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Finn O'Roarke scanned the boarding area for the umpteenth time. First class was already on the plane and still no Chelsea. He would have gladly picked her up instead of meeting her here, but they hadn't been able to agree on timing. He preferred early and she liked to cut it close.
Too damned close. Good thing he didn't fly with her on a regular basis, because this kind of thing would drive him
ah! There she was. He exhaled and promised himself not to say a word. She was doing him a favor by making this trip.
With a roller bag behind her and a laptop case over her shoulder, she walked toward the boarding area with her typical "I have the world by the tail" stride. She wasn't tall but she dressed tallskinny black jeans, high-heeled sandals and a multicolored tunic belted around her hips. Her light blond hair, recently streaked with lavender, swayed gently with each confident step.
As she came closer, she surveyed the crowd waiting near the Jetway and her brown eyes widened when she spotted him. She hurried over. "Holy smokes, you're dressed like a cowboy! I did not expect that."
At one time Finn would have been annoyed. But after owning a Seattle microbrewery and tavern for nearly five years, he didn't think of himself as a cowboy anymore. He couldn't very well expect her to think of him that way, either.
But they'd be spending time at the Last Chance Ranch in Jackson Hole this weekend. Finn had never seen it, but he'd heard plenty of stories. The Chance family was royalty in Wyoming.
So he'd hauled out his dove-gray Stetson, his yoked Western shirts, his Wranglers and his black boots. He gazed at Chelsea and shrugged. "We're making our presentation to ranch people. It seemed like a good idea."
"Should I have done that, too? If so, I'm screwed. I have these sandals and gym shoes. That's it."
"No worries, Chels. You'll be fine." He thought she looked more than fine. He'd known from the moment they'd met in a coffee shop five years ago that she was too cool and stylish for him.
But meeting her had been a gift. She was a PR and marketing whiz. After listening to his plan for a micro-brewery and tavern in downtown Seattle, she'd suggested a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to renovate an old building slated for demolition. Then she'd offered to help him for a percentage. He'd saved the building and launched O'Roarke's Brewhouse thanks to Chelsea Trask.
This trip would put him even more in her debt. His foster parents, Herb and Rosie Padgett, were in financial trouble and could lose the ranch where Finn and many other homeless boys had found refuge. A group of them were trying to save it, and because Chelsea knew Finn's background and admired the Padgetts, she'd agreed to help him once again.
Thanks to Chelsea, a Kickstarter campaign had been launched in June for Thunder Mountain Academy, a residential equine education program geared toward teens. But the September 1 deadline for donations was less than two weeks away and they were thousands shy of the goal. Everybody connected with it, including Finn, had begun to panic.
This weekend was makeor-break time. Cade Gallagher, once a foster boy and one of Finn's best friends, had recently discovered he was a Chance cousin. Because of that family tie, Finn and Chelsea had been invited to pitch the concept to potential TMA backers at a gathering hosted by the Chances. Chelsea was the pro, so she'd run the event, but Finn would also talk about the debt he owed Thunder Mountain Ranch.
As the first economy-class group was called to board the plane, Chelsea gave Finn another once-over. "It's probably good that you're all decked out like that."
"I'm glad you approve." He decided not to let the "all decked out" comment bother him, either. Coming from Chelsea, that was a relatively mild dig. When she was wound up, she could really turn on the snark. She'd been irritated with him for months, which made working together on this project somewhat awkward.
Apparently she'd expected them to get together after his divorce from Alison last year, but she, of all people, should have realized that he was married to his business, which was why Alison had left. Yeah, he'd had his share of hot dreams starring Chelsea, but he had no intention of turning them into reality.
Guaranteed if they got together, it'd disrupt his careful routine right when he needed to concentrate all his energy on keeping the microbrewery solvent. The divorce had been expensive. Besides, he'd proved himself incapable of running a business and maintaining a relationship. He'd told her that when he'd turned down her dinner invitation, but she hadn't taken it well.
Because they'd bought their plane tickets late, they'd be in the last group to board, so she had time to study him. "I remember the hat and boots from when we did the photo shoot for the Men of Thunder Mountain calendar, but that was a deliberate beefcake shirtless shot. This is more subtle, but effective."
