?"
"How many of the twelve guest cottages are rented?"
Claire flushed. "Thanksgiving is two weeks away."
"That doesn't answer my question."
She let out an aggravated breath and shot him a challenging look that in no way detracted from her femininity. "Right now, we have three of the cottages rented. Mr. and Mrs. Fingle-stein from upstate New York are here for two weeks. They're avid birders. Ginger Haedrick is here until the house she is building is ready to move intothat may not be until Thanksgiving week, though she'd like to get in sooner and is pushing the builder along. It might workGinger is one of the real-estate brokers in the area."
"I've met her." She seemed ambitious, almost ruthlessly so. "She came by the bank to give me her business card, and offered to find me a place to live as soon as my townhome in Fort Stockton sells."
"And then we have T. S. Sturgeon, the mystery writer, who's here on deadline, trying to finish a book. I think she'll be at least a few more weeks, but again, it all depends."
"Which means you have a quarter of the cottages rented," he stated.
"How are the bookings for the holidays?"
Claire Olander pursed her incredibly soft-looking lips. "Does it matter? It seems you've already made up your mind that the Red Sage Guest Ranch and Retreat is a failure."
"I didn't say that."
Eyes flashing, she took a deep, bolstering breath. "Your questions implied it."
Silence thrummed between them.
"Here's the bottom line." Heath tried again. "If nine months pass and the trust is not productivenot turning a profitsomething must be done. The mineral rights could be sold, for example."
"No!" She cut him off, her voice unexpectedly sharp.
"Or a portion of the business."
"Absolutely not!" She vaulted to her feet.
Heath stood, too. He put his notes away. "Look, I'm aware this is a lot to digest. You've got two weeks to think about it. In any case, on December first, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, I am going to have to make some changes."
"What if I can get the bookings up and demonstrate that the business will start turning a profit immediately? Would that change things?"
Heath nodded. "Definitely. The trust doesn't have to be making a large profit, Claire. Particularly if there is potential for a lot of growth in the long run. There just has to be some."
She shrugged and planted both hands on her slim hips. "Well, then, I'll make it happen."
Trying hard not to notice how the preemptive action had drawn her sweater and blazer against her breasts, Heath said, "Speaking of vacancies
What would you think about me renting one of the cabins for the next few weeks?"
Claire froze, regarding him suspiciously. "The ranch is a twenty-five-minute drive from town."
Heath told himself he was not doing this to help her out financially. Nor was he doing it because she was treating him in a way that young and beautiful women never did. "I don't mind the commute," he told her with a challenging grin. And he liked the peace and quiet of the ranch. Liked the backdrop of rough granite and wild meadows, the mountainous backpacking terrain. This, he thought, was southwest Texas at its best.
He'd only been out here half an hour and he could see why she was so determined to hang on to her inheritance.
She studied him impassively. "When did you want to move in?"
To her credit, she didn't so much as blink. Rather, she reached into her desk and removed a rental contract, plucked a pen from the holder on her desk and pushed both toward him. "How long do you want to stay?"
"Until my place in Fort Stockton sells and I find one here."
This time, he noted, she did blink. "So we're talking
"Weeks. Possibly months."
She paused. Whether she was happy about his request or wary, he couldn't tell. "I assume we're talking about a one-bedroom cottage?" she said finally.
He matched her pragmatic tone. "Yes."
Claire told him what the rate would be.
After she made a copy of his credit card, she took a map of the ranch and a thick ring of keys from her desk. "You can have Cabin 1, which is closest to the ranch house, or Cabin 8."
"I'll take the closest one to the ranch house," Heath said without hesitation.
Claire led the way out of the office. Together, they walked across the gravel parking area, past a big red barn, to the path that led to the dozen cottages. The rustically designed structures were spaced well apart and attractively landscaped with native grasses and shrubs. The November air was brisk and clean, the red sage the guest ranch was named after in full bloom.
Claire stopped at the first homestead-style cottage. The one-story building had white clapboard sides, red shutters and door, and a sloping slate-gray roof. She unlocked the door and gestured him to enter. "As you can see, the unit has a small sitting room and a galley kitchen. The bedroom has a queen-size bed. Thermostat is here." She pointed to the wall, then the closet. "Extra linens are there. Cabins are made up once a week, unless you want to pay for daily maid service."
"Once a week is fine."