As the firstborn son, it's been drilled into Nick that he is the heir apparent to the Prince family empire. But cattle ranching has never been his true passion. Nick wants to be a pilot. However, when his father dies, leaving Nick to clean up the mess, he knows he must do his duty before following his heart.
Charlotte Bailey can't believe that Nick is back to run the ranch. As the office manager, she knows it's her responsibility to help him. If only he wasn't so brooding and crankyand so hot it's a wonder his chaps don't melt right off him. But when sparks fly between them, she's adamant about staying away from a cowboy on his way out the door.
Nick knows the ranch's pretty, smart, and capable office manager is off-limits, but he needs her. And working in such close proximity to Charlotte every day is making Nick crazy. She smells good, she looks good, she makes him laugh, but most of all she makes him want to stay....
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In every family there are colorful stories that are often repeated, trotted out for newcomers at family gatherings, and thereby sealed into the family's collective memory. Like the story about Nick Prince's little brother, Luca, who rode out onto Three Rivers Ranch with his best friend when he was twelve and didn't come home for two days. The number of law enforcement who went out on the search grew with each telling. Nick was fourteen when Luca disappeared, and what he remembered was ranch hands along with a couple of sheriff's deputies riding out to look for the boys. Of course Luca and Brandon had no idea they were missing-to this day Luca maintained he'd been pretty clear with his mother that he'd gone camping. His mother remembered it differently.
And then there was the story about Nick's only sister and Luca's twin, Hallie. She'd been a promising ballerina and had danced in the Ballet San Antonio's production of The Nutcracker when she was a teen. The way the family liked to tell it was that Hallie had taken flight in a spectacular jump and crashed into a cardboard tree that was part of the set. That brought the house down, as the telling went. What Nick remembered was that she'd fallen off the pointe of her shoe and had stumbled a little, and that no one had noticed but the Princes. Hallie would roll her eyes every time this story was told and declare she'd never had harsher critics than her own family.
And Nick? Well, he was the one born with a broken heart.
Apparently, he was pretty colicky in the first months of his life and had cried so much that his maternal great-grandmother would hand him back to his mother and say, "I don't know what to do with a baby born with a broken heart."
His parents thought it was funny. Easter Sundays were the preferred time to bring the story out for guests. His dad would say, "Alberta was so convinced Nick over here was put on this earth to endure some great tragedy, and really, all he had was gas. Isn't that right, Nicky?" He would invariably clap a beefy hand on Nick's shoulder so hard as to make his eyes water.
"Grandmother couldn't look that old hound dog in the eye, either, remember?" his mother would say. "Said he looked so sad she couldn't bear to know the tragedy he'd suffered."
"The only tragedy that dog ever suffered was how fat you let him get," his father would counter, and that would spark an argument between Nick's parents over their conflicting ideas about the care and feeding of family dogs.
To the rest of the family, the being-born-with-a-broken-heart theory was a great way to explain Nick's general sense of malaise. Yes, he could be a grumphe knew that about himself and would own it. He didn't like being a grump. But let anyone who criticized him spend one afternoon separating calves from their mothers and listening to them bawl. Oh, was that too hard for all the drugstore cowboys out there? Then try branding a cow with a red-hot iron.
Nick hated hurting animals, but unfortunately, that was part of ranch life. Electronic ear tags were easily removed by modern-day cattle rustlers, and on a spread the size of Three Rivers, the only way to keep the ranch's superior cattle from being stolen and sold at auction was to brand them. Once, when he was nine, he refused his father's direct order to get up and get ready to brand. His father had taken a layer of skin off his backside. He had not been given the choice of entering the ranching profession. As Nick was the firstborn son, his role was assumed and codified and probably chiseled onto a stone tablet somewhere.
Nick hated everything about ranching. He hated the grind of the work and the hours spent in a saddle riding around this massive ranch his forebears had built. It was a lonely profession. He hated hurting animals, hated hunting, hated stringing fence and worrying about water for the herd in the middle of a drought or worrying about the herd in the middle of the storms spawned by hurricanes in the Gulf or worrying about letters from PETA about their livestock management.
He didn't particularly like the oil business, either, in which his forebears had also begun to dabble just after the turn of the twentieth century when Spindletop gushed for nine days down near Beaumont.
What Nick liked, if anyone cared, which they did not, was flying. He'd earned his pilot's license years ago and had a Cessna he flew around the state. He had his instrument rating, his multi-engine certificate. Next up was his commercial pilot certificate, because Nick wanted to fly big planes. He wanted to fly big planes into big airports around the world and see something other than cactus and cows. He'd had it all set up, too, had paid to attend a flight school in Dallas where he would not only earn the commercial certificate, he would take aviation theory and get in the in-flight hours he needed to apply for a job at a major airline.
And then his dad had died.
Dropped dead of a massive coronary about a year and a half ago.
