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"This is going to be perfect!" said Zoe Velez as she aimed her handheld camera around the field where the county fair was in full swing.
Smoke from the barbecue competition filtered over the patriotic bunting and banners, as well as the strolling locals and tourists in summer clothes who'd come to the village of Duarte Hill to hear country music, eat homemade chili and brave the midway rides. For just one week every year, this small town burst into color and energy that rivaled nearby San Antonio before going quiet again.
As Zoe swept the camera to the right, following the crowds that headed toward the looming Ferris wheel, she remembered her own childhood days at the fair, although she hadn't stuck around after she'd left Florence Ranch all those years ago.
A female voice sounded from next to her. "Ma'am, Jeremiah Barron's meeting us at the ranch in an hour for that interview. Shouldn't we be preparing ?"
Ma'am. Zoe lowered the camera and grinned politely at Ginnifer, the local college student who'd been accepted as an intern with the Walker & Associates PR firm for the summer.
The redhead adjusted her wire-rimmed glasses, as if rethinking her prodding, as well as the appropriateness of calling her thirty-four-year-old boss "ma'am."
Yup, Ginnifer belonged to Zoe, starting today. The administrative staff had assigned the girl at the last minute, and they'd met in the dirt parking lot just about five minutes ago. Ginnifer had no idea how to approach business with Zoe just yet.
But getting an intern was very good news. To the bosses' way of thinking, this assignment deserved the support.
She, Zoe Velez, had finally rated an intern. Yes!
Letting the girl's "ma'am" slide, Zoe motioned to a spot where they wouldn't be overheard. "Not to worry, we'll make it to Jeremiah with time to spare. I just want some establishing shots of Duarte Hill in its full glory. When the real film crew comes out here in a few days, the fair's going to be over, and some footage would be handy, just in case they want to use it for local color. It would add a certain down-home quality to the Barron image."
"Right, Ms. Velez." Ginnifer was nodding, taking everything down on her eager-beaver mental notepad while she clutched their carryalls.
Zoe kept her voice low as she filmed their surroundings, watching the footage on the digital camera screen. "Apple pie and family valueseverything we want to paint the Barrons with is right here. And they're going to need every bit of positive imagery they can get when this scandal finally hits the media. They've got business holdings all over the world, but their biggest base is in the South, where people won't look kindly upon a man sleeping with his brother's wife and hiding the affair for years."
"I can't believe you've kept it from the press for this long."
"The family's pretty secretive, so they've managed to lie low for the time being. But they know the bomb's going to drop, and they figured it might as well be a controlled explosion. That's why we're in Duarte Hill."
To figure out a plan for the big reveal to the media. To ease into the scandal Zoe's way.
"Cool," Ginnifer said, smiling, as if the intern had already figured out what a big break this could be for Zoe's careerand maybe even her own someday. "From the little I heard during my briefing about what Eli Bar-ron did, he'll need a good paintbrush. What a jerk."
Zoe's chin lifted a little. Her intern had no idea just how much of a jerk. But Zoe would deal with Eli Bar-ronand the rest of his broodfor the sake of this job.
"Ginnifer," she said, as if having to persuade herself, too, "just remember PR 101no judging the clients."
"Yes, you're right. You're totally right."
Zoe hated to lecture, especially when she, herself, occasionally had doubts about the clients she was hired to paint over sometimes. But she told herself that her job did help peopleit softened the reactions of the public for the innocent ones who were caught up in difficult situations. She just tried not to think about what it did for the guilty.
As she and Ginnifer moved on, they passed a charity tent filled with handcrafted auction items like quilts and leatherwork.
"PR 101, rule number twono calling me 'ma'am' or 'Ms. Velez.' I'm Zoe, okay?"
"Yes, maZoe." The intern gripped her bags tighter as one strap began to fall from her shoulder. "You already know the Barrons, right? And that's why Mr. Walker assigned you to this?"
Zoe's pride stood on end and, again, she made sure no one was around to listen. "My father was a foreman at Florence Ranch until recently, so, yes, I did spend a few years there. But I had to lobby for this assignment." She shrugged. "It probably didn't hurt that I kicked some major butt on the Lira political campaign."