"Effective for what?" He'd suffered through the photo session last month because some genius had decided Thunder Mountain Academy needed a calendar as a giveaway to backers. Chelsea had volunteered to take his picture rather than having him waste time flying to Wyoming.
"Image." She gave him another assessing glance. "While my PowerPoint presentation is running, you can stand there looking like a guy who can ride and rope with the best of themall the things they plan to teach students at Thunder Mountain Academy."
Okay, he couldn't let that go. "As it happens, I can ride and rope. Maybe not with the best of them anymore because I'm out of practice, but I'd be decent."
"I'm sure you would." Her gaze warmed briefly before she broke eye contact. "Hey, that's us." She waved her boarding pass. "Time to rock and roll."
"Right." She'd captured his attention so completely that he'd missed the announcement. Perfect example of how she distracted him. Adjusting the shoulder strap of his laptop case and grasping the handle of his wheeled bag, he followed her.
Chelsea could sure stir him up. Now he had the adolescent urge to actually do some riding and roping on this trip just to prove to her that he could. Not at the Last Chance, of course, but they'd planned to drive over to Thunder Mountain Ranch for a few days afterward so she could look over the setup for TMA.
After all the work she'd put into nurturing the idea and giving adviceall gratisshe deserved to see the ranch and meet his foster parents. They were eager to meet her, too. He wondered if she rode. He'd never asked.
As they entered the plane a blonde flight attendant smiled at him. "Great hat."
"Thank you, ma'am." He was out of the habit of using ma'am, but he'd unconsciously lapsed into it.
"I'd be glad to store it up front for you."
"That would be great." He took it off and handed it to her.
"My pleasure." She gave him another brilliant smile. "I'll take good care of it."
"I surely appreciate that." Yep. He was back to talking like a cowboy.
By the time he caught up with Chelsea, she was struggling to get her roller bag into the overhead compartment, so he helped her. She muttered her thanks and he slid his own in next to it before taking his seat.
The plane was configured with two seats on one side of the aisle and three on the other, and Chelsea had managed to snag the two-seat side when she'd made their reservations. She'd requested the window, which was fine with him because he preferred the aisle.
Once they were buckled in, she turned to him. "'Thank you, ma'am'?"
"I swear it's the hat. I put it on and my words come out different."
"You wore it for the photo shoot and I didn't notice you calling me ma'am."
He laughed. "That's because you were torturing me by making me hold a beer keg on my bare shoulder for hours on end."
"Minutes, O'Roarke. Mere minutes. You were such a baby about that shoot."
"It was embarrassing, posing shirtless and knowing come April I'll be tacked up on someone's wall."
"That reminds me
I brought calendars."
He groaned. "I was afraid you would."
"It's a sales tool. Of course I had to bring them. You haven't seen the final product, have you?" She pulled her laptop case out from under the seat in front of her.
"No, and I don't want to see it now."
"You need to look at it. Don't forget, the Chance brothers volunteered, so this will give you a mental picture of each one before we get there." She unzipped her case and pulled out a calendar.
There was his buddy Cade on the front, manly and shirtless as he leaned against the hitching post with a rope coiled over one shoulder. "I don't need that kind of mental picture of the Chance brothers, thank you very much."
"The pictures aren't all like that." She flipped through the calendar. "See? Here's Jack Chance, fully dressed, sitting on his horse Bandit. He looks part Native American, don't you think?"
"I guess." Finn had to admit that seeing the men in advance would help him remember their names when he met them.
"And here's Nick Chance, Dominique's husband. My picture of you is okay, but I'm glad Dominique was available to take the bulk of the shots because she's such an amazing photographer. And obviously in love with Nick."
Finn looked at the close-up of a smiling cowboy with dark hair and green eyes. His hat was shoved back, which made him seem friendly, as if he'd be a good guy to share a beer with. "You're right. This helps. Where's Gabe?"
"Here." Chelsea flipped to a picture of a sandy-haired man with a mustache. "Dominique said she had to heckle him to get him to unsnap his shirt but he finally did it."
"At least he was allowed to wear a shirt." Finn gazed at the image of Gabe leading a brown-and-white Paint out of the barn. "Some of us weren't so lucky."
"Hey, what have you got there?" The flight attendant paused next to his seat. "Oh, let me see!"