Nick missed his old man like crazy. But with his dad's death had come the revelation of some significant debt. Everyone knew that his dad had liked the high-stakes gambling in Las Vegas. But no one knew that he'd racked up debt that had left the family coffers reeling. In more ways than one, his father's death had been the quake that had shifted Nick's foundation.
That his father had expressly left the running of the ranch to him was the aftershock that just kept on giving. The more Nick ran this ranch, the worse things seemed to get. They were rich in property and poor in cash, and he was the one who had to make the hard decisions. They'd had to let some of the ranch hands go, which meant Nick was now in a saddle or truck more than he'd ever been. It had been nearly a month since he last flew. It was like the ranch was eating him up, one bite at a time.
So maybe he wasn't born with a broken heart, but he walked around most days feeling like the damn thing had indeed been broken somewhere along the way.
The sun was beating down but good as he drove to the offices of the Saddlebush Land and Cattle Company, the umbrella business that oversaw the various Prince enterprises. Pepper, his collie, rode shotgun. Nick was sweaty and covered in dirt, but he was running late for a meeting with the new banker from Frontier Bank and couldn't do much about it. He had found out a couple of days ago that the work of drilling some water wells his dad had ordered just before his death had not been paid. Nick suddenly needed forty thousand dollars the company didn't have. He'd have it in a month or two, when they took some of the herd to market, but in the meantime, he needed a loan.
He parked in front of the offices, took out a bandanna, and wiped his face.
His father had built the office in the middle of the town of Three Rivers, named after the family ranch. It was on one end of Main Street and fashioned to look like a repurposed old barn. This was another one of those deals that made Nick shake his head. His father had built an office building much larger than anything the company would ever need. He'd built it at the height of the construction bust when oil production moved west and people around here lost their jobs. He'd built it when perfectly good office space sat empty out on the San Antonio highway.
Then he'd gone and commissioned a fifteen-foot-tall bronze statue of a bronc rider that sat outside the offices. What he paid for that alone could have fueled Nick's plane for half a year.
The only other notable thing was on the porch. There were two rocking chairs, as if Grandma and Grandpa moseyed out here in the mornings to have their coffee. It was ridiculous. And tucked behind the rockers where no one ever sat was a blue bike with a basket.
Nick leaned across the truck and opened the passenger door. Pepper leaped out and trotted to the glass door entrance. Before Nick could get out of the truck and lock it, the glass door opened and Pepper slipped inside.
Nick walked briskly to the door. He stopped there to use the boot brush to knock off as much of the dried mud as he could, then stepped inside to the Saddlebush suite of offices, with its iron wagon-wheel chandeliers, hand-scraped wood floor, and rough shiplap walls. His phone pinged at him, and he dug it out of his pocket and looked at the screen. It was a text from Mindy Rogers, an old friend:
Thursday 10:47 AM
Want to do some dancing this weekend?
Nick thought about it, his thumbs hovering over his phone. He liked Mindy's company. A few years ago, they'd dated for about six months. Mindy was the sort of woman who didn't stay in a relationship long and always parted on friendly terms. Or maybe he was that sort? He didn't really know. But Mindy liked having a lot of ex-boyfriends she could call up when she didn't have a date. Nick liked her, and he liked to dance country western-style.
The only problem was that he hadn't been feeling very social lately. More like decidedly antisocial. Which, he concluded, was another reason he ought to go. He couldn't live like this forever, and he really hadn't been out of his house much in the last several weeks.
Three dots popped up on his screen:
Thursday 10:58 AM
Chuck, David, and Sarah are going.
Nick texted back.
Thursday 10:59 AM
Sure. Sounds like a good time.
Mindy texted where to meet up, and Nick shoved the phone back in his pocket. He looked up-and his gaze landed on the visitor area. Someone had put floral seat cushions on the couch, and had added a fluffy white rug to the stained concrete floor. There was a floor lamp painted turquoise, with a floral shade from which beads hung, in between two yellow chairs. The visitor lounge didn't look very barnish. Or ranchy. It looked girlie. Nick half expected a book club to show up and make themselves at home.
His gaze traveled to the reception area and the half moon desk made of old rail ties and sporting a tin countertop. He could just see the top of Charlotte Bailey's curly blond head behind a computer screen. Charlotte had been the office manager here for eleven years. His dad had hired her fresh out of college.
Nick strode forward, coming around to the side of the desk on the march toward his office.
Charlotte swiveled around in her office chair, propped a foot against the wall, and studied him up and down as she sucked on a lollipop. Pepper had curled up at her feet.
"How long have you been sitting here?" he asked.
She removed the lollipop from her mouth. It was grape. She knew he liked the grape ones best. "Since January," she reminded him. "Since you fired Imelda."
