In the fight for his family’s legacy,
will this former flame consume him?
Rancher Kellan Blackwood is poised to fight the gold-digging stepmother who inherited his father’s empire. He doesn’t expect Irina Romanov, his father’s former maid—and Kellan’s long-ago lover—to block his way. Though Irina may hold secrets about his father’s motives, Kellan must keep his hands off. For the twice-tempted, secret lovers who once set Texas ablaze, that’s easier said than done.
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Kel was still riding a tidal wave of righteous anger when he pulled up in front of the ranch house. Blackwood Hollow was a six-hundred-acre working ranch but the main building looked like a five-star luxury hotel. Sprawling twin wings spread out across the land and climbed to two stories. Lights shone in every window, making the whole place sparkle in the darkness. And with the white Christmas lights strung along the outline of the ranch house, it looked magical.
It was a mammoth place. His little sister, Sophie, sometimes stayed there, but they'd all gotten into the habit of avoiding Blackwood Hollow because they hadn't wanted to see Buck. A part of him wondered if that would change now that Buck was gone.
For Kellan, the memories in Royal were too hard, too painful to welcome him back for anything longer than a short visit to see his siblings even if that meant an extra trip into Dallas to see Vaughn.
Frowning, Kel looked past the main house to the guest quarters. Just as luxurious, the stone-and-glass building held four guest suites, a massive great room and a four-car garage.
"And," he murmured, "not a chance Miranda's staying there."
His father's ex wouldn't settle for anything less than the big house. Especially now, since she apparently owned it.
Okay, there was the rage again, in a fresh wave that nearly stole his breath. Shaking his head, he got out of his black Range Rover and headed for the main house. A couple of the ranch hands nodded or lifted a hand in greeting, but didn't try to stop him to chat. Good call.
He was here only because he knew the Step-witch wasn't. His sister, Sophie, had called him to say that Miranda was in town, shopping. Naturally. When you inherit several billion dollars, you want to spend some of it.
Muttering under his breath, Kellan entered the house, crossed the foyer and walked into the great room. He gave a quick look around, to assure himself she wasn't there. He hardly noticed the blazing fire in the hearth or the dark brown leather sofas and chairs clustered in conversational groups.
Deliberately, he kept his gaze off the damn Christmas tree in front of the bank of windows overlooking the front yard. It glittered and shone with multicolored lights and ribbons of silver and gold. The scent of pine hung in the air and stirred more memories, whether he wanted them or not. As a kid, he'd loved this house during the Christmas season because his mother had always gone all out on decorating.
The holidays were always opulent at Blackwood Hollow. It was the one tradition even Buck had kept after Kel's mother and he had divorced. Donna-Leigh had died a few years ago, but here at Blackwood Hollow Kel could still feel her influence. Tiny lights were strung around every window and there were decorated trees in almost every room of the house. The whole place smelled like evergreen, and as the memories rushed into his mind, Kel fought to keep them out.
He reminded himself that almost before the ink on their divorce decree had dried, Buck had married Miranda DuPree and brought her into the house that had been Donna-Leigh's. So the old man keeping Kel's mother's decorating traditions alive didn't mean squat.
Quickly, he took the stairs to the second story, ignoring the decorated tree on the landing and the twinkling white lights strung along the hallway. He checked the first of the guest rooms. Empty. No sign of anyone staying there. He moved on down the hall, his footsteps muffled on the dark red runner laid out in the center of the gleaming oak floor. Next room. Still nothing. He was down to two now. He didn't know how long Miranda would be in town, though according to Sophie, the woman was being trailed all through Royal by the camera crew that worked on the ridiculous TV show she was on.
Secret Lives of NYC Ex-Wives.
He snorted. So she'd found a way to make even more money out of her divorce from a rich man. And now her costars and the film crew were in Royal, helping to make the Blackwood family even more of a sideshow.
Pushing those thoughts aside, he hurried. He needed time to go through her things and look for this special letter his father had sent her. He wanted to see for himself what Buck had had to say. How he explained cutting his own children out of their inheritance.
Kel had never had much of a relationship with his father. Buck had always been too busy swooping down on failing companies to buy them out and sell them, adding to his millions. But none of that mattered now. The family legacy, the ranch, the business, should stay in the family. Blackwood Hollow alone was valued at more than $60 million and that wasn't even counting Blackwood Bank and Buck's personal fortune.
Why would he leave it all to Miranda? Hell, they'd been divorced for years. Kel needed to know what was going on and the only way to get those answers was to pry them out of Miranda — even if she didn't know about it.
He opened another door and smiled. Another Christmas tree stood resplendent in front of the windows overlooking the back of the house and the swimming pool. Women's clothes were strewed across the bed, there was a hairbrush on the dresser and, in spite of the tree, even the air smelled feminine.