Before Finn could protest, Chelsea handed it to her.
"I love this! Can I hold on to it until after takeoff? I'll bring it back."
"Sure," Chelsea said. "Take your time."
As the flight attendant walked toward the front of the plane, Finn turned to glare at Chelsea. "Now you've done it."
"You were the one charming her with your hat and your 'thank you, ma'am' routine."
"I was just trying to be polite, but now she's"
"A potential backer for Thunder Mountain Academy. Obviously your cowboy persona will be an asset this weekend. It never occurred to me that you should dress and act the part, although it should have, so props to you. Brilliant PR move."
"I wasn't thinking of it as a PR move." In some ways it had been a protective one. When a guy ended up in a foster home with no relatives to call his own, he tried to put his best foot forward whenever possible. Finn also owned a three-piece suit, but he was Wyoming born and knew that a suit wouldn't impress the Chance family nearly as much as a nice hat and polished boots.
"It's a good look for you, Finn. You should dress like this more often."
He shook his head.
"Because I refuse to be one of those guys who wears the clothes because he thinks they look cool but who's never sat a horse or mucked out a stall." He wished to hell the flight attendant didn't have that calendar. Knowing they'd be mailed out to people he'd never met and probably never would meet was one thing. This was completely different.
"But you have ridden and
what was that other thing?"
"Mucked out a stall. Cleaned it out, in other words."
She studied him. "I can picture you doing that, especially now that I've seen you in this outfit. But I hope you don't wear that gorgeous gray hat to muck out a stall."
"No, that's my dress hat. Herb keeps some old straw ones for everyday chores."
"Oh, right. You were wearing something like that when all of you were at the ranch in June and you Skyped me about Kickstarter ideas. FYI, the gray felt is a vast improvement over that battered straw thing."
"What? No 'thank you, ma'am'?"
He decided to lay it on thick. Served her right. He gave her his most winning smile and his deepest drawl. "Thank you, ma'am."
She stared at him for a full three seconds. Then she swallowed and looked away. "You're welcome."
Uh-oh. He'd meant it sarcastically, but apparently it hadn't affected her that way. Unless he was mistaken, he'd just turned her on. And that could present a problem.
Hell, who was he kidding? They'd always had a problem. From that first day in the coffee shop he'd been fascinated by her creativity and zest for life. He loved watching her talk and hearing her laugh. Her mouth was perfect and her skin was impossibly soft, not that he allowed himself to touch it except by accident.
The thought of interacting with her on a personal level as well as a business one scared the crap out of him. If he once gave in and took her to bed, he'd never get a damned thing done. He'd made sure to focus solely on the business angle of their relationship, at least when he was awake. He couldn't control his dreams.
Then he'd met Alison. Quiet and methodical, she'd been the complete opposite of Chelsea. Alison had made it clear that she wanted him and had pushed for a commitment. He'd had some stupid idea that she was the kind of steady, safe woman he needed in his life.
Marrying her, especially so quickly, had been a huge mistake. She hadn't absorbed all his attention, but she hadn't held his interest, either. She'd been understandably upset by his total concentration on his business. He felt damned guilty about that marriage.
And he'd promised himself not to repeat his mistake. These days he only allowed two things to occupy his time: O'Roarke's Brewhouse and his foster parents' financial crisis. Making sure they weren't forced to sell out was his priority this week. As the plane lifted into the air, he renewed his vow that Thunder Mountain Ranch would stay in the family.
Chelsea gazed at white clouds piled up like whipped cream outside the window. And speaking of whipped cream, she wouldn't mind being alone with a naked Finn and a can of the stuff. Their trip was minutes old and she was already in trouble.
His lustrous dark hair and startling blue eyes had caught her attention immediately when they'd met in that coffee shop five years ago. His body was nothing to sneeze at, either. When he'd first arrived in Seattle he'd had a tan, but that had gradually faded. His sex appeal hadn't faded one tiny bit, though. Finn O'Roarke was hot.
Although they'd had chemistry from the beginning, he'd made it clear that he wasn't interested in anything more than friendship and a business relationship. Disappointing, but she'd learned to live with it. At least she'd been able to see him often, and she'd noted with satisfaction that he spent all his time on work and didn't date.