She wasn't going to add how she'd left the ranchten years old and feeling as if she had her tail between her legs. She wasn't going to think about bygones at all. Wasn't going to think about how the kids at school had called her "servant" or how the arrogant Barrons had made her father feel like a lesser man.
She wasn't even going to think about how she used to stare up at that big mansion, dreaming about a day when she, too, could live like they did and without all the advantages that'd gotten them there
Ginnifer seemed happy with Zoe's answers. "Did you know the Barron brothers? They're cute."
For heaven's sake. "I knew them a little. When we were really young, Tyler and Jeremiah used to sneak out of the big house to play with us ranch rats when they were home from boarding school. Their parents would have a cow every time they found out about it. It's not like I really knew them, though."
Sneaking out to play hadn't meant Tyler or Jeremiah had been just like the other kids on the ranch. Tyler, especially, had been bossy. And while he hadn't seemed as blatantly superior as his father, Zoe had assumed that he would get to that point eventually. After all, he was a Barron.
Zoe's mind wandered to those days of playing hide-and-seek in the old barn. In spite of her misgivings about Tyler, she'd always found herself hoping that the golden boy with the sunshine crowning his dark hair would find her.
He never had.
Then had come the darker times after the whole situation with Eli Barronhow he'd mistreated her dad with just a couple of ill-conceived words after the boss had found some fences knocked down. Broken fences that her father had just discovered.
Things hadn't been the same after that. Her mom had kept her away from the Barron boys. Then, finally, away from the ranch altogether after Eli Barron had degraded her father and her mother had lost respect for him, divorcing him.
Zoe adjusted the camera. "What I'm trying to say is Tyler probably won't even remember me, if and when he decides to return my phone calls. Jeremiah barely recalled me when I asked to make an appointment for an interview with him. Chet didn't grow up on the ranch, so I didn't know him in the first place."
Ginnifer looked as if she was going to ask more questions, but Zoe took off, walking toward the midway.
There, she got some establishing footage before they went back to the exhibit lanes. The intern dutifully followed, just as Zoe had done during her own trip up the career ladder, scrapping her way from a poor ranch rat to the here and now.
They were passing a stage where an old cowboy was reciting some range poetry, and she ran the camera lens over the crowd, then continued toward the outskirts, to the fringes where a lone man was leaning against a power pole.
She fixed the lens on his weathered boots, then panned up faded jeans that encased long, muscled legs. Slim hips, lean waist, flat stomach, a pair of strong arms crossed over a wide chest covered by a light blue Western shirt. And his shoulders.
They were broad, too, but for some reason, Zoe got the impression that a lot seemed to be weighing on them.
When she got to his face, her heart jerked, fisting and unfisting as if trying to grasp something she'd lost over the years. Or maybe it was something she'd never had at all.
His face, with its firm, dimpled chin, was shaded by his cowboy hat, but she knew his eyes would be a deep green, his hair a rich chocolate-brown.
She hadn't seen Tyler in a long timeespecially not this way. In all the photos she'd reviewed, he'd looked like a winner-take-all billionaire in designer suits, attending charity functions and political events.
But this Tyler?
He was the guy who used to ride the ranch, so natural in the saddle. Yet, somewhere along the line, he'd fully become the Tyler who'd been chauffeured up the driveway to and from boarding school during vacation time. The boy groomed by his father to rule the business world. Even back then, when she was only tenthe same age as Tylerit was obvious that he'd been destined to be more than a cowboy.
And that he and Zoe would never live in the same world again.
But now that space between them filled up with a long exhalation from Zoe, who was all grown up and closer than ever to being in the Barrons' stratosphere. In fact, she held the cards for their family.
She wasn't a ranch rat anymore.
Realizing that she had a job to do, she shut off the camera.
She'd heard that Tyler was taking a sabbatical from The Barron Group in the aftermath of Eli's announcement, probably because of the family scandal. But it just seemed odd that a nonstop businessman like him was out here, enjoying a country fair, rather than working side by side with Jeremiah in the city right now.