In a rush, Kel pushed that thought aside and headed for the closet. It was filled with clothes that he absently noted looked a lot more conservative than what he was used to seeing Miranda wear. He dismissed it when he didn't find anything and went to the bedside tables. Nothing. Then he hit the dresser where he found drawers of sweaters and shirts and yoga pants. Also very un-Miranda-like. No letters, no papers. Nothing.
"Damn it," he muttered, reaching for the next drawer. "Where the hell did she put it?" He tugged on the drawer pull and saw a collection of delicate bras and panties. Black, pink, red, blue — a rainbow of lace and silk. Gritting his teeth, he ran his hand through the silky fabric, tumbling them all, looking for an envelope that wasn't there. Frustrated, he stopped dead when sounds erupted from the adjoining bathroom. Was she here after all? Was Sophie wrong about Miranda trotting around town spending his father's money in front of an audience of cameras?
The door opened, steam poured out — and through that misty fog, a woman appeared as if from a dream. It wasn't Miranda.
It was the one woman Kel hadn't wanted — or dared — to see again.
Her long strawberry blond hair was damp, lying across her shoulders and draping onto the towel wrapped around what he knew from personal experience was a hell of a body. Her dark green eyes were wide and those long legs of hers were displayed like living temptation.
She actually tightened her grip on the towel she wore. "Kellan? What are you doing in my room?" God, that voice. Husky. Tempting. With just the slightest tinge of a Russian accent. In an instant, he was thrown back in time seven years. It had been Christmas then, too. For a week, the two of them had spent nearly every waking moment in bed together. Or anywhere else they'd found a flat surface. And then he'd realized what he was doing and he'd left Texas — and Irina — behind him.
If he allowed it, even now, he could hear her whispers in the dark. Feel her hands on him. Taste her hard nipples as he slammed his body into hers until they were both screaming with need. That long, unforgettable week had seared his soul and stirred a heart he'd believed dead.
Still clutching that too-small towel to her like a shield, Irina looked him dead in the eye and said, "Get out, Kellan."
Probably best, he told himself, since at the moment, all he could think about was tearing that towel off her and tossing her onto the bed. Or the floor. Or against the wall. His body didn't care how he had her — just that he did have her. His dick felt like stone, his breath was caught in his chest and the slow, hard hammer of his heart thundered in his ears.
Kel took a long, deep breath in an attempt to find steadiness. "Fine. I'll go. But I'm not leaving the house. I'll be downstairs when you're dressed."
The minute he left her room, Irina slammed the door and locked it. Turning around, she leaned back against the solid oak panel and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. Her heartbeat was simply out of control, and what felt like dragons were swarming in the pit of her stomach.
She forced air into her lungs and swallowed hard against the rising tide of tears. Why should she cry? She should be outraged. Furious. It had been seven years since he'd walked away, and her first emotion on seeing him again was teary anticipation?
Just like that, the burning in her eyes disappeared and the burn in her heart began. Seeing him again was a shock, even though she'd known he'd come home to Royal after Buck's death. He had to go to his father's funeral after all.
Irina had thought she was prepared — more or less — to see him again. She simply hadn't been ready to greet him while she was stark naked but for a towel. Being naked around Kel was not a good idea. Not with their past. Not with the temptation he presented simply by settling his gaze on her.
He looked good, too. Even better, somehow, than he had so long ago. He wore that elegantly cut suit the way a medieval knight might wear his armor. He was powerful, strong, gorgeous. All things dangerous. His dark brown hair was still kept short — he thought it efficient — and like always, he had a day or two's growth of beard on his face. The scruff of whiskers reminded her of how that stubble alternately tickled and scratched her skin.
The flash in Kel's blue eyes had disarmed her. She had read heat there and remembered the fire that had consumed them both whenever they touched. She remembered long nights, with the Christmas tree lights the only illumination in the room. She remembered lazy dawns, wrapped in each other's arms before she was forced to get up and go to work as a maid in the big house.
In fact, Irina remembered all of it as if that week with him were burned into her brain.
Back then, she'd convinced herself she was living a fairy tale. The oldest son in a dynasty, falling in love with a maid in his father's house. But the fairy tale ended with a whimper when Kellan left Texas. There were no letters, no calls and, apparently, no regrets. Then Irina was alone again with empty dreams and a broken heart.
She'd long suspected Buck had known about what had gone on between her and his oldest son. The older man had been especially kind to her when Kellan left town. And that kindness — like everything else Buck had done for her — was something she could never repay. It had taken her a long time to find her way again and she had no intention of allowing herself to slide back down into darkness. Kellan was here, but wouldn't be for long. Her life was in Royal. Her future was one she would build for herself.
"I don't need Kellan," she said aloud, more to strengthen her resolve than anything. "I've built my own life now. Without him."
Irina wasn't the same woman she had been when she and Kellan were together so briefly — and memorably. She'd been to college. She was in law school now and she was a budding author. She'd grown and taken care of herself and she wouldn't be drawn back into an affair with a man who didn't value her. It didn't matter that one look at him had undone seven years of self-discipline. She could be strong.