"I didn't fire Imelda," he said impatiently. The first person to go from the offices was Raymond Davis, their accountant. Nick's sister-in-law-Luca's wife, Ella-was doing the books for him part-time and for an embarrassingly small fee. It was all he could afford, and Ella had said she didn't mind, she just wanted to help out.
Imelda Ramon was the next to go. She'd been their receptionist for many years and made the best muffins of anyone Nick had ever known. "I let her go, and with a nice severance, I might add. That's a big difference from firing."
"Not really," Charlotte said. "What's got you fee fi fo fumming in here?" Her eyes drifted over him.
Nick looked down, too. "What are you talking about? I came in like anyone comes in here."
"Mm-hmm. I thought you were meeting the new banker."
"Looking like that?" She popped the lollipop in her mouth again and eyed him suspiciously. "You look like you've been digging ditches. Have you been digging ditches? Or did someone finally truss you up and pull you behind a mule?"
"What do you mean, finally?"
She shrugged. "It's bound to happen sooner or later."
So his T-shirt was sweat stained, and his jeans were beyond dirty. And it looked like he still had some mud caked on his boots. "Rafe and I have been branding cattle this morning, Charlotte. It's a dirty job. Besides, this dude is a cattleman's banker. He's probably been tagging his own cattle."
Charlotte dumped the lollipop in the trash and stood up. Her eyes were the color of swimming pools and framed with dark brown lashes. She had the lightest dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks, like she'd dashed outside for a moment and had dashed back in before the freckles could darken. She glanced at his cowboy hat and reached up, removing it from his head, and held it away from her body between finger and thumb. "Eew."
He took the hat from her. He dragged his fingers through his hair, still damp with sweat. Okay, so she had a point. "I beg your pardon, but I'm dressed like a ranch hand today. That's what I do. I work the ranch and then I come in here and try and run it. It is what it is. Do you have the-"
She picked up the mail and slapped it against his chest. He glared at her. "What about-"
She held up two pink phone messages between her fingers.
He stared at her some more. Why did it always feel like her efficiency was somehow duplicitous? Why could he find nothing to complain about when it came to Charlotte, besides her stupid filing system?
He took the mail and his messages. "Come on, Pepper," he commanded.
Pepper looked at Charlotte. Charlotte's eyes never left Nick's as she extended one long, manicured finger and pulled open the top drawer of her desk. Pepper's tail began to thump hard against the floor. Charlotte picked up a small biscuit and tossed it. Pepper caught it deftly.
"You don't play fair," Nick said.
"No one ever said anything about fair."
"True," he conceded. That's not the way they did things around here. Nick knew when he was defeated, and strode the fifteen feet to his office like a messenger who had ridden all day with news for the king.
“True,” he conceded. That’s not the way they did things around here. Nick knew when he was defeated, and strode the fifteen feet to his office like a messenger who had ridden all day with news for the king.
He reached the door of his office and tried to slide it open. All the offices in this building had faux antique barn doors that were suspended from metal rods. The doors slid back and forth to open and close. Nick’s always stuck. Charlotte knew how to unstick it, but it was a little emasculating for Charlotte to have to unstick his door every other time he was in the office.
So he cursed under his breath and manhandled the thing into submission with one hand.
“Want me to call Buck and get him out here to fix your door?” she called over her shoulder.
“No,” he said curtly, and walked into his office.
“I’ll call him,” she said, and he heard her pick up the phone.
He went to his desk, tossed down his mail and messages, and sat for a moment, his head in his hands, as he listened to Charlotte sweet-talk Buck into coming out tomorrow. He sighed, and looked around for the financial reports.
Now Charlotte was cooing to Pepper. “You’re such a good dog, Pepper, such a good dog. Do you want a belly rub? Let me give you a good belly rub.”
“Charlotte!” Nick shouted. “Did you get—”
“On your desk! Red folder, remember?” she shouted back. She followed that up with some muttering that he couldn’t quite make out, but judging by her tone, he was about ninety-five percent certain it was about him and not what a good dog Pepper was.
He had to be the only man in all of Three Rivers who didn’t get along with Charlotte Bailey.
Everyone loved her. His dad had said that if it weren’t for Charlotte, Saddlebush Land and Cattle would have sunk a long time ago. She was very pretty, and she had a sparkling personality, a dazzling smile, and a bubbly defiance that most people found charming. She was quick to help out where she could, was able laugh at herself, and fortunately for him, didn’t get her feelings hurt too very often.
There was a lot to like about Charlotte Bailey.
It wasn’t that he didn’t get along with her, exactly, but there was always something big and large between them. A big ball of tension. The Jabba the Hutt of all balls of tension. It didn’t make sense, really, because when Nick thought of Charlotte, he thought of someone who was super capable and better at this job than he was.
But he also thought of breasts that were the perfect size and thighs so firm and so soft that he could still remember how they felt when he sank between them the night of that Christmas party after one too many Mistletoe Margaritas.