It was Zoe's job to find out why he was here instead, in cowboy clothes, standing apart from everyone.
She took another deep breath, heat creeping through her body, warming her belly as if it were filled with milk, simmering and threatening to melt her.
Then a pop of resentment flared in her, but this time, the heat had nothing to do with attraction.
Was she really going to stand here and act like a girl who wasn't as good as the rich family? "Zoe?" Ginnifer asked.
Great. Here she was, having a hot flash in the middle of the fair. Even her intern had noticed.
Zoe relieved Ginnifer of one of the carryalls, slinging it over her shoulder, where it crumpled her otherwise professional white linen sleeveless blouse. She handed the camera over to her intern.
"Catch some more of that local color, okay? We'll meet back here in fifteen."
For some reason, she didn't want Ginnifer there when she approached Tyler. Maybe she was afraid she would be blushing too much, even though her skin tone hid that pretty well. Still, rising PR stars didn't blush.
"Gotcha," Ginnifer said, happily taking the camera and wandering toward a tent in which a cowboy was cracking a whip from the safety of a stage, exhibiting his prowess.
Zoe smoothed down her shirt as best as she could, her heart beating beneath it so hard that she could've sworn the linen fluttered. She tucked a strand of straight-edged, neck-length hair behind her ear, then exhaled, realizing she'd just been holding her breath.
She glanced at Tyler again and frowned. The lone cowboy. Where was the self-assured Barron scion she remembered?
Raising her chin, she moved toward him, but the closer she came, the more her heart took over, stamping through her veins, tattooing her skin from the inside out. Things even looked a little surreal as her head went light.
She stood next to him, but it took him a moment to realize that someone was there. Even in that short time, she caught the scent of himleather and soap.
Like old times on the ranch.
When he did look at her, something clicked in his green gaze. But it couldn't have been recognition: it had been so long since she'd seen him and, even then, they hadn't really known each other.
Then a smile crept over his mouth, and Zoe felt as if she was the only woman in the world.
Yet as soon as it was there, it was gone, leaving Zoe to try to breathe again like a normal person, fighting off a blush that was powerful enough to make even her skin blaze like a five-alarm fire.
The Barron arrogance. He had it, all right. And it had probably even reached Eli Barron proportions by now.
"Tyler?" she asked, all business.
One of his eyebrows cocked slightly, but that hint of a smile never came back. It was as if he remembered he was supposed to be the boss of everything, including her.
She took the initiative and offered a hand for a shake. "You probably don't remember me, but I'm Zoe Velez. Miguel the old foreman's daughter."
It was obvious when he recalled her, maybe because he was vaguely remembering one of the many ranch rats who'd splashed in the swimming hole.
Or was he thinking about the girl who'd left with her mom, abandoning her dad, never to return?
No, he wouldn't focus on that. She hadn't been important enough to him.
Not in the way she was about to be.
"Zoe?" he said in a deep voice that she felt all the way down to her toes, even though he'd lent a civil distance to her name.
And, just like that, she started to melt again.
When Tyler had first seen her, he'd recognized her.
But it wasn't in a way that allowed him to recall her name, or exactly who she was. She'd only seemed familiar enough to send a twang of. .something through him that deserted him even before he could identify it.
All he knew was that, whatever it was about her, it felt comfortable. Real. Unlike everything else he'd been through lately.
Then she'd told him her name, and he'd barely thought of a little girla ranch kid who'd been just as much of a country miss as he'd been a cowboy. It had reminded him of who he used to be before they'd all changed.
As he perused her, his heart clenched again, just as it had when he'd first laid eyes on herwhen he hadn't even recognized the old foreman's daughter and he'd only been reacting to a gorgeous woman coming toward him. Even now, an afterburn trailed through Tyler, sizzling in places he preferred to keep cold.
Cold was good right now. It allowed him to recover. Allowed him to take a more aloof look at everything around him.
Even Zoe Velez.
Her straight, dark brown hair was cut short, in a style that came to her neck and slightly flipped up at the ends.