All she had to do was keep her distance. A few miles would probably do the trick.
"All right," she said quietly, lifting her chin and squaring her shoulders. "I can do this. Get dressed. Talk to Kellan. And then this time I will be the one to say goodbye."CHAPTER 2
Lulu Shepard took a good look at Main Street. She wasn't ready to admit this on camera yet, but she actually liked Royal, Texas. The people were nice; their hotel, the Bellamy, was luxurious and the town made a nice change from Manhattan. People were so friendly, too. Not like Manhattan, where you could probably bleed from an artery and go unnoticed.
She hadn't been sure about coming to Royal with Miranda and the rest of the cast of their reality show. But Lulu was really enjoying herself. And she really loved all of the Christmas decorations. Every light pole on the street was wrapped in garland, banners proclaiming Have a Royal Christmas were strung across the street and every tree and shop front was glittering with tiny white lights.
"Afternoon," a tall cowboy with a wicked smile said as he passed, tipping his hat.
"Well, helloooo." Lulu turned to admire the man from the rear and had to admit that view was pretty good, too.
Oh, there were so many delicious opportunities to get into a little trouble while they were in Royal. If she and Serafina couldn't find a way to shake this town up a little, then Lulu didn't know who could. She wore a black knit tunic sweater with black tights and black ankle boots with a three-inch heel. Her bright red overcoat swung around her knees with every step and she grinned for no particular reason.
"There's just something about a small town, don't you think, Fee?"
Her best friend, Seraphina Martinez, whirled around, letting her long forest green coat swing in the wind. She, too, was wearing New York black, but for her coat. Her long brown hair was perfectly styled and lifted in the wind. Her brown eyes were shining when she smiled. "You know, I didn't think I'd like it, but I do. It's sort of like a movie set — only real." Then she sent a glance at the camera crew following them. "Come on, guys, we've got some shopping to do. Let's show America how small-town Texas lives."
Lulu laughed and fell into line behind her friend and the other members of the Secret Lives of NYC Ex-Wives cast. Zooey Kostas, sweet and vulnerable, was always on the lookout for her next ex. Rafaela Marchesi was never afraid to toss one of her friends under the bus as long as it earned her a few more minutes of screen time. Then there was Seraphina, the take-charge woman in their little group. Fee had a great laugh and a huge heart. And Miranda was the last — sort of a mother-bear kind of woman, which didn't earn her a lot of time on the show, since as their producer was forever saying, "Scandal sells." But when Miranda DuPree had announced she was coming to Royal for a funeral, the powers that be at the network had decided it would be a great idea for the whole cast to go along.
Though she liked Miranda a lot, Lulu hadn't thought much of the idea at first. Now she couldn't imagine why. An icy wind lifted a lock of her thick black hair and tossed it across her eyes. She plucked it free, grinned and hurried her steps to catch up with Fee. There were so many new and interesting shops waiting.
Kellan had one hand planted on the mantel and was staring at a blazing fire in the stone hearth when he heard her come into the room. Hell, she moved so quietly maybe he had just sensed her.
He turned to face her and his breath caught in his chest. Seven years since he'd last seen her and every cell in his body was responding to her presence. Time, it seemed, hadn't cooled off what he felt for her. Damn it.
"What are you doing here, Kellan?"
That voice tugged at his insides and awakened even more memories that had been asleep until that moment. Not good. He'd once walked away from her because he felt he had to. He'd had nothing to offer her then and nothing had changed since. He had to stay cool, keep his distance.
But she was looking at him with a carefully banked fury he'd never seen before. And for some damn reason, that put him on the defensive.
"This is still Blackwood Hollow," he said tightly. "I'm a Blackwood. I don't have to explain why I'm in the house I grew up in."
"You don't live here anymore," she reminded him.
Tipping his head to one side, he narrowed his gaze on her. "Yeah. But I didn't know you were still living here."
"Not surprising," she pointed out. "You haven't been back in this house for seven years."
A jab, well aimed. Kellan had avoided this house like it was haunted. And maybe, he thought now, it was. Ghosts of his childhood, memories of his mother. But mostly, it was the memories of his week with Irina that plagued him. Being in this house made those ghostly images in his mind more real. More corporeal. As if he could reach out and touch them, bring back those moments in time to relive at his leisure.
His gaze swept her up and down in a blink of an eye, taking in everything, missing nothing. Her long, wavy hair was still damp, but now she wore a loose-fitting yellow jersey shirt with a neckline wide enough to bare her shoulders. At five feet ten inches tall, Irina had legs that were long and shapely, though at the moment they were covered by a pair of gray yoga pants that clung to every inch. Black ballet flats were on her feet.
Kellan's whole body tensed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tempting The Texan"
Copyright © 2019 Harlequin Books S.A